Birdwatching, depression and the BBC sofa

I found myself on the BBC’s famous red sofa last Sunday morning – not for a tour of the studio or for a nice sit down, but for a live TV interview.

“Being on the telly” is one of those mysterious, magical things that many of us, including me, have daydreams about. People on the telly are a different breed of person, who are beamed onto our screens at home from some kind of strange, alternative universe. As I discovered, the world of BBC Breakfast is certainly very different to my own.

Paul Brook on BBC Breakfast

Birdwatching and depression

Last weekend, a new study was published, showing that birdwatching can have a positive effect on depression and anxiety, and I was plucked from obscurity to talk about this on BBC Breakfast and BBC Radio 5 Live. It wasn’t my study, of course, but I do write about birdwatching and mental health. A BBC producer had been looking for someone who could talk on the subject from personal experience, and stumbled across my blog.

Up until late Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t expecting any of this. I went swiftly from shopping at Tesco with my eight-year-old son to chatting on the phone with a member of the BBC Breakfast team just after 4.30pm. She asked if I’d like to be live on the show the next morning. I’d been planning a family trip out, so this unexpected development made my head spin a bit, but these opportunities don’t come up very often, so I said yes.

Crazy logistics

There then followed a whirlwind of crazy logistics. The studio is at Media City in Salford, and they wanted me on the show at 8.40am. The train times didn’t work out (I’d have had to get up at about 3am to get the only train available) so I agreed to drive over from my home near York. Another option was to travel over that evening and stay in Manchester, but I was going out with my wife and friends to see Sunny Afternoon, a musical about my favourite band, the Kinks, and I wasn’t going to miss out on that.

In the brief time between getting the call and going out, I had to send over some photos from my birdwatching trips (my photo of a great spotted woodpecker appeared as the backdrop to my interview) and try to get my head round what was going on.

There was more to come.

During Sunny Afternoon (which was brilliant), I could feel my phone buzzing in my pocket, and afterwards I discovered I’d had a call from the BBC 5 Live team – they wanted to speak to me live the next morning too. So I found myself on the phone two or three times between 11 and 11.20pm as we tried to fit this in. At one point, they wanted to talk to me at 7am and I was going to try and find somewhere to stop and do a phone interview on my drive over to Salford. Luckily, the 5 Live studio is one floor up from BBC Breakfast, the two teams exchanged notes, and I was booked in to talk on the radio at 8.20am, which meant an even earlier start.

So what was it all like?

Media City was spectacular for a start. It’s by the quayside in Salford, where an old industrial area is being gradually regenerated. I walked past the CBeebies office, and saw the studio where Shine, the BBC’s new talent show, is being filmed. Across the water I could see ITV and the Coronation Street studio.

The staff couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming. I was greeted at reception and taken up to the green room, where guests wait before they go on air, but wasn’t there long before being whisked off with a cup of tea in hand to see the make-up man (he put on a bit of foundation and powder ‘for the lights’ in the studio – good job too, as the glare from my bald head would have dazzled the viewers).

From there, I went up to 5 Live, and within ten minutes was live on air. I sat down with a black microphone in front of me, opposite the two presenters, put on some headphones, and off we went. I spoke for about two minutes (it went well – here’s a recording), then was collected by my friendly host and taken to a comfy corner outside the BBC Breakfast studio.

From there, I was met by the floor manager and given my clip-on microphone, then when the time came, we crept into the studio and I waited for my turn to join presenters Ben Thompson and Rachel Burden on the big red sofa.

cv-pic-of-paul-1

Both were lovely, and put me at ease. They were remarkably perky, given the horrible hours they must work. I wasn’t really conscious of the cameras – I just answered their questions as best I could and tried to remember key points from my blogs that I’d glanced at on my mobile.

It was quickly over, and I doubted whether it had actually happened, but when I got home, I was greeted by my two children bouncing up and down with giddy excitement at having seen their dad on the telly, then had the weird experience of watching myself on my own TV set (unfortunately it seems the programme isn’t available on iPlayer). I was happy I’d managed not to say anything stupid or pull any weird faces.

It just goes to show that sometimes extraordinary things happen to ordinary people, and – more importantly – that depression is not the end. We can live with it, and occasionally something good can come of it.

