My journey into an ‘occupied’ retirement

Join me on my journey into an ‘occupied’ retirement…

I’ve just retired from my full-time job as a senior lecturer in occupational therapy and I’m now describing myself as ‘working freelance’. Basically I’ll do anything for a few quid. This is a huge change after a 38-year full-time career in the public sector. From time to time I’m going to blog about this transition in my life and here’s the first instalment.

The days are stretching out ahead of me full of endless possibilities. It feels like the person I forged over the years has become soft, like putty, and I’m now reforming myself into something new. Not knowing what is slightly scary. I need to find a different rhythm and routine, but I’m not there yet. It just feels like I’m on holiday. Even so, giving myself permission to do nothing is hard. My lifelong need to be productive and do ‘work’ is very compelling.

My retirement goals are simple:

  1. Read more
  2. Write more
  3. Take more photographs

I am reading more and it is an absolute pleasure. I also write in my journal every day, it tends to be mundane rubbish, but I am writing. The blockbuster novel or autobiography might be there bubbling away. I have lots of photographs of the Norfolk countryside from a variety of angles! Possibly ‘travel more’ needs to be a further goal.

There are simple pleasures which I appreciate having the time for. Sitting down and having a quiet cup of tea for example; without being distracted by the television or scrolling through my phone. Doing nothing but savouring the Earl Grey in silence. My reading about mindfulness is teaching me that doing nothing is ‘a good thing’. The slower pace and peace is delightful, but I’m also hoping that some new opportunities will be coming my way.

Watch this space!


Never forget

I love history, especially the kind that connects everyday lives with the big events in the past. I have traced my own family tree to reveal my eight great-grandparents. Like most families we were touched by the First and Second World Wars. My mother’s grandfather fought in WW1 and ‘had trouble with his nerves’ for the rest of his life and my father’s uncle was killed in WW2.

So, I watch BBC’s ‘Who do You Think You Are’ with great interest and some episodes are very memorable. The programme aired on Monday 13th August is one I will never forget. Robert Rinder, a lawyer who has his own television series ‘Judge Rinder’, traced his grandfather’s life back to Poland and the Holocaust. At the age of 19 his grandfather Morris Malenicky was sent into slave labour. He worked in a factory near a railway line where he could see trains passing by. The very trains that took his parents, brother and four sisters to their deaths in the Treblinka death camp. The testimony of Ben Helfgott, now aged 87, who saw the state of Robert’s grandfather at the point of liberation was heart-breaking.

While I was watching the programme my 20 year old son returned home from an evening out with friends. He’d been to the beach and then had fish and chips on the quayside. He wondered why I was upset, I briefly explained and asked him, ‘Can you imagine, at your age, what it must have been like to lose your whole family and be sent into forced labour?’ He couldn’t of course, and how can anyone of us know what it was like? I felt so grateful for the life that me and my children have.

But we must not forget this history. These horrors are but a heartbeat away. We need to be fearful when racist views are casually shared on social media; often in the form of ‘news’ complaining about ‘immigrants’ and ‘refugees’. Any viewpoint that dehumanises others is dangerous territory, particularly when they are struggling against the hand that fate has dealt them. Never forget where this can lead.



The Moon Gazing Hare


I have been inspired by the arrival of a beautiful, hand-crafted sculpture in my garden. With perfect timing, just after the Spring Equinox, we commissioned local artist and blacksmith Katherine Womack to create a moon gazing hare. It is a wonderful thing to look at, but then my research into the meaning of this ancient symbol has made it very special indeed.

The symbol of the moon gazing hare crosses many cultures and dates back to the earliest times of humankind. Pagans believed moon-gazing hares would bring growth, re-birth, abundance, new beginnings and fortune. In this year when I have a big birthday, the kids are flying from the nest and I retire from a full-time job to work freelance, it carries a positive, personal message.

I am fortunate to see hares quite often in the fields behind my house when walking the dog. We will see them soon in pairs leaping wildly in the air, living up to the title of being ‘mad’. This is not, as you might think, a boxing match between two males, but it is the female hare that is the most ferocious. It has been suggested that the female is testing the fitness of the male before she decides to have him as her mate, and if she doesn’t like him then boxing his ears is a good way of telling him to get lost!

The powerful female image stretches back through the ancient mythology. The hare is associated with moon goddesses, including the Egyptian Isis and the Anglo-Saxon Eostre who lent her name to Easter, which coincides with the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. For Eostre the hare was sacred, but gradually and sadly this has become the much commercialised, fluffy Easter bunny.

The association between the hare and rebirth goes beyond lunar mythology. Many Buddhist and Hindu texts describe the hare as a creature of fire, specifically the consuming sacrificial fire of the phoenix, having the ability to rise again out of the ashes. As an occupational therapist this has special resonance because the symbol of my profession is the phoenix. We work to enable people to reach their full potential, a process of profound change, often from a dark place.

