Teach us to sit still

Yesterday I learned that over his short life Vincent Van Gogh produced more than 900 paintings and numerous sketches – the maths of this creative frenzy works out at one new artwork every 36 hours.

Ironically, I learned this as I sat in stillness and silence surrounded by a few of his best-known pieces at the Van Gogh Immersive in London.

Sitting still does not come easily to me. My thoughts are so often in control that I am forever jumping up or moving on in response to them. By contrast, at yesterday’s exhibition, I was able to slow myself down enough to just sit, on a bench in a high-walled chamber, in which Van Gogh’s paintings were projected all around me.

A tractor moved slowly across a golden hayfield, stars as big as planets twinkled against an inky night sky, boats drifted in and out of view on an estuary.

And I sat, seconds turning to minutes, turning to half an hour and beyond, not feeling any need to get up or speak or start planning what we would do next.

I felt awe at Van Gogh’s achieves, the brightly coloured paintings which show us more of life, more depth, more colour, more seeing, than we have managed alone.

But there was sadness too, at the restlessness behind his genius. The knowledge that in his short 37 years on this planet he never learned to sit still.
I wonder what more he might have achieved had he done so…

And that’s the real, tragic irony of this exhibition. That in order to experience life through his frenzied eyes we had to stop. Stillness is, after all, where the light comes in…

  • Where – and when – in your life do you need to just stop and sit in stillness in order to appreciate what you are creating?

Changing the habits of a lifetime

Yesterday was a somewhat stressful day: a long coaching session with a challenging client, a visit to grumpy uncle in his care home, phone calls with those charged with helping him be less grumpy, and an evening conference call – past the time when I usually like to wrap work up for the day.

All of which squeezed out everything I know about self-care.

On the way to the care home I stopped and bought a cookie as big as a saucer, then sat in the car, in the sunshine, nibbling it.

Later, after the conference call, I opened a bottle of Merlot and poured myself a large glass.

Both are reasonable and very familiar ways to comfort myself when I notice stress in my body. The trouble is they don’t actually work.

I think they do – which is how they’ve become habits. But beyond the initial pleasure rush they leave me feeling worse: over-sugared, headachey, and cross with myself.

Why did I fall back into old unconscious habits instead of stopping, breathing, and asking myself what would really soothe me? I already know what my body would have said. As I sat in my car eating a cookie my body was craving the bright winter sunlight. I could have used the time to do a circuit of the pretty lake behind the care home. My body, my lungs, my eyes and ears and soul would have loved that.

And as I reached for the bottle of wine I might instead have chosen to sit quietly in the armchair, breathe deeply, maybe do a three minute meditation, enjoy the fact that the working day was over and it had ended with a long call with two of my favourite colleagues.

I’m not saying that cakes and wine don’t have their place. They do and probably always will. I am saying we need to stop and question some of the things we do unconsciously, because they’re habits or because we’ve always done them.

Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to constantly notice and adjust on our way to creating lives that work and feel better.

Next time I’m feeling stressed I will stop and ask my body and soul what it really needs in this moment.

Photo by Dex Ezekiel on Unsplash

A teapot says I’ve got time

Fast food, fast lane, superfast broadband….it seems the goal of every service provider is to make our lives quicker.

They would add ‘and easier’ but I’m not so sure. It’s often seems to me that the more time they free up the more things I add to my To Do list.

The trouble with ‘fast’ is that it so often also means unconscious. You know, that moment when you’ve been hurtling along the motorway to get home and you have literally no idea where on the route you are: you’ve been operating on automatic.

Or you wolf down a delicious dinner while watching a favourite TV show and realise you didn’t taste a single mouthful.

One of the things that goes along with my wish to live my best year is to be mindful: to extract pleasure, awareness, gratitude, for all the little things in my life that work. You’ve undoubtedly seen that poster proclaiming ‘Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realise they were the big things’ (thanks Kurt Vonnegut).

Yesterday afternoon I found myself boiling the kettle and reaching for a teabag without paying any attention to what I was doing. Until I spotted my new glass teapot standing alongside a beautiful tin of Fortnum and Mason tea leaves which my son Paul gave me last year.

So I stopped.

I picked up the tin, enjoying its smart metallic red and green decoration. I opened it and smelt the leaves, each ant-sized – rather than the usual powder they crush into teabags.