Oh, and seeing as I was home by 11am, we still managed a family trip out – just a less ambitious one.

Thanks to Jane Brook, Claire Vinent Yager and Michelle Atkins for the photos.


Introducing Dippydoodles

Today, depression has made a dream come true. Sounds unlikely, I know – but at least something good has come of it.

If I hadn’t had depression, I wouldn’t have drawn a series of doodles about it last September for the Blurt Foundation. And if I hadn’t drawn those doodles, my friend Gary wouldn’t have seen them and suggested putting them on T-shirts.

I’ve just been onto Gary’s website, Trustovi, and ordered a T-shirt with my own design on it. Ever since I reached an age when I wanted to choose what to wear, I’ve loved T-shirts. I used to draw T-shirt designs on computer paper or in exercise books at home. I’ve doodled for as long as I can remember. So having T-shirts to buy with my own doodles on is pretty much a dream come true.

I’m calling these designs Dippydoodles, and the T-shirts are available to buy right now. There are four designs, all intended to help raise awareness and understanding of depression in a positive way. All the profits from sales of the T-shirts will be donated to Blurt to continue their great work supporting people with depression and fighting the stigma that goes with it.

The doodles all feature a bald chap in an orange T-shirt. I don’t have any orange T-shirts, but the hairstyle is definitely mine.

Two of the designs are from the set I drew for Blurt.

‘Look after yourself. You’re important.’ is a reminder to people like me that we need to be kind to ourselves and not to be so self-critical. We’re happy to praise other people and show them kindness but it’s such a struggle sometimes to do the same for ourselves.

Smiling man saying 'Look after yourself. You're important.'

‘Anyone seen my confidence?’ shows those times when our confidence hits rock bottom. I’ve definitely experienced this during episodes of depression. It completely crushed my self-esteem and building it back up is a long work in progress.

Doodle of man in boat, with confidence at bottom of the sea beneath him

The other two designs are new ones, based on other themes I’ve explored in my blog.

In ‘Former perfectionist’, you’ll notice that ‘perfectionist’ is spelt incorrectly and that the bald chap looks pretty vexed about it. I’m a former perfectionist myself, and it’s a hard habit to break, but it can be pretty punishing to live with. I would still recoil in horror at the thought of spelling a word incorrectly.

Man looks vexed at misspelling of 'perfectionist

‘Man up? Er, no.” is a polite version of what I feel like saying in response to anyone using the phrase ‘man up’ in connection to depression. It’s a stupid and destructive phrase, as I wrote in this Blurt blog.

Man saying 'Man up? Er, no.'

I’ll leave you with a couple of requests:

  • Please buy a T-shirt. You’ll look splendid and you’ll be supporting an important cause. The website’s great and really quick and easy to use. Oh, and delivery is free in the UK, so you won’t suddenly find yourself paying more at the checkout.
  • Share a photo of yourself wearing your beautiful new T-shirt, using #dippydoodles

I’ll post a photo of me wearing mine very soon…


The wacky bird race

Ever been out walking in total darkness on a freezing January morning to listen for grey partridges? No, neither had I, until I took part in my first bird race.

The idea of a bird race is that you get up horribly early in the morning and dash around all day trying to see or hear as many different species of bird as you can.

If it sounds a bit extreme, that’s because it is, but it’s also great fun and rather exciting once you get past the dazed ‘Is this all a dream?’ feeling.

Our intrepid team, Never Mind The Woodcocks – me, Jono, Rich and Emanuela – spent ten hours lurching from one York birding hotspot to another, totting up 95 species between a hooting tawny owl before dawn and a just-in-the-nick-of-time call from a little owl after dusk. I can take little credit for this impressive total. My main role was to bumble about, ask lots of questions, and chip in with silly jokes.

The Michael Clegg Memorial Birdrace turned out to be an epic adventure, featuring two firsts for me, close encounters with some great birds, and some fairly common species leading us a merry dance…

Egret by gum

After getting off to a mixed start in the dark – grey partridges and golden plover among the early ticks, but little owl refusing to play ball – our first location as dawn broke was the village of Stillingfleet, where a great white egret had been reported recently. A muddy trudge up and down the beck failed to reveal the egret, but listening to all the other birds waking up around us was a treat.

