Thursday 18 December 2014

Happiness and Well-being at Christmas

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome who enjoys and appreciates the traditional message and values of Christmas, it saddens me to see how pressure and anxiety that has resulted from ever excessive commercialisation has contributed to making Christmas a difficult time for many people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Together with this, the traditional values of Christmas, including goodwill and happiness, have become ever more consumed by desire. Additionally, social isolation that many adults on the autistic experience, especially if they have no immediate family around them or are not close to their family can make one feel excluded from what is supposed to be a joyful time.

Recent trends such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Manic Monday have sadly not only made a mockery of the true meaning of Christmas through exploiting desire regardless of any harm that it can cause including heated arguments of customers competing for sale items leading fights breaking out to the extent that police have had to be called into supermarkets and stalls together with a customer being injured by a falling television set, but they have also extended problems that people with Asperger’s Syndrome can experience including high level anxiety.

Anxiety that a person with Asperger’s Syndrome experiences when entering a crowded shopping centre together with sensory issues can be problematic enough, as well as they can be for people not on the autistic spectrum. But another anxiety-driving force that can be a strain on people with Asperger’s Syndrome at Christmas is the pressure to buy Christmas presents, including anxiety driven by worry of what particular item to buy for a friend or relative or whether they will like what they give them.  When becoming constrained by pressure to buy presents, one can become lost with the anxiety that pressure brings that it is the thought that counts with presents and gifts.

Thought that goes into Christmas gifts helps to foster genuine friendships and social relationships, which starts through getting to know someone, a friend or relative, that you gain an appreciation of their likes and interest and they get to know and appreciate yours, knowing what makes each other happy, which can say a lot more about fashionable gift items with high-profile brand names that television and print adverts are forever screaming at us, almost trying to brainwash us, to go out and buy, even if it involves fighting and arguing over it on Black Friday. As well as buy gifts, it appears to me as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome that the commercialisation of Christmas is almost encouraging us to ‘buy’ friends, through’ impressing’ someone at Christmas with the last novelty item. It is well-known that many people with Asperger’s Syndrome not only feel that they have difficulty in forming friendships, but also difficulties in understanding the concept of a friend, including at Christmas where a genuine friend is someone whom you may give to and receive gifts from based on knowing each other rather than being taken advantage of by someone ‘acting’ as a friend for what they can get from you. A person with Asperger’s Syndrome who feels lonely at Christmas and who desires friendships or companionship may well be vulnerable to this.

By reflecting on the values that Christmas is supposed to be about, including generosity, goodwill and happiness, instead of an anxiety-driven frenzy, Christmas can become a time where people with Asperger’s Syndrome can feel included, including their bringing personal happiness values to the meaning of Christmas, which can not only aid their personal development but can also be a time where the creativity that people with Asperger’s Syndrome can be expressed, including in using abilities and interests to make or create Christmas gifts.

Embroidered Christmas decorations made by Tara Kimberley Torme
A good friend of mine, Tara Kimberley Torme, who is also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, enjoys embroidery, including making embroidered Christmas decorations each year, which  I have had the delight or receiving as an early Christmas gift. The personal enjoyment that Tara gains from the activity as well as the therapeutic qualities it appears to have for her gives me plenty of personal happiness as well as her, and I also get much out of appreciating the effort that goes into making such thoughtful gifts. Such joy and appreciation reflects well on others, almost like a gift of self-esteem and happiness of making someone's 'day' on which there isn't a price.

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, something that I find helpful at Christmas, especially with coping with desire and temptation induced by excess commercialisation, is to simply start by noticing what triggers temptation or feelings of low self-esteem over the Christmas period, so that you can notice what can lead to you becoming constrained by anxiety and depression. This can then allow you to balance triggers by focusing on personal values you may have that make you feel happy generally, not just at Christmas, not least because the traditional values of Christmas, including goodwill and generosity are just as relevant after the Christmas decorations have come down.

Though Christmas is a time when we think about either what we want or what to get for family and friends gift wise, it can also help us to remember what we already may have at Christmas and that one of the best gifts we can give is ourselves, including our time to those who may otherwise experience Christmas isolated or alone. To enable this, it helps to gain an understanding of personal qualities we may have through compassionate understanding,  so that we can give the best of ourselves to others at Christmas as well as realise and accept the personal values of others around us where possible, including personal qualities people with Asperger’s Syndrome can bring and where any creative abilities they have can flourish, enabling inclusion, which can be as great a gift as a novelty item.     

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Union of South Africa, the Worcester Christmas Fayre and Paddington Bear

If you have been watching Michael Portillo's latest series of Great Continental Railway Journeys you may have heard him say when travelling on Europe's last existing commuter steam train in Poznan, Poland, that for a rail enthusiast, seeing a steam locomotive on a preserved heritage railway is like seeing an animal in the zoo, but seeing it run on the main line, doing what it was originally supposed to do, is like seeing an animal in the wild, where it is meant to be. Once again this year, I have had the thrill to ride on a mainline steam-hauled train, this time the Worcester Christmas Markets Express from Paddington.