Carefully I spooned the leaves into the metal strainer that sits in the centre of the pot then poured on boiling water, enjoying watching the water turn a deep golden brown.

After I had let it seep for five minutes I poured milk into a china cup and then poured in the tea.

Then I sat down to enjoy it.

The whole process took five times as long as making tea with a teabag. But it also yielded five times as much pleasure. It gave me breathing space. It gave my eyes, my nose and my tastebuds an experience.

And it slowed me down long enough to remind myself that this too is life. Made up of thousands of little moments we can choose to make special if we wish.

Small changes bringing great gifts

As usual, there was a lunchtime queue in Pret so I had time to study the menu above the heads of baristas. Americano or breakfast tea? Which of my two staples did I most feel like?

…Or…I could put my mouth where my money is and try something new. Turmeric latte for instance?

Frankly, it sounded horrible. But, I reasoned, surely if it tasted as bad as it sounds it wouldn’t survive being on the menu of a fast food chain?

At first glance the reality lived up to my fears: NO drink should be that putrid shade of yellow, nor have a hint of scum on its surface.

I studied it curiously, sniffed the liquid then took a small sip. I could taste the yellow spice but I could also taste creaminess and sweetness and – to my suprise – heat and comfort. It was deliciously strange and strangely delicious and I loved every drop.

Why am I telling you about this rather trivial event?

Because a part of extracting life from our days is being open to new things and new experiences. Making small changes is a great way to bring more mindfulness to any daily activity and I highly recommend it. It sends a signal to our sub-conscious that we are ready and willing for change; in essence to DRINK in more of the richness of life.

Since the start of this year I have:

  • made myself late for work by running a hot, steamy bath instead my usual quick dash into the shower – because I suddenly felt like it;
  • ordered garlic soup in a cafe rather than any of my usual safe choices;
  • booked tickets for a live stream performance of Leopoldstadt by the National Theatre – my first ever live stream;
  • NOT had a glass of wine with supper every night (change can be about what we don’t do just as much as what we do!)
  • done my daily walk at dusk rather than my more usual post lunch outing – the world is a very different place then;
  • resisted the strong urge to say ‘ah ok, come along with me then’, when I was heading for a solo trip to town and a loved one hinted they’d like to be included;
  • and many more small actions.

How about you? In Best Year these activities appear in the ‘Expand’ category but I see now they could equally appear until grow because every single time we choose to break an old habit we move ourselves a fraction forward.

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

Unable to see the wood for the trees

I’m still in Austria and some neighbours were keen to show me photos of the new house they built. “It has a tree in it; 15 metres high, through the living room up into the roof space”, they said proudly. “We wanted to bring nature into our home.”

I met this poor tree yesterday. It’s been stripped of its branches and bark, and painted gold. It has as much connection with the natural world as Bernard Matthews’ turkey twizzlers have with real food. I quake to think of what Feng Shui practitioners would make of it.

Wood is plentiful in this part of Austria, grown to be harvested in a myriad ways, and replanted as quickly as it is cut down.

Still, I think there is a infinitely more of the natural world to be found in the little items I collect on my daily walks for the nature corner: a delicate feather to run lightly over my skin, the neat patterns on a fir cone, a stone chip that glitters when the light hits it, leaves turned golden by the autumn.

*** How might you bring nature closer to you? Start your own nature table, replace worn out items with their natural equivalents? Spend five minutes staring out of the window every day? Or something else – in which case let me know.

When enough is enough

Writing recently about my visit to an art gallery reminded me of an approach to galleries and museums I’ve sometimes adopted. Faced with a wealth of glorious or fascinating exhibits – and the risk of quickly feeling overwhelmed – I choose instead to focus my attention on just one object in each room.

Believe me it takes real willpower to turn my back on a roomful of impressionist paintings in order to sit quietly with a single Van Gogh, really paying attention to the brushstrokes, colours and the feeling of the piece. But it also delivers greater rewards: opening windows in my mind and soul which otherwise slam shut in the face of sensory overload.

I think the same is true in many other areas of life. I’ve never forgotten the experience of eating a simple hard boiled egg after illness had starved me of food for five days. It was as if I’d never tasted an egg before: the richness of the crumbly yoke contrasting with the delicate milky yoke. Honestly, no five course meal could have delivered as much flavour.

