Writing opposite my daughter

Right now she is hard at work revising for a Chemistry exam. We are on a ‘working retreat’ which goes something like this:

We sit opposite each other at the table, then set an alarm for an agreed time, say, 45 minutes.

Then we work in silence, opposite each other, until the alarm goes off. No distractions are allowed; if I catch her looking out of the window, I can gesture for her to stop, and she can police my focus, in the same way.

At the end of the session, we can chat about how the work went, what we did, and what we plan to do during the next session. She then takes time off, typically to go on her phone – if I can, I get outside for some air. About 15 minutes later, we sit down at the table again and repeat the process. This can go on all day, with a break for lunch.

These ‘retreats’ helped to get my daughter safely through one big set of exams. Hopefully, sooner or later she will be able to set the alarm and work on her own. But right now I am grateful that she needs me at the table, because I need to be at the table. This week it meant that I managed to wade through pages of financial information and get this year’s taxes off to my accountant. Today I am writing this blog.


First thing this morning, braced against sixty mile an hour winds, which seemed stronger on top of the Malvern hills, we walked our dog. It is a gift the dog keeps giving – the daily walk. Without her, we would not have struggled up and around the hill today. The reward was views across five or more counties, fingers of bright light illuminating the fields leading across to the Cotswolds.

Just past the old quarry on the north hill, we paused to watch a working border collie bringing some widely scattered sheep down to a farmer, who was spreading feed for them in a sheltered spot. The dog bolted through high bracken, up and down a precipitious slope, over and over, to retrieve odd groups of strays, bringing them skilfully and patiently back down to join the herd.

It helped me to understand why, even after a hard hour’s run in the morning, our dog is a little crazy on evenings when she doesn’t get a second walk just before dinner.

This scene was also a visual illustration of what author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love, and Big Magic) writes about why we must exercise our creative imaginations.

“Possessing a creative mind, is something like having a border collie for a pet: It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might like the job it invents (eating the couch, digging a hole through the living room floor, biting the mailman etc.)….if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).

“We all need to find something to do in our lives that stops us from eating the couch….an activity that is beyond the mundane and that takes us out of our established and limiting roles in society…something that helps us to forget ourselves for a while – to momentarily forget our age, gender, and all we have lost and screwed up….something that takes us so far out of ourselves that we forget to eat, forget to pee, forget to mow the lawn…Prayer can do that for us, community service can do it, sex can do it, exercise can do it, and substance abuse most certainly can (with god-awful consequences) – but creative living can do it too. “

“Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily of the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir – something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration. “