'I moved back to where I grew up, this is my happy place' - Kathy Donaghy on living by the sea
Forget the stress of kickstarting a new fitness and weightloss regime this month - the simple act of being out in nature provides a better focus for body and mind, as Kathy Donaghy discovered
The vast blue Atlantic Ocean stretches as far as the eye can see. In the distance the bulk of Instrahull Island rises up. Before me Pollan Beach lies empty. The only sound is of the waves crashing as they break on the shore. I pull my coat tight against the cold and head off across the beach. This is my happy place.
I can't remember a time when I wasn't looking for ways to get to the beach. My school yard was across the road from the shore at Lough Foyle on the Inishowen Peninsula and the smell of salt water filled our nostrils in the school playground every day. In it, on it, near it - I am happiest when there is water nearby, preferably with playful waves that make me feel good to be alive.
We know being in nature is good for us. Never before has there been so much research about the benefits of literally immersing ourselves in nature and yet our lifestyles, jobs, cars and technology often keep us at a remove from getting outdoors and diving deep into it. Science is backing up what we know intuitively when we get out in the wild - you just feel better. And now for the first time ever doctors, such as those in the US and in Scotland, have begun "nature prescribing" for their patients.
And yet even with all the knowledge about the health benefits - from improvements in our cardiovascular health to increased feelings of happiness - the busyness of life gets in the way.
In the short days of winter it can be difficult to get out. Work deadlines, kids after-school activities with drop-offs and pick-ups, and dinner to be put on the table often leave me with only a few minutes of fresh air usually on my way in and out of the car.
There is a misconception that people in rural Ireland are outdoors all the time, living in Wellington boots with faces ruddy from fresh air. The dependence on the car in rural Ireland means walking rarely happens unless you're out for an actual walk. Indeed when I lived in the city, I walked much more to get from A to B than I do now.
Prioritising getting outdoors is one of the promises I've made to myself this year. I'm wary of calling it a resolution. It's more a recalibrating of what's important in my day. And what could be more important than putting your health and wellbeing first?
I live in a part of the world where opportunities to immerse myself in nature are easily available. Within a few minutes of my home in Redcastle on the Inishowen Peninsula in north Co Donegal, I can be in a wilderness of bogland with not a house to be seen or in woodland where ancient oaks grow next to silver birch trees.
But for me the big bonus of where I live is my proximity to the ocean. And it's the blue spaces in the world that I'm most drawn to. Moving back to where I grew up means Lough Foyle still ebbs and flows through my daily life on its journey into the Atlantic. And living on a peninsula surrounded by water, the ocean is never far. I'm conscious that, as a parent, leading by example is important and so on weekends whatever the weather we bring our children to the beach, heading for long walks.
The effect on them is immediate and lasting; energising at the time and calming afterwards. Nature's own mood-enhancer and analgesic.
As a busy working mum going to the sea to walk and sometimes to swim opens up a space for me just to be me. Not thinking about the kids or work or making the dinner or anything really. After a few minutes of hearing the noise of waves breaking on the shore and inhaling the briny smell of the ocean I feel the internal chatter slow down.
You never know what treasures you'll uncover once you start looking; a piece of sea glass worn perfectly smooth, a shell so delicately formed you can only wonder at nature's gifts. Some days I get to watch the surfers ride on the backs of mountainous waves across Pollan Bay. On others I'll spot huge grey seals at Kinnagoe Bay when they break the water to look inquisitively to shore. Sometimes there's nothing else for it but to dive in myself, becoming fully immersed in the cold, feeling it sting. The warm glow you feel for the rest of the day is always worth the effort.
On those days when I've spent some time by the sea I feel grateful that I've done something just for me. Watching the waves rise and fall is calming. It makes me more aware of the ebb and flow of my own life. It teaches me to relax and let go of the negatives; to let them out with the tide.
Observing the ocean also makes me realise that nothing is permanent. Even if I'm stuck in a rut or going round in circles in my mind, watching the comings and goings of the tide shifts something and alters my perspective. There will always be another wave coming in.
Being near the ocean is humbling and terrifying at the same time. You feel tiny next to its sheer scale and size. I am in awe of its power when giant rollers cause froth and foam to fly across the beach and I am calmed by how still it can be on fine days.
More than anything it makes me feel happy to step outside the busyness of my life and connect with its powerful nature for a while. And that is definitely something I want to do more of in 2019.