When you can’t look forward, look back

Here we are again in lockdown and I know for some it’s like being under house arrest. The affect on our mental health is a big issue and trying to stay positive can present a real challenge. Often when times are hard, or there’s a stressful or unpleasant event to be endured, having something to look forward to is what gets us through. But in the situation we’re in right now planning ahead is nigh on impossible.

But when you can’t look forward, there’s value in looking back and drawing on the joy, knowledge and strength that memories of good times can bring. It’s like a form of time travel – or it can be if you are able to open your mind enough to the memory. Maybe play a song you loved at the time, or dig out some old photographs (printed ones, because swiping through a smartphone doesn’t have the same effect), or find a piece of clothing you always wore to a particular place or on certain occasions.

Perhaps you already have some sort of keepsakes box, which acts like a door to the past. Open it. Remember. Remember the things you’d forgotten. Things that made you laugh, or that made you feel strong, or that simply passed the time. Old habits (not the bad kind) that have since faded away but might have a use again now.

Not my Sunday night sunset – but one I photographed from Skomer after I’d been bitten by the habit of watching them.

It made me look back on my habit of going to watch the sun go down on a Sunday night in autumn and winter. I’d never deliberately watched a sunset until I was in my twenties. I’d been to volunteer for a week on Skomer island and on the day I was due to travel home, a fellow volunteer who I’d made friends with was planning to camp for a night on the mainland before going home the next day. So I stayed an extra night and we had a camping stove meal of pasta and red pesto and watched the sun set.

There is something calming about watching the day drawing to a close. A special kind of peace. Maybe that’s why I began to make a habit of it. Not on the long days when there was enough warmth and time to have been outdoors during the day, but on the short days when my instinct was to burrow down, stay in and hibernate. It’s a sensible response to winter in many ways, but it can also feel claustrophobic.

Sundays were my sunset-watching days when I lived in Pembrokeshire, not far from where I’d had my first deliberate sunset. The claustrophobia could be cured by driving to Newgale, a big, open west facing beach with a car park overlooking the steep pebble bank and the sea beyond. You could even see Skomer from there. The little island that drew me to move west.

Sometimes there’d be a retail van parked up and I’d buy myself a hot chocolate to drink as the sun went down. Warming my hands on the plastic cup also helped me cope with the chill of the car. Having the heater on was a no-no, partly because the sound of an engine running is a terrible soundtrack for a sunset. Anyway, in my head I’d often have Martha and the Muffins’ Echo Beach playing, but the best backing track for a beach sunset is of course the sound of the waves.

I’m not suggesting that watching the sunset is a cure-all or that everyone should try it – especially if there’s nowhere to watch one locally (and please no one mention ‘the hot drink as picnic’). But taking a moment to look back can have an incredible power and I hope that by writing about it, it might help you tap into it too.

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