The spiral is often seen on images of the moon gazing hare and this is very ancient, considered to be the earliest known representations of spirituality. It is the symbol of the goddess, fertility, growth, rebirth and continual change.

The moon gazing hare is an archetype that lives within our human collective consciousness across millennia, and it still has a resonance today. Myths and legends may seem redundant in the modern world, but connecting with the power of nature and the deep understanding of our ancestors can give courage and hope in an uncertain world. Mick Collins explores this in his book ‘The Unselfish Spirit’ where he touches on the archetype of the divine feminine. I am taking a message of inspiration into 2018, my year of change and transformation, from the fierce moon gazing hare.


Collins M (2014), The Unselfish Spirit. Permanent Publications, Hampshire.


Explaining occupational therapy

Over the past week I have been teaching brand new occupational therapy students as they start their BSc degree programme at the University of East Anglia. I have been asking them to reflect on their journey to this point in their lives and encouraging them to be confident when they are asked the inevitable question, “What is occupational therapy?”

Here are some of their thoughts, shared with permission. They give me huge hope for the future of the profession.

Lewis thought that the definition would be easy, until he heard what other students had to say;

“It came as a surprise to me that the hardest part of the week wasn’t entering a new place or meeting new people but the critical question, ‘What is occupational therapy’? At first, I felt confident in my definition of occupational therapy but quickly realised that individuals have their own definitions which have meaning to them. While occupational therapists have shared professional values and goals, it only seems appropriate that a profession that enables people to live life in a way that is meaningful to them has a definition that is meaningful to each and every individual who encounters the profession in some way. For me I see occupational therapy as giving individuals the tools they need to live life in a way that is meaningful to them.”

I shared a picture of World War One veterans making baskets alongside a picture of veterans from the war in Afghanistan off-road racing to illustrate how, from proud roots, the profession has evolved.

Francine responded to this slide;

“This reflection starts with a reaction to an image in your class. I had quite a visceral response to the image of ex-soldier’s off-roading, my excitement was tangible. At this point I wasn’t aware of why but as the day unfolded and I spent more time in reflection it became more and more apparent… On Facebook I watch an American series called Returning the Favour, with Mike Rowe. This is a series that helps deserving people in all sorts of ways. Today’s episode coincidentally featured an ex-soldier who had lost all four limbs in an accident and had found purpose in Colorado mountain biking. The bike struck me as, and here’s the connection, similar to the sit-ski another friend used that I used to ‘buddy’. I was so struck with the realisation of how tightly linked recovery can be to finding and participating in meaningful activity.”

Rebekah reflected on why she chose the profession and looked forward;

“Occupational therapy was the natural choice for me because it really encompasses all that I am. My enjoyment for a practical and creative approach, my heart of empathy and my desire to develop everyone into the wonderful person they were created to be are all qualities found in, and relevant to, an occupational therapist.

And so it is with a smile that I set out on this journey of learning and growing so that I can help others to learn and grow, too.”

This week we will explore human occupations, leading on to an introduction to occupational science, when the power of occupational therapy to change the world will be revealed!

The start of a huge adventure

Forty years ago a letter arrived offering me a place on an occupational therapy diploma course at St Andrews School of Occupational Therapy, Northampton. It was an unconditional place so it didn’t matter that my A-level grades would turn out to be rubbish. I wrote a proper, handwritten letter to accept the place. No emails back then!

I was nearly 19 and I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I was creative and wanted ‘to help people’, so my form tutor suggested a career in occupational therapy. I’d never heard of it. My parents wanted me to study something that led to a ‘proper job’ so in September 1977 off I went to Northampton. My Snoopy mug was to accompany me in what became a very well-travelled, cardboard box of possessions. My father, ever the pessimist, predicted that the mug would be broken by the end of the year. It was his way of expressing his anxiety about me leaving home. Today the mug is a little battered, but still in one piece. Sadly Dad passed away in 1985; I hope he would be proud that both me and the mug survived. The Snoopy motto is still a good one.

It really was a different age. We wore uniforms in school for the first year with fetching, pale blue capes. We actually loved our capes and went everywhere in them. We learnt lots of craft activities, including basket weaving with Mrs Mason, woodwork, weaving, sewing, and macramé. We had end of year exams in anatomy, physiology and psychology, but there was no research or critical appraisal. There was no theory of occupational therapy or occupational science. My placements took me into huge general hospitals like The London at Whitechapel which I loved and hated in equal measure. I also spent a lot of time in large Victorian asylums.

The waste paper bin that I made has travelled everywhere with me and is currently in my office in the Queen’s Building at the University of East Anglia. It was, and remains, wonky.

Aug2017 blog 1

During my career I have seen the asylums close and become transformed into luxury housing. Or in the case of St Lawrence’s Hospital in Bodmin it has been completely demolished. I have seen constant change and reorganisation in health services and I remain constantly inspired by the resilience of NHS staff and the service users they work with.

Along the way I acquired a psychology degree and a Masters in Health Sciences. I spent 20 years in the NHS and, to date, I’ve been working in higher education for 17 years. I have worked in Florida, Cambridge, Cornwall and now in Norwich. I have been privileged to work with some incredible people and I’ve never stopped being challenged and learning new things. As each year goes by and life on this fragile planet becomes more challenging, my understanding of the potential of occupational therapy to make a difference to people’s lives grows. It has been a huge privilege and every day I learn something new.

The Elizabeth Casson rose celebrates the life of a pioneer of our profession. As I look forward to retiring from full time work I’m planning to reconnect with creative occupations, like gardening. I’ll probably be able to resist the urge to weave another wonky basket though!

Aug2017 blog 2

A week with The Baton in Norfolk

Today is Memorial Day in the United States; a day to pause and remember the fallen and honour their memory. It is an occasion when the pain of the battlefield can bubble to the surface.

A week ago I took The Baton to the drop-in morning at the Britannia Centre in Norwich which is now a hub for Veterans’ Services in Norfolk. The Baton is made from the handle of a stretcher used for medical evacuations on the battlefield in Afghanistan. We continue to carry it, with care and concern, to honour the fallen and the wounded. At first the veterans at the drop-in looked nonplussed at the strange object in my hand, then I started talking about The Baton and the penny dropped. One person when I handed it to them could not hold back their tears.

The Britannia Centre at Norwich Prison brings together The Walnut Tree Trust, The Matthew Project’s Outside the Wire service and Walking with the Wounded’s Project Nova. Between them they are supporting veterans and their families with mental health support, drug and alcohol advice and counselling as well as support for those in the criminal justice system. They are working closely with many other charities. While I was there I met someone from the Warrior Programme which runs an effective education and training course. A prison officer with responsibility for mentally disordered offenders called in for coffee and a catch-up; the local community Police officer also called in to see whether there was anything that he could do to help. It was so encouraging to see genuine interagency working with the veterans’ needs paramount.

I went on from there to visit David Miller who is planning an expedition to the Arctic to raise awareness and funds for the RAF Benevolent Fund. They provided vital support for his brother who has a back injury with severe pain and PTSD. He told me about the long and frightening journey his brother has had to survive and the terrible misunderstandings that led to Police brutality when he went off the rails. It was a clear illustration of the very real need for the services of the Britannia Centre in every town and city. It was good to let David hold The Baton; as the family member of a wounded veteran he really understood what it represents.

Then on Wednesday I took The Baton to the University of East Anglia Community Engagement Event. It gave me an opportunity to talk about the good work happening in Norfolk for veterans and to share The Baton message with academics and students. I reflected at the time that it was a bit daunting to stand beside very clever scientists and professors, but The Baton gave me courage. One academic colleague from the Law School told me about her close friend whose son has severe PTSD. He’s just 21 she said, with tears in her eyes.

We must never stop reminding people that they have the freedom to research, to study, to express an opinion because of the sacrifices of our forces. Many have paid, and will continue to pay, a heavy price for those freedoms.





Dear diary…the joys of keeping a journal

Two years ago, on the advice of good friend and colleague Dr Mick Collins, I started writing a journal every day. My thoughts often feel like a tangled ball of wool and the knots just get tighter when I try to mentally reason my way forward. A few minutes spent each day writing those thoughts down can help the wool to unravel to a point where knitting something beautiful might be possible.

My journal isn’t a work of literature though, most of the time it is totally boring drivel. As a teenager I kept a diary which mostly consisted of… ‘School was so boring today.’ The interest level hasn’t gone up much, but as I write down how stressed, tired and unhappy I am, the positives also start to emerge. If I feel that I have achieved nothing, writing down what I have done throughout the day can reframe that sense of failure completely. Then there’s the goal setting. If I write down both short and long term goals in the journal then that will help me to stay focused. The writing helps me to realise dreams that I would never have thought possible.

I write out the words of songs that I love or inspirational quotes, maybe something nice someone has said. I have done a few little drawings, but not many, it’s mainly words. Sometimes I just write words of comfort and reassurance to myself. Writing it all down makes the positives more real and can be returned to in moments of doubt. It’s a form of therapy, or maybe just giving myself a good talking to! Occasionally I need that little reminder, ‘It’ll be fine.’

Keeping a journal is a ‘thing’ these days. I followed advice in a ‘How to keep a journal’ guide in the Guardian (where else?) and bought a beautiful unlined book with thick paper and glorious coloured covers. I have filled seven of these now and it has become an addiction. I also followed advice just to write unselfconsciously and not to worry about the quality. I am writing for me, nobody else. Now looking back through the pages I can see how far I have come in 24 months. The goals I set back in 2014 are being realised, some have evolved, but I can see where I am going and I am open to new possibilities.

