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On finding paddles and taking a long procrasti-ramble up an idiom

Lord Byron - that maverick, troubled thinker and poet - said

If I do not write to empty my mind, I go mad

I haven't written for a while. Perhaps I have gone mad.

Indeed, perhaps I have ...

Perhaps the whimsy that is the word jumble in my head resides in Aristophanes's cloud-cuckoo land. Either there, or perhaps it has flown away with the Celtic fairies of my youth. Don't you just love a good idiom?

Idiom - derivation: probably from the Greek idioma meaning private or peculiar phraseology (ref. Oxford Dictionaries online); definition: a group of words that when presented in a particular order take on a meaning that is not obvious from the meanings of the individual words eg. over the moon, on the ball, piece of cake, hit the sack, let the cat out of the bag, and method in my madness ... which there is. But mine is innocent; not the murderous method of Hamlet's madness. And if you'll give me the benefit of the doubt, I'll cut to the chase and deliver the goods as it were - proving, in one fell swoop, my lack of madness (...?) and my ability to cram four idioms into one sentence. Although, the latter may simply confirm the conceit of my madness - hook, line and sinker!

We all use idioms all the time (... some of us more than others). They ground us in our language. To speak like a native is to understand the idioms of a language which is why translation exams are stuffed to the brim with idioms designed to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the awarding of grades. (Three more!)

As with all aspects of language, idioms must have an origin - see Shakespeare's method in madness and Aristophanes's cloud cuckoo land above. But while easy (sometimes, as for the two above) to speculate, these origins are (often) difficult to prove. Take for example 'up the creek without a paddle.' Someone, somewhere and some-when, must have coined that phrase. But why? What made him or her throw those words together?
Was it travelling up Haslar Creek opposite Portsmouth, as a casualty of the Napoleonic Wars, to almost certainly die at the naval hospital located there, that led to the idiom being invented to mean hopeless; near to death; or laden with doom? Or was it the disgusting rural creeks in tidal rivers in late nineteenth century America - rivers so full of run-off manure from the pastures of livestock bordering the creek, that when the creek drained at low tide, boats were stranded; plugged, in thick, stinking, slimy mud - literally the shit of up shit creek? Without a paddle extends the idiom into utter helplessness, emphasising the extent to which your options have flown; you're utterly bogged down; unable to move; lost.

Lost is a good word.


Lost is the trigger for this blog and this ramble into idioms. Lost is the explanation for my recent drought of blogs. But I've finally found my lost. I've named it. And this procrasti-ramble is where Lost takes me - and now takes you.


What do you do when you find yourself up a creek without a paddle? (It doesn't have to be filled with shit - it's just a creek. Just a creek is bad enough as you're about to see.)

So, you're up a creek and the thunder clouds you had been trying to ignore have marched over the horizon and are pelting you with rain.

Too dramatic/flowery/overworked? Maybe; but it gets worse, as you're about to see ... back to that creek and the thunder clouds -

As dark wolves wail from the shadows on the shore, you smell the blood-laden mosquitoes waiting with you for the rain to stop.

And worse ...

When, in an uncharacteristic convulsion of angst - best described as panic - you throw all the other people in your boat into the creek.

About as bad as it could get, eh? Well, just wait ...

What do you do?

Do you look around for a way out? Or sit alone, getting wet until it becomes impossible to be any wetter - even a dog swimming in the creek could not be more laden with water than you. But unlike the dog you are unable to shake yourself dry. So, do you stay soaked or ... or - that is the key word. Or gives you options. Or has hope toggled to it. And the promise of a dry future.

Or has you looking for a paddle.

But this or is only hope-filled until you look around and find there are no providers of new paddles. I told you it would get worse; rock bottom, you could call this (to borrow another abbreviated idiom).

There are no paddle experts; no self help build-a-paddle guides; no paddle-constructing reference books; no paddle clinics; no paddle video guides and no paddle related hashtags. Nothing. In the world of paddle-finders you are unique; unique and being unique you are alone - up that creek ... on ... your ... own. That hopeful, helpful or; that or that had promised towels and a paddle, hasn't helped much. Shame it couldn't spit out an A and become an oar!
However, it is a truth evident, if we care to look, that ors are sociable creatures and tend to cluster around paddle-less beings, a bit like bees round a honey pot or wasps round a carcass, depending how gloomy or otherwise is the picture reel that forms the imagination of this particular, unique and paddle-less individual. In other words, there's always another or. It's there, waiting patiently in a long queue of ors; we just have to decide when and how to grasp it. And whether it is a good or a bad or.

So, focus for a moment, you're up the creek and you have no paddle; you're alone. You're sodden and beginning to shiver. You could opt to remain like this: cold but safe in your familiar little boat, cocooned in its solid boards and wooden ribs, not wishing to escape because if it's hard to stay, it is so, so much harder to leave. Ask the yourself that is the you trapped in this scenario, if you are a miserable, lonely, unable to move - ok let's say it; anxious and depressed - isolated, eating-yourself-up, frozen in body and in mind, lost, and paddle-less you or ...

... or are you someone brave who starts by throwing a lifeline to your co-travellers and begins to reel them in? Do you tell them about your paddle-less state and share that state with them? With them on board, the demons inside your head will do one of two things - they may tell you to abandon ship or they may abandon ship themselves. Don't reach out to the demons - don't listen to their jabbering - let the demons drown. Applaud their drowning.

Then, turn back to the ors: do you and your friends now continue in a state of paddle-less-ness; no longer lonely but still with no clear route out of the creek or ...

... or do you become a manufacturer of paddles? Do you become the someone who you needed at the beginning? Do you gather the tools to craft a paddle and teach yourself the craft so that you can escape the creek and use your paddle-making skills to help others lost up their own private creeks?

Yes! We all have it in us somewhere to see the ors before us and embracing them to shout Yes! Believe me, we do.

Here I pause for a moment. How might one become a paddle maker? And is any of this making any sense?


Mental health awareness is a difficult topic to discuss, particularly if we face it near to home. There are however some generous people who set out to spread positive messages of hope - look up Matt Haig, Miranda Hart, Princes William and Harry. But even with celebrities sharing their experiences, it is sometimes hard to see a way out for yourself; particularly when your problems don't fit exactly with any of the therapies, self-help guides, and treatments available out there and you find yourself paddle-less. What do you do? You become your own paddle-maker. How? If you're still here, I will explain ...

The answer is slowly. It takes a while to craft a paddle. It takes Time. To heal your aloneness, it also takes Effort. And one last thing - illustrated with poetic perfection by one of Charlie Mackesy's poignant horse, mole, fox and boy drawings in which the horse is asked by the boy, "What is the bravest thing you've ever said?" and the horse replies, "Help."

Time. Effort. Bravery. And there is actually one other element required to build a paddle: being Kind to yourself.





So, back to the creek and your paddle-less state ... what do you do? How do you find a paddle; one that is uniquely crafted to fit your needs? You create it yourself, using the tools of time, effort, bravery and self-kindness. Yes, you take all the love and support that friends, family and health professionals might offer too. But you are the best person, in the end, to make you a paddle. You know exactly what you want and what you need. So back to the how ...

First, find your nascent paddle - a virtual branch from a tree, about as long as the span of your outstretched arms and as thick as your thigh - imagine it, draw it, picture it in your head. Every day, imagine whittling notches into your branch. Five notches a day ... one for each finger. These are your daily gratitudes. Think of five things that happened during that day which you are grateful for. Five a day soon becomes thirty-five a week and eighteen hundred and twenty a year. That's a lot of gratitude and a lot of positive thinking. And a load of notches, which in turn means a very lumpy paddle-in-development.

The notched paddle must be smoothed. There are many ways you could do this and again it will require time, effort, bravery and self-kindness. Take some time out to indulge yourself. It needn't be long but it needs to be good. It needs to stroke the inner you. To accept who you are. To see the here and now ... sitting in your boat in the creek without a paddle and to see the rain stop; notice that the wolves have gone; the sun is breaking from the clouds and butterflies have replaced the mosquitoes.

I know this is perhaps too metaphorical; too heavily dependent on imagery but we sometimes need pictures to understand what has happened and how to heal.

Take time. Be kind. Be brave and ask for help.

And finally, apply a coat of varnish to your smooth paddle. This will lock in all the effort, and kindness, and hopes you summoned to make it. It is now yours and there to seize. You are a paddle-craftsman and with it you can escape and gently paddle out of the creek and into the rest of your life.
I know it's not as easy as this. I know the waters are often turbulent. And the skies dark and sometimes no matter how hard you try you can't find the right piece of wood from which to make your paddle. Or you find it but it's slippery. But keep trying. Believe that you can. For there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Where do I find my brighter waters?


and here

also here

and here

and here, as Byron said, in the simple, mind-emptying act of writing.

Charlie Mackesy

Matt Haig

Miranda Hart


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