Peter Pan Statue, Kensington Gardens
Within walking distance of Paddington Station, the statue of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, in Kensington Gardens provides us with a little reminder that the delight of fascination and excitement that a child experiences when looking at what is around us often moves on with us into adulthood. Where I personally experience this is not only through the excitement of seeing a steam train arrive at the platform, but also through seeing how incongruous a steam hauled train looks in a major mainline station, surrounded by more familiar present day rail traction including high-speed pendolinos and sprinter units, a sight normally more common on model railways. With its old fashioned steam-heated carriages also giving off steam, a steam-hauled charter train in a present day mainline station almost looks like a magic train that has travelled forward in time to a familiar location but with unfamiliar surroundings, with the water cranes/columns that served them long since gone and the old-fashioned split-flap arrivals and departures boards long since replaced by modern LED boards.

60009 Union of South Africa heads the Worcester Christmas Markets Express
Hauled by an engine familiar to readers of this blog, 60009 Union of South Africa, the Worcester Christmas Markets Express took me through some lovely countryside and later brought me into contact with some interesting characters. Sir John Betjemen, the late former Poet Laureate, described railways as creating their own landscapes, which often blend in effectively with their natural surroundings. For me, steam trains can also create their own atmosphere with their sound and smoke. Giving off huge clouds of white smoke which could be seen flying past the carriage windows, Union of South Africa created a dramatic look to the surrounding countryside when the smoke shrouded the trees, reminding me of Peru's cloud forests, apparently from where a certain bear came from who was found by the Brown family with a suitcase and a jar of marmalade at the station from where my train journey started, and where he was named after.

Worcester Cathedral, overlooking the River Severn
The rhythmical sound of a steam engine while running together with its whistle is pleasant to the ear, but when the train arrived at Worcester's Shrub Hill station, while waiting for clearance to proceed to the depot to prepare for the return journey, passengers got a reminder that as well as provide power, steam technology also provides musical entertainment. While stationary, Union of South Africa's air compressors, which supply air to the breaks, made a sound like a calliope, almost as if one of Worcester most famous residents, the composer Sir Edward Elgar had orchestrated the sound composition himself! Born in Lower Broadheath, five miles from Worcester, Elgar's father owned a music shop at the end of Worcester's High Street where the young Edward Elgar grew up. A statue of Elgar (1857-1934) now stands near its original location. which overlooks Worcester's most famous landmark, Worcester Cathedral, founded the year 680, though its earliest existing features date from around the 12th century.

Friar Street, Worcester
Just like the steam-hauled train appeared to have moved forward in time to a world largely unrecognisable from its service days before motorways, the beautiful Mock Tudor architecture of Worcester's Friar Street appears to have almost stood still in time while the city's commerce and culture, as in most other towns and cities, have changed in and around it, bringing with it the usual chain stores, restaurants and cafes. Meanwhile, the former street names inscribed under the present day names serve as a reminder of city's medieval past as a city dominated by guilds. Along a very busy Friar Street, dominated by the sounds and scents of the Christmas market stalls, carol singers and troubadours, it again looks like another era in time has travelled forward to an unfamiliar world dominated by motorised road traffic.

With Paddington Bear at the railway station from where he got his name!
After enjoying the culinary delights of the Christmas market, the bells of Worcester Cathedral then reminded me that it was time for me to make my way back to Shrub Hill station for the journey back to Paddington. When I reached Paddington, to my surprise, I found that someone of the furry variety had followed me back from Darkest Peru! The smoke-shrouded countryside that I had seen on the journey to Worcester was a sign - Paddington Bear had followed me back to England in time for his new film coming out, after he had been back to Peru to see his Aunt Lucy! He said he managed to find his way onto the train hiding in Santa's sack, and he enjoyed the train ride though he was disappointed that they were service free mince pies rather than marmalade sandwiches!

60009 Union of South Africa at journey's end in Paddington 
There is something not just about railways themselves, but also their journeys that feed imagination, inspiring great works of art including the works of Terence Cuneo, literature with works like The Railway Children and poetry by the likes of W.H. Auden and Sir John Betjemen. Imagination fed by railway experiences has also been known to create delightful characters, including Paddington Bear himself. The different experiences that railway journeys bring, including the places that they take you, sights seen from carriage windows and the people you may meet on a railway journey and stories they have to tell. As well as a multi-sensory experience with the steam sound and steam heat of the train and the sounds and scents of Christmas in the markets, the Worcester Christmas Markets Express also felt like a journey through a set of time warps, going through the 1950s, to Victorian and Medieval times before coming back home to the digital age of the 21st century, and not forgetting the personal aspect of the journey from a childhood fascination that has continued with me through to the present.

A tribute to Phillip Hughes at New Road, Worcester 
RIP Phillip Hughes (1988-2014), who tragically died after being struck by a ball playing cricket for South Australia against New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield match in Australia. Hughes, 25, who had a spell playing for Worcestershire in 2012, will be a huge loss to both Australian and world cricket.