Then there is music, which I often have playing in the background via the radio, almost unremarked; a (not) listening habit. Such a very different experience from the evenings when I dim the lights, settle into the sofa and consciously listen (and experience) a piece of music I’ve chosen to play.

I am beginning to see that my intention to squeeze more living from this year does not always require me to be off doing something, visiting, planning exciting trips and adventures. A richer life is available in any moment we choose to live it mindfully, narrow our focus to the experience we are having right then, pausing, noticing, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching feeling – just not necessarily all at once.

Allowing enough to be enough.

*** what day to day activity could you do more mindfully in order to breathe more life into it? (Actually breathing is not a bad place to start!) Bringing more awareness to the perfume or feel of the water on your skin in the shower…really savouring the first bite of breakfast (or choosing something entirely different from usual to awake your palate)…doing a few gentle stretches as you get dressed…opening the backdoor and really breathing in the look and feel of the day before you reach for the To Do list. Or anything else. Let me know what works for you.

Photo by Mustafa Bashari on Unsplash

Making a masterpiece from life

My new year always begins with my birthday, which arrives so close to New Year’s Eve as to add extra significance to both.

This year my birthday treat was a visit to Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery where I finally came face to face with the real Gustav Klimt – rather than the one whose work appears tamely on almost everything in Vienna: keyrings, fridge magnets, mouse mats and t-shirts.

Here in the gallery were the canvases in full technicolour glory, entirely different from all those copies: huge, glittering and so bold. A perfect motif for how I would like to live the next twelve months of my life.

Among them, Klimt’s slightly less well-known Portrait of Fritza Riedler (above) was painted in 1906. I imagine it bursting into the dourness of post-Victorian Britain, as shocking and wonderful as a rainbow illuminating grey skies after days of rain.

At first glance it is a classic portrait, masterfully executed from the chiffon-like ruffles of the dress to the delicately posed hands. But then as you look properly the painting becomes a treasure trove of the unexpected: blocks of textured colour in place of the usual bland background; the almost-halo framing the model’s face, a glorious mosaic inspired by other lands; the surreal pattern on the chair where Fritza sits, reminiscent of eyes or snakeskin; the small squares of pattern that punctuate the colour blocks as if to prevent our gaze settling, demanding we pay attention.

Thinking about some of the main themes of my Best Year book these moments I spent with the painting remind me that life too is a treasure when we pause long enough to notice what is all around us, and take the time to experience it – explore – through as many of our senses as possible. It expands when we make opportunities to do things we’ve not done before – whether that means visiting a new gallery or simply walking home by a different route. (Or – as I did on New Year’s Day – bringing a small biscuit back to bed to have with my morning tea and tasting its crumbly sweetness in a way I don’t when meals become a mostly unconscious habit.)

Klimt’s painting also speaks, in a perhaps more challenging way, of what may arise when we operate from what’s within us rather than the comfortable and safe norms of what we see all out-with us. I like to think what I see in Fritza’s face is openness and curiosity: two qualities which are necessary for Growth.

Finally the sheer ambition of this work, sitting brashly alongside all those traditionally beautiful and almost photographic landscapes from the same era, are a reminder of the power of being bold with our lives, of mixing it up, taking risks and becoming the creators of our own world. As we begin a new year that’s my commitment to myself.

*** Thinking about your intentions for the new year, is there a work of art – painting, sculpture, song, poem, building or something else – that might serve as a motif and reminder to you?

Travelling with the ones you love

Rebooting this blog (see the About section), I mentioned two of the many impacts the pandemic has had on my thinking:

First: itchy feet. And I’m not talking slight tickles – but the kind of raging irritation caused by a swarm of mosquitoes trapped with in a tiny overheated room. A MAJOR need to get moving beyond the borders of my back yard.

Second: alongside the recognition that I am not getting any younger (indeed my parents had been drawing their pension for half a decade by the time they were the age I am now), a desire to make more memories with loved ones. Of all the things the various lockdowns forced us to give up, spending time with my adult children, with my sister, partner Bob and (still my) husband Tom (despite separating 22 years ago), was the hardest to bear. We did our best with Zoom, WhatsApp, Messenger and the rest, yet within my soul sat a knot of sadness that I knew would only be healed when I could hug my children again, sit in a room with my family telling our stories, walk the hills with my sister, chew over an indie film with Tom and wander out from Bob’s Austrian home at night to stare up at the starriest skies I have ