Of Notebooks and Empty Nests

IMG_3906This morning I was reading an article in Gardens Illustrated which revolved around the use of garden notebooks.  There was a lovely quote from Joan Didion ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ (I must seek this essay out) which said that notebooks were “about the bits of the mind’s string too short to use”. I loved this quote as it described the way my mind works – but then I thought it is more how my mind worked until recently and that is the real problem.  My bird like brain has entered a sort of torpor. The endless shifting sands that has been my working life for the last year and don’t appear to be forming any sort of firm foundation in the next six months seem to have smothered my normal chirpy self and it is making me sad.


Hindsight and reflection are wonderful at illuminating what can seem at the time quite normal.  I realise now that I was incredibly bored in my job and had been for years.  I love working where I do and my role meant that no two days were the same but I could do it with my eyes shut and there was no mental stimulation and so I blogged…alot.  My mind sought knowledge and the garden and plants in particular became the focus.  I joined groups and societies, followed blogs, Pinterest boards, facebook groups, went to events, visited gardens so much that when I did a review of the year back at the end of December people commented on how much I did.  I was surprised at this response.  “Really? ” I thought “and there was me wishing I had been to this or that”. And then its like someone placed a full stop firmly down and every horticultural inclination in my being vanished almost overnight.

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Now yes you can say “well its been a miserable winter with endless rain and now low temperatures and its that time of year and all gardeners feel like that etc etc” and I would agree wholeheartedly.   But this has never affected me so strongly before and I feel incredibly unsettled by it.  I have my seed box out and I can’t be bothered to open it to see what I have, I have seed catalogues which I have flicked through and even scribbled on but I can’t be bothered to order anything.  I walked round the garden yesterday and took some photos of what was flowering for a late Garden Bloggers Bloom Day post but I couldn’t be bothered to write it.  Some people will say, and I have myself, that this is fine as I was doing too much and things are more balanced and this might be true. But, and its a big but, I worry that it is more significant and that the black dog that shadows me is sniffing around and I can’t throw him off.


I suffer with indecision and I am incredibly easily influenced by what others say which really makes me cross with myself but I have yet to find a source of imperviousness.  This means that time and again I push people away and avoid situations where vocal or opinionated people exist as I know that my fragile confidence will evaporate at the first challenge.  I take too much to heart and things dog me for years.  This isn’t good and means I find myself, now my sons are grown and independent, feeling at times quite alone.  This has become worse since my blogging block has occurred.  Blogging is wonderful if you feel isolated or are looking for people to share whatever your obsessions in life are but it is all too easy to become reliant on it and for it to become the answer to everything.


Normally around now I am planning my holidays, pouring over websites and brochures.  This year it would be fair to say that my plans are already made and were made before Christmas, although I am still looking for other things to do for some reason that I can’t explain.  I hope to go on a trip to Greece in October to see crocus etc growing in the wild and this is with my friends, yes there you go I do have some, from the Alpine Garden Society. I am also going on a trip with people from the local Hardy Plant Society in June to east of the UK to visit a number of gardens including Beth Chattos – which I am really looking forward to.  This trip is with people who I think I can call friends although I only tend to see them once a month.  Oh and I have promised my mother a trip to the South Coast as she really wants to visit Monkey World which is conveniently near Abbotsbury Gardens which I have wanted to visit for a while.  Lots to look forward to and already planned (wagging finger at myself). But still I wonder should I go to the US in July to catch up with blogging friends, should I go and immerse myself in the horticultural odyssey that is Great Dixter to recharge my batteries, or should I be sensible and spend the money on new living room furniture that I need and really do I need to make any of these decisions right now – probably not!

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So now I need to find a way to re-engage with the old me, the me that got enthusiastic about things, plants or otherwise.  I suspect that my current work where I am in an acting up role and working at a level that is several higher than previously is really the cause of all my angst.  Everything I am doing at work seems to be new and I sit there wondering how do I write this policy, how do I tell this person that whatever isn’t happening, how do I find the courage to speak out at a meeting – my safety net has well and truly been removed and my lack of confidence has blossomed.  I get excited when I have a task from my old role to do as its like a familiar friend!  But everyone it seems has faith that I can step up to these challenges and if I want to progress in my job and avoid going back to the place were I was bored senseless and spent all my time on social media then I need to embrace those challenges.  I just need to find a way to leave the unsettling world of work at work and to come home to a my old self instead of letting the self-doubt of my working world seep into my home life and cripple me further.

So I am I think I will dig out my notebooks from last year and re-read my ‘bits of the mind’s string’ and see if they don’t pull me back to my old self.

The photos on this post are the ones that should have gone on the Garden Bloggers Bloom Day Post!