Here’s the guide from The Guardian;

More detailed advice here:



A New Year’s Resolution isn’t just for Christmas…

On January 8th I blogged about my good intentions to adopt a healthier lifestyle, saying that I had no health problems and just wanted to feel fitter. Then I had a warning about my cholesterol level from my GP, at the top end of the average range it was placing me at over 10% risk of having a heart attack or stroke. I declined to take statins after talking it through with him, basing that decision on my new lifestyle changes. At that stage I was successfully being alcohol free, eating healthily and attending my twice weekly exercise class. I was feeling smug.

Things haven’t quite gone to plan. The twice weekly exercise class remained a challenge, but I kept going and achieved a little more each week. The pain and discomfort after each class however did not improve. Longstanding problems with my joints, and my back in particular, were being aggravated. After another chat with my GP, I took his advice to stop going. The exercises were too high impact, even with my adjustments. It felt like a failure to stop attending because it had been such a big deal for me to do something like that.

During this time I was teaching 1st year occupational therapy students at the University of East Anglia about the connection between well-being and occupation. Their energy and creativity was shared in my last blog. One of the lectures was about how we all need to become more physically active generally in our lives and it doesn’t need an expensive gym membership to get fit. By small changes to every day routines we can get exercise. So I had to apply those principles to my own life. I love to walk and it doesn’t cause me pain, so more walking it had to be. I enjoy my long walks with the dog at the weekend, but this needed to be more regular.

Every day I now park my car a 15 minute walk away from where I work. It avoids a 10 minute queue in traffic so also helps to reduce my carbon emissions. On cold, wet mornings I almost give in to the temptation to drive all the way to the university campus, the car is warm and Kiss on the radio is highly entertaining. Then I remember that I need the exercise; so many people face far greater challenges than me and manage to keep fit. One of my inspirations is Mark Ormrod. He was in the Royal Marines and got blown up in Afghanistan. Three of his limbs were amputated and this does not stop him from working on his fitness every day. He is such a motivator for me when my inclination is to be lazy. I’m also walking a little faster and the last stage of the journey is up a small hill (this is Norfolk we’re talking about) so I try not to slow down to a plod.

I’ve been fighting a sense of disappointment that I couldn’t do everything that I set out to do, but I have to remind myself what I have achieved. The healthy eating is going fairly well, with loads more salad, vegetables and fruit included every day. I take a salad to work instead of a doorstep cheese sandwich. I couldn’t keep off the alcohol completely, I do love a glass of red wine, but I’ve halved how much I drink. The challenge now is to keep going, but really I have no choice. There’s still so much that I want to do with my life; I need to be fit and well, not just for New Year but for always.

To find out more about the health benefits of walking follow Sarah Hanson on Twitter – @walkingresearch. Sarah is a PhD student at Norwich Medical School, UEA, researching walking groups within the natural environment to improve health.

Mark Ormrod’s Facebook page:



Creative occupations and wellbeing

Over the past few weeks I have had the very great pleasure of teaching first year BSc occupational therapy students at the University of East Anglia about the power of occupation for mental health and wellbeing. Occupational therapists can engage people, families and communities in a huge variety of occupations (activities). This participation leads to healthy and fulfilled lives. I made connections with occupational science using some of my favourite concepts; occupational identity and occupational justice. Along with my lectures the students also had the opportunity to plan and run group activities for their fellow students to explore their own creativity and occupational engagement.

I’m sharing a few pictures from one of the groups who quickly ‘got it’. They facilitated their group to enjoy the amazing architectural and natural environment that we work in at UEA. Not only that, the group took photographs and shared them on social media with the hashtag #GetCreative. I’ve selected just a few of the brilliant photographs, with the permission of the students. Their energy and creativity shines through and makes me very proud of this next generation of occupational therapists.


Looking back to 2015 & looking forward

WordPress sent me a summary of my blog and it surprised me; I was thinking that I hadn’t written that much this year and I should have done more. Indeed the latter part of the year has been a bit quiet, but 2015 has been very busy and I didn’t always get time to write about it!

The best bits have been building connections and collaborations across the UK and the world. So many people are committed to making the lives of others better and I’ve been privileged to talk to many of them and work alongside a few, connecting like-minded folk when I can.

I approached the end of the year feeling a little disappointed that my goal of relocating to the South West nearly happened, but didn’t in the end. Looking over this blog however, and thinking back to all the amazing things and people that I’ve been involved with, I’ve realised that I am fortunate to have so many opportunities. I’m grateful for my family, my friends and my health, nothing else really matters.

My resolutions for 2016; I will learn more, connect more, travel more, stress less and continue to be creative and have fun!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 600 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 10 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.