When I was 17 years old, my dad insured me on the family Citroën C5 and taught me how to drive from scratch. He bravely occupied the passenger seat while I took control of the car for the first time, stuttering around Perth College car park and the deserted roads of the local industrial estate. My dad displayed almost infinite patience as we moved out on to the open roads of Perth, with me gradually mastering my gears, hill starts and building up my experience behind the wheel. There were a few meltdowns along the way but, on the whole, I look back on those months with great fondness. My dad has been instilling his values in me since the day I was born, and that process continued when he taught me how to drive. Consideration. Efficiency. Sticking to the rules.
Tailgating is one of my pet hates. I always drive at an appropriate speed for the road conditions and observe the speed limit. I find it infuriating when I’m doing 30mph in a residential area and, all of a sudden, there’s a car bearing down on me; so close that I can’t even see the number plate in my rear-view mirror. I’ll switch on my hazard warning lights for a few moments and, if the driver behind doesn’t have the courtesy to drop back, then I’ll make my point by lifting my foot off the gas. Since when did life get so busy that people think they can justify speeding past a primary school?
I consider myself lucky that the digital revolution happened after my childhood. My parents read bedtime stories to me from books. I owned beautifully illustrated encyclopaedias. I experienced the joy of owning a typewriter; the keys clattering and the bell pinging when I reached the end of a line. Bullying was endured in school, not cyberspace. I played safely in the streets and green spaces near my home. I survived my teens without a mobile phone welded to my hand. The family computer and games console were used in moderation and we explored the great outdoors without documenting every move on social media.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the convenience of having the world at my fingertips, being able to communicate with my brother in China, and having more than four channels to choose from on TV! But, don’t you think that, despite being convenient, technology has added to our stress levels? I suffer temporary heart failure when the so-called ‘blue screen of death’ appears on my laptop. I feel mildly irritated when my Fitbit won’t sync with my phone or when the memory card on my dashcam reads full. I lost the plot a few months ago when the internet router died when I had a deadline to meet.
The 1990s exist in my mind like some sort of golden age. Life was so much simpler then. The digital revolution struck when I was finishing secondary school and preparing to begin university; around the time my dad was teaching me how to drive. I had to get to grips with new vocabulary as well as multi-tasking behind the wheel. Email. Modem. ‘BlackBerry’ with a capital letter in the middle. Life seemed to pick up pace, and not just because I was able to drive faster than a bus.
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”
My inbox has become something of a pet hate in recent months. I don’t want my laptop or phone beeping at me at all hours of the day and night. What happened to traditional working hours? I felt a bit swamped in October and November, delighted to have a good amount of commercial photography work on the books but struggling to retain a work-life balance. Deciding enough was enough, my husband and I took a couple of days off work together and enjoyed trips to Elgin and Grantown-on-Spey, exploring some of my old haunts and searching for the headspace I enjoyed on childhood summer holidays in these locations.
A day off certainly helps to restore my sanity, but the downside is the emails piling up, even with the automatic ‘out of office’ reply turned on. Switching off the laptop is one thing, but switching my brain off is another challenge altogether. The final straw came last month when a bunch of unwelcome email reminders crashed into my inbox. I often find myself unable to get near the task at hand due to unnecessary email clutter. I narrowly avoided a Basil Fawlty-esque meltdown and, in that moment, it struck me that I need to respond to the email tailgaters in the same way that I respond to the ones on the road; by switching on the warning lights in my head (the hazard being stress) and slowing down.
I’m grateful for every opportunity that comes my way but there is still a work-life balance to be struck. I’m the boss. I’m the master of my own destiny and unnecessary stress isn’t part of my game plan. I’ll continue to respond to high priority emails when they land in my inbox but I’ll read and respond to the rest at my convenience. I was alarmed to read recently that the average person checks their mobile phone 85 times a day. What a waste of time! Life is short. It’s not easy but I’m gradually mastering the art of choosing the silent mode and physically turning the phone over to hide the screen and avoid distractions.
Since writing a first draft of this post a month ago, I’ve received the devastating news that my dad’s cancer has returned. Despite only finishing chemotherapy in August, his brain tumour has grown again, further adversely affecting his speech and mobility and preventing him from driving, amongst many other things. The disturbing sense of role reversal seems complete when I jump in the driver’s seat of my parents’ car and bring them home from hospital, or push my dad around in a wheelchair. My dad is currently going through radiotherapy but, ultimately, there is no cure for a primary CNS (central nervous system) lymphoma and my family must start to prepare itself for a future that I didn’t expect to face for another twenty years.
Life is less stressful at a slower pace, with the ability to look in the rear-view mirror to see how far you’ve travelled and with time to look at the road ahead and absorb the direction you’re going in, and the distance left to travel. I’m on a pretty bumpy road just now and feel woefully ill-prepared for the journey ahead. I’ve reached a crossroads and, although I have no control over the final destination, I can decide what route I take to get there. I’m mapping the way forward with a combination of quality time by myself and with loved ones, mindfulness and escape, and hoping that keeps me on track.
“Life’s like a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind
There’s a world outside every darkened door
Where blues won’t haunt you anymore”
(‘Life is a Highway’ by Tom Cochrane)
I’m going to need a vast amount of headspace in the weeks, months and years to come. Space in which to breathe and process my thoughts and emotions. Time to reflect. When my brain is racing at 100mph and the stress is becoming too much, I need to move out of the fast lane and do an emergency stop. In recent years I’ve set myself the goal of enjoying every day. That’s not achievable at the moment but I still believe that the deep contentedness I used to feel can be found again in the future, but it might be a long haul before I get there. Until then, I can still search for moments of joy in every day. A robin at the bird feeder. A hot cup of coffee enjoyed in front of the wood-burning stove. A beautiful sunset. Christmas with my family.