30 Comments Add yours

  1. Alison says:

    thank you for sharing such a wonderfully reflective piece. I wonder whilst thinking about your idea of the ‘old you’ you want to rediscover; if you might find a new you, your next version/update? :))

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Alison
      Yes I, unlike Windows, need an update. I need the geeks to sort out what this version of me should be though

  2. Perhaps it’s a case of thinking too much?
    Do the day at work, rise to the challenges then ban it from home time. Do not talk about work, do not do work, do not check emails, ( hard I know) refuse to allow work to suck your strength and joy. Life is too short. Have faith in your abilities (clearly your colleagues have). Be thankful you are alive. Get out and do some manual work, you will feel so much better. Your blooms are beautiful, enjoy them!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Dorris
      I think the real problem is not being able to get out and do some manual work so my mind has too much time to think. I have always said that I find working in the garden healing and I am really missing it at the moment but in the past I have at least been able to plan for when I can get out. I would be hopeless living somewhere that has a lot of snow or a short gardening season.

    2. Agreed, lots of snow would be quite miserable. Roll on Spring.

  3. It’s funny, I call it the ‘Dark angel’ who only appears in January. Usually she is banished by the rising temperatures of Spring. But when she is here, the days seem endlessly long.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi DD
      I just have a lack of energy and enthusiasm which is getting me down and I need to refind

  4. I recently found my way to your blog and I love it. I recognize myselt in today’s post and I laugh. I hope your obsession will keep going and that you will be able to fulfil a lot af the things you describe. I have been to a large number of UK gardens but (so far) not been able to visit all “must-see-gardens” on my list. And the list also seems to get longer and not shorter for every visit.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Helene
      My list of gardens to visit is never ending there is always something new to see or my interests change and I discover a new approach I am interested in.

  5. You may find after you travel you feel better and are renewed. Remember Julia Cameron’s artist’s dates – maybe you need to fill the well for a while. You might also benefit from a good book, but not a how-to gardening book – just a good story, maybe. I have not read it yet, but I heard about this book from another blogger that sounds intriguing: The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys. Or a book that has nothing to do with gardening.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Valorie
      I am escaping a lot into non-gardening books. Currently reading wonderful book about Joan of Arc bu Helen Castor but feel I need something a little more light hearted and frivolous to read next.

    2. Have you tried Yes, Please! by Amy Poehler? I haven’t listened to it yet (there is an audio version and I don’t usually listen to audio books, but humor is best listened to), so I can’t vouch for it, but I think it’s gotten good reviews.

  6. Change – it’s always a challenge and it sounds as if it’s eating you up. Congratulations on the acting up and I hope it becomes permanent: it sounds as if you need the stimulation. Of course it’s a bit scary..

    I used to feel that way (re garden) when winter came and I felt glad to turn my back on the garden. Thought I’d ‘lost it’, until I discovered it was a kind of regeneration. When spring came back, so did my engagement. Now I tend to believe we need it, to keep us fresh. Let it go, trust yourself and see what arises if you can relax into discovery? Xxxxx

  7. rusty duck says:

    Perhaps drift for a while Helen. Even if it’s just a couple of weeks. Do whatever takes your fancy day by day. It’s amazing how often the solution comes once the knotty problem has been left on the back burner for a while.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jessica
      You are right and I have been doing that but I have spent my whole adult life achieving things and being driven that it feels most strange!

  8. alison r says:

    First of all, as others have already said, thank you for such an honest piece of writing. It blew me away, particularly as SO much reminded me of myself. I would have replied earlier had I not gone off piste to look up Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook. Having followed your blog for a long time now, I know you’ve been through some extremely difficult times, as well of course very happy ones. What has always shone through for me is your irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for learning and doing, whether it’s new plans for the garden, conquering another Malvern Peak, enjoying the various societies you are a member of, visiting gardens here or abroad, embroidery, writing reviews….. You should read your own blogs – you’ll be amazed at the skills you have and how much you actually achieve! And clearly your work colleagues value you highly, otherwise you wouldn’t be in your current position.
    I think this time of year is fairly bleak for those of us who want to reconnect with our gardens again. Remembering the warmth and abundance of summer is not easy in these cold, grey days.
    If you are feeling under pressure to blog so regularly, cut down a bit to recharge your batteries. Apart from the fact that I’ve never blogged because I’d have permanent writer’s block, but have the utmost admiration for everyone who does blog, I gave myself a ‘year off’ from keeping a garden journal because I found it all-consuming. Now I’ve started again and love it. So maybe you are simply stretching yourself too thinly, doing just a bit too much perhaps.

  9. FlowerAlley says:

    I feel the pain in your post. First you agree that you needed a job change, but is this the right change?. You lack confidence in yourself in this new position. Maybe you lack confidence that it is the right position for you. It seems from this post and your last that others have expressed confidence in your doing this job, but do they really have your best interest at heart? You only have so much energy and it seems it is getting used up at work. If you feel that you are moving in the wrong direction. Maybe your feeling that are moving toward “the black dog” which is a warning. Ponder on it. Is this the right thing for YOU? Life is short. Life is NOW.