 Brambling on my mind

Passing an elegant barn owl perched on a gate, we approached our next location – seemingly a non-descript field in the middle of nowhere. But Jono had done his homework, and we soon found what we were looking for: a flock of bramblings, appearing in generous numbers at the top of a nearby oak tree. These attractive finches, boasting bright orange chests, are winter visitors to the UK, and aren’t always easy to find, but they spoilt us by hanging around for decent views and allowing me to learn their call, which sounded a little like an unimpressed sneer.

Gawping at scaups

A key spot on our tour of the York area was Castle Howard Lake, so it was a blow to arrive there in dense fog, with terrible visibility. Most ducks on the lake, which is normally thronging with a variety of wildfowl, were reduced to grey blobs – disappointing, as I’d hoped we’d find a scaup there. While not a particularly exciting bird to look at, it was one I’d never seen before, and a male and female had both been reported in the days before our visit.

Working our way along the lakeside path, we gradually started to find the birds we were looking for, such as the sleek goosanders and charismatic little goldeneyes among the many wigeons, teals, coots and tufted ducks. As we resigned ourselves to a scaup-less trip, the female suddenly glided into view. My first ‘lifer’ of the year! I’d always thought I’d struggle to identify one alongside the very similar tufted duck, but it was clearly a different shape – it looked longer, lower in the water, with a different-shaped head and a generous blob of white on its face.

The fog continued as we headed to Strensall Common, which was eerily beautiful in the gloom, but not exactly awash with bird life.

Strensall Common in the fog.

The sun attempts to break through the fog at Strensall Common.

Here come the gulls

There was certainly no shortage of gulls on bird race day – big flocks of them in the fields to the west of York. Identifying some of them was easy. Adult great black-backed gulls are unmistakable beasts – they’re big, and have black backs. I know what adult herring gulls and black-headed gulls look like. But throw winter plumages and juveniles of various ages into the mix, then set the challenge of trying to identify the rarer species – Iceland gull and glaucous gull – and I’m all of a tizz. We stared at flocks of gulls until my eyes ached and I felt dizzy, but still couldn’t find what we were looking for; and what we knew some of the other teams had seen. It was like a gull version of ‘Where’s Wally?’ with a cast of thousands.

Waxwing lyrical

Waxwings – exotic-looking pink birds with striking features and a rather punky hair-do – visit the UK in varying numbers each winter from Scandinavia. In some winters, like this one, they come over in large numbers to scoff as many berries as they can. They’d been spotted all around York in the run-up to the bird race, but our first attempt was fruitless. Our next stop was right next to the city walls, where waxwings had gathered during the last few days to feast on berries. From our perch on the top of the walls, we found blackbirds, song thrushes and mistle thrushes gorging themselves on the red fruit, but no waxwings. We were about to give up, when I made one of my few notable contributions to the team effort and spotted a solitary waxwing peeking out from the middle of the tree. We celebrated with a botched fist-bump/handshake/high-five mash-up and dashed off to our next site.

Wagtails and herons and grebes, oh my!

Bird watching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. That can mean both unexpected delights and great frustrations. Three common species proved evasive on the day, and we got increasingly concerned that we were somehow going to fail to see a pied wagtail, grey heron, or great crested grebe. I’d seen a heron on the way to Castle Howard, but the rule was that birds only counted if at least three members of the team saw or heard it. Eventually, we did find one – a distant view from the hide at our final destination, Wheldrake Ings. The quest for a pied wagtail got more and more ridiculous, and the biggest cheer of the day came as we spotted one out of the car window, strutting nonchalantly along a pavement. But the grebe was nowhere to be found. Knowing the other teams were also struggling to find one, we wasted valuable time scooting off to two locations, hoping to track one down, but to no avail. It was the bogey bird of the day.

Wild goose chase

There was to be another first for me on this day of twists and turns. As the light began to fade, we literally went on a wild goose chase to try and track down a tundra bean goose. Luckily another birder was watching geese from the roadside, and was able to point out where the bean geese were hiding among larger numbers of pink-footed geese and the much commoner greylag geese. It was a puzzling game of ‘spot the difference’, and I’d probably have overlooked them without expert assistance – they did a cracking job of looking just like the pink feet, until one kindly gave us a flash of its bright orange legs.

A sniper in the bog

There were two final stops on our way to Wheldrake, where we knew we’d be able to enjoy a dusk bonanza of waders and other wetland birds – and endure another hapless sift through countless gulls.

One was the easiest find of the day – a little grebe appearing exactly where Jono had expected it on the Pocklington Canal.

The second was really something to behold – Rich’s snipe dance. Spotting a boggy field that was rich with potential for skulking snipe, off he went, bounding through the bog like a welly-wearing gazelle. It worked – from nowhere, up shot two common snipe in one direction, and a rarer, smaller jack snipe in the other. It was only the second jack snipe I’d ever seen, and a first for Emanuela.

Topping up our list with a late flurry of species at Wheldrake, we retired shattered but satisfied with our efforts – and talk turned to the possibility of a 24-hour Yorkshire bird race in May. Now that really would be extreme…


A spontaneous trip to the bog – with deer’s bottoms and a flushed woodcock

This morning I found time to experience the restorative and uplifting powers of nature (rather than dashing to the toilet, as the title may suggest) – but I very nearly didn’t bother.

After hitting ‘snooze’ about four times, I dragged myself wearily out of bed with a throbbing headache and in a grouchy mood, and attempted to wake the kids for school. Once I’d done the school run, I would, I vowed, go back to bed. My previous plan had been to go out somewhere for a morning’s birdwatching, but bed seemed far more appealing.

When nature calls

But on the walk back from school, I heard nature calling. The weather was pretty mild for a December morning, and there’s a nature reserve – Askham Bog – just up the road. OK, I probably wouldn’t see anything new there, but it felt the right place to be, so I strode home with purpose, changed into some old trousers, grabbed my binoculars and walking boots, and off I went.

Depression and stress have been stalking me again this year and I’ve had a lot on my mind, so this week – a week off work to be in my local panto at night and find some ‘me time’ by day – is proving a valuable breather. And where better to have a breather than in the fresh air, surrounded by trees and wildlife in a familiar spot?

Askham Bog, on the edge of York, at first seems small, with a boardwalk offering a short circular walk around the woods and bogs. But it’s much larger than it first appears, and part of the joy of going there is to explore the smaller paths off the boardwalk.

It didn’t take me long to get lost in nature. All was quiet when I first ventured over a stile and into a copse, but then there came a familiar cheeping overhead, and a group of long-tailed tits came into view, acrobatically working their way through the branches. A loud alarm call came from somewhere up ahead – a wren, with a voice far bigger than its body.

Ain’t no party like a woodland party

I returned to the boardwalk, the early-morning sky still waking up, and almost immediately encountered one of those wonderful winter flocks of mixed small birds, seemingly having a party in a tall tree. It was like half the wood had been invited to hang out – Redwings flew on ahead, while blue tits, coal tits and great tits joined their long-tailed friends; a treecreeper worked its way up the trunk, and tiny goldcrests flitted from twig to twig, some coming incredibly close. I spotted the silhouette of a larger, lean-looking bird at the top of a nearby tree – it turned out to be a smart male sparrowhawk; a potential party pooper if ever there was one. It took off, perhaps having detected my presence. Maybe I’d saved the day for the revellers. I stood mesmerised, taking it all in. If I saw nothing else, I told myself, it had been worth getting up for this.

Oh deer!

On my next jaunt away from the main path, I found chaffinches and bullfinches, the latter given away by their signature call – something like a squeaking hinge that needs oiling. I was distracted by a bright white shape bouncing up and down in the distance across the bog. I knew instinctively what it was – yes, I was staring at a deer’s bottom. The roe deer in question wasn’t hanging about (I don’t think I would either if someone was staring at my bum through binoculars) and it bounded off.

The best was still to come.

On my next excursion, I lost myself completely (mentally, not literally) in my peaceful surroundings, even pausing for a moment with my eyes closed to take in all the sounds – robins and blackbirds calling, wrens shouting from the undergrowth… Then I found myself composing this blog post in my head, and told myself to shut up and just enjoy being there.

Crossing a boggy field to the boundary fence, I spotted another bouncing white bottom in the distance, and another, as two roe deer retreated into the wood; then another came fully into view. They soon legged it, probably afraid I’d start ogling their backsides.