  10. Astrid Bowlby says:

    Yes, get the old notebook out! I recognized your current life description so clearly. You may not be able to change your job situation, but while waiting for better weather to get outdoors, and get back to gardening and soaking up sun, that notebook of yours and your threads of creativity in it, will remind you, if not spark you into action.

  11. I know this is terrilbly hard to do, but the black dog needs to be firmly reminded that his views are not views, and you have your own life, thank you very much. I know from my own experience that the black dog has a rather overpowering way with him..

  12. Anna says:

    I think that your last paragraph may have possibly hit the nail on the head Helen – the worries of work can certainly creep into the sanctuary of home. You also mention the empty nest which must be a difficult to adjust to situation and one that might give you too much time to think. However having read your blog for a long time now I know that you do have periods when you struggle to keep the black dog at bay and wonder whether you have sought medical advice recently to talk about how you are feeling. There may even be underlying physical causes giving rise to that torpor

    I read the same article as you in ‘Gardens Illustrated’ a couple of days ago but am still no wiser about what form the perfect garden journal might take. I have the Moleskin journal mentioned in the feature but it hasn’t worked for me yet 🙂 Do take care and be easy on yourself xxx

  13. Renee says:

    As others have said – thank you for this honest piece of writing. I recognize myself in it, and it seems like others do to. You are not alone in feeling this way! Perhaps we can get a group discount on a kennel for our black dogs?

    I’ve been having a similar, all consuming period at work, where even when I get home and turn my brain of, I don’t have time or energy to do anything that normally brings me joy (the garden, sewing, reading…) Im still working my way through all of this. I have found that taking the pressure off myself to do things, and just experience things instead, can sometimes help me feel a lot better. Here’s to hoping you feel better soon!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Renee
      You are exactly right, work is leaving me drained and I need to allow myself to relax without feeling bad

  14. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Hi Helen – I realize you are having bad weather over in England but one thing I don’t have in winter here in a tropical garden is the lovely stark outlines of leafless tress and shrubs. A beauty in themselves! sketching them in say pen and ink would be a lovely addition to your blog! Very windy summer here in auckland NZ – we seem to have two true summer days with no wind and just lovely then bang comes in the wind again. Was forcast tho’ – el Nino – running to form. Love your remaining flowers in your garden – yellow such a cheerful colour!

  15. The first step is always to say things out loud, dissect it a bit, and peel off those things that have easier answers…Life is a struggle for everyone, never quite moving forward, even if the steps seem small.

  16. Starr White says:

    We only have so much energy, and work can sometimes drain us to the last drop. It sounds like you’re in the midst of a major transition period right now, and that is always particularly difficult. It’s no surprise at all that you don’t have much energy right now for anything else. What you need is rest. healing. Take care of yourself and hang in there. Things will eventually smooth themselves out into a new normal. You will get comfortable again and your energy levels will return to normal. Just don’t let it get you down in the meantime. This too shall pass….. I promise 🙂

  17. Søren says:

    There are times when I need to remind myself that it’s okay to feel sad or temporarily depressed; this is something we should forgive in ourselves, as we surely would in our friends. In many ways, being one’s own friend is perhaps the best advice I can give you. I was once told “look kindly on yourself”, and that’s perhaps the wisest thing anybody has ever told me.

    (I haven’t had a job since I moved to Houston in July ’14, so it’s no secret that I feel rather down at times and lose all energy and initiative – which is not ideal for job hunting!

  18. nanacathy2 says:

    You have had so much good advice that the only thing I can add is to be good to your self. Work is providing stimulus, challenge etc the garden needs to become a place of healing. I find weeding out grass roots to be very therapeutic!! My thoughts are with you. Xx

  19. Sue C. says:

    Hello Helen. I’m new to commenting on blogs although I have been reading yours for a number of years. It’s only recently that I have started a blog myself and somehow commenting on others now seems more valid. This post, along with others you have written, is a very honest one and I hope that you found it a useful process to commit your thoughts to paper (sort of!). That reflective process can often be helpful. I would want to encourage you to take care of yourself – especially in this grey January time – and develop the confidence in yourself that others seem to recognize. We (particularly women) often underestimate our own abilities – go for it – enjoy the challenge of your new role and hopefully that will energize you to enjoy your garden in the spring.

  20. Ann Edwards Photography says:

    such a thought-provoking post and one that I can relate to in many ways. I find that writing in my notebook is great for clearing the mind, so get your notebook out!

  21. Jean says:

    Helen, I’ve just been catching up with the last month of your blog posts after too long away. It sounds as though you are doing a new job that is more than a little overwhelming. Sometimes when I’ve been in that situation, I find that keeping my head above water at work takes all the energy that I’ve got and there just isn’t any left for anything else. If that’s the case, it may just be that your old self is temporarily submerged rather than lost. I’m hoping that things start to get a bit easier at work and that your energy for the garden and blogging return. Hang in there!

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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