Flushed with success

I walked up to the boundary fence to peer into the wood, and a medium-sized, brown bird suddenly whooshed up from the brown leaves covering the ground, and it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. I was perplexed for a moment. What could it be? It was too big to be a mistle thrush, too small for a female sparrowhawk, and the wrong shape for an owl. Then it dawned on me – I must have disturbed (or ‘flushed’, to use birding lingo) a woodcock! These elusive birds are known to spend the winter at Askham Bog, but because they’re so hard to see – both because of their skulking behaviour and their effective camouflage – I had never seen one there before.

I made my way home, once again feeling tired, but now feeling happy and content, knowing I had used my time well and listened to my body. For an hour and 20 minutes, I’d transported myself away from the real world. Next stop, bed. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this self-care lark at last.

Here are some photos from my walk.

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Cute gerbils – have we got chews for you!

Sometimes, what the world really needs is to see pictures of cute animals. So, for no other reason than to say “Here are my gerbils – they’re cute”, here are some pictures of my three gerbils (aka the Boys) being cute.

In these photos, you can see them performing my favourite gerbil routine, which I call ‘Synchronised Chewers’. This is where I give each of them a chocolate drop, and sit back for a content moment to watch them silently nibbling together in perfect unity.

Stripe

Stripe

First, meet Stripe. Stripe is the smallest, busiest and most energetic of the Boys. He is undisputed king of the wheel. He’s also the first to respond when I call out “You Boys!”, leading the charge to the hatch at the front of the cage. I’d love to say it’s because he’s excited to see me – and in a way that’s true. It’s just that he’s excited to see me because I usually come bearing treats.

Stripe is something of an enigma among the gerbils. His fur often subtly changes shade – sometimes he’s darker grey, sometimes lighter, and sometimes a mix, but the stripe on his face, from which he got his name, disappeared a while ago, then occasionally reappears in a different position.

Snowy

Snowy

This is Snowy, so called because he’s the lightest-coloured gerbil of the three. When we first got him, he was white, but now he’s a little greyer (aren’t we all?).

Snowy’s role in the gerbil cage is Head of Eating. He does love his food, and will often climb into the bowl to sit there scoffing.

Elvis

Elvis

This is Elvis, our darkest-grey gerbil. He’s in charge of chewing, and has unrivalled abilities in shredding cardboard tubes. He’s the most wary of the Boys, and will often hide away in a tunnel to furtively chew his food away from the watchful eyes of his brothers.

Three gerbils - Snowy, Stripe and Elvis

The Boys demonstrate Synchronised Chewers.

So that’s it. Three gerbils, being cute. I’m off to give them a treat…

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Chipping away – at writing and depression

Dippyman has been rather neglected this year, and continues to stand at a crossroads as it creaks into its sixth year.

It’s partly been quiet on this blog because I’ve been working really hard this year and there hasn’t been much space left in my brain.

The force awakens

It’s also been quiet because – and I’ve kept this quiet up until now – I’ve been under attack from depression again for the last few months. It’s come in waves, with star turns from anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, forgetfulness, fear and random anger. I’ve been fine some days, and far from fine on others. It’s a reminder that, when recovering from depression, the force does awaken from time to time, and I have to be on my guard and look after myself.

I’ve taken my own advice at times. I’ve stuck with my diary of positive things, and made sure I plan things to look forward to – like my trip out to sea (pictures below), looking for seabirds, at the start of this month. I find the sea calming, and to be out there for nearly three hours was a great escape. Not only that, I saw two firsts – a fleeting view of a Black Tern (one of the bogey birds that’s eluded me for years) and a Sooty Shearwater, which obligingly whizzed round the boat in a circle so everyone could see it.

I’ve been a poster boy for functioning depressives.

At other times, I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever learned about coping with depression, and have done the whole ‘soldiering on’ thing, not really telling anyone, trying to prove myself, and generally being stubborn. And – just to take my own advice for a moment and to be kind to myself – I’ve done a pretty good job of it. I’ve taken on a lot and achieved a lot. I’ve been a poster boy for functioning depressives.

Another thing I’ve been doing is writing some blog posts for the Blurt Foundation, an organisation I admire enormously. My latest one was a chance for me to do something different, using my own doodles to show what you don’t see about depression.

I also keep chipping away at my children’s story, Splot, which must be on its sixth draft by now, in the hope that one day I’ll be happy enough with it to try sending it to an agent or publisher.

Writer’s block

And, to be honest, I’ve struggled a bit with writer’s block. I’ve started and abandoned three or four posts, which I simply couldn’t get inspired by and couldn’t be bothered to finish. Each seemed OK when the idea had come to me, but had become deeply tedious by the time I sat down to write it. Heck, if I can’t be bothered to read my own writing, I don’t see why anyone else would want to.

However, bits of each of those abandoned posts have somehow ended up in this one – further proof that, if you want to be a writer, you just need to start writing. My plan tonight was, having abandoned yet another post, just to share some photos of the Yorkshire coast, but somehow the words trickled out in the end.

Recovery and persistence

That’s how it goes with recovery too, sometimes. It’s not all about big eureka moments, where you leap up and say ‘Ta-daaaaa, I feel amazing!’ Often, recovery is about sticking with it and chipping away, even when it seems hopeless and never-ending. It’s about persisting in a rather unexciting, unremarkable way, until eventually the light grows brighter and you realise you’re in a better place.

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Blue sky and calm water as the boat leaves Bridlington for a seabird cruise.

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Here come the gulls.

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A distant view of the white cliffs of Flamborough.

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Back in Bridlington.


Turning 40 – what’s that all about?

I’m in the last week of my thirties. My face still looks like it belongs in its thirties. My hair thinks I’m 60 already. The rest of me can’t make up its mind.

Turning 40 is something that’s been on my mind for a while. It has seemed to mark a stage in life where I should be all grown up; where I should know who I am, what I’m doing and where I’m going.

I’m not doing too badly on the ‘who I am’ bit. I’m blessed with a lovely family and lots of great friends, which tells me I can’t be too awful. I know what I believe in and what I don’t believe in. I know what I like doing and what I don’t like doing. I don’t feel any need to get into arguments or prove points, although I do have plenty of imaginary arguments and inner rants. I annoy myself all the time. I grapple with my demons more often than I ever let on, but I know those demons and their games, and I give them a good fight.

As for what I’m doing, ha – well, sometimes I know what I’m doing, but a lot of the time I lurch from one thing to the next in a daze. That’s parenthood for you.

Where am I going?

And where I’m going is anyone’s guess. Do any of us really know? We can make plans, but things happen that take us in other directions. And we might change our minds. My first career idea was clown/acrobat, or spaceman. I sort of play the clown now in pantomimes, so maybe that’s a dream fulfilled. Acrobat – no chance. I have all the physical dexterity of a sloth on roller skates. And I have no head for heights, which also rules out the spaceman option. I moved on to a more sensible aspiration of being a journalist, and I did that for three years, taking me into the communications career I have today.

Of course, I sometimes look back and wonder what else I might have done with my career. At school, I loved art far more than any other subject – could I have done something with it? If we’d done drama more at school, might I have discovered performing sooner? I used to harbour a secret wish to play James Bond. Maybe I could be James Bond’s dad when I get into my 80s.

And what of my writing? That’s why I wanted to be a journalist, after all. I sort of write in my job, but not a lot. But I do have a blog that’s five years old and has 100,000 views, which I never saw happening (blogs didn’t exist when I was at the ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ age).

I may not be a best-selling author or successful script-writer – wasn’t that meant to have happened by now? – but I am slowly getting somewhere, and I still have the urge to write (usually in the middle of the night, which is rather inconvenient). Nobody ever became a writer without writing something, so that’s what I keep doing.

So what is it all about?

What I’ve come to realise is that turning 40 will not change any of this. It won’t mean I’ve failed at anything, or missed my chance. Turning 40 isn’t about what I haven’t done – it’s about what’s yet to be. It won’t give me immediate wisdom, inner peace or abundant confidence. I still won’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going. But rather than seeing it as a mid-life calamity, I’m now trying to look at it as a new chapter, with adventures ahead and blank pages to fill.

I’ll take my steer from Dr Seuss…

Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places!

You’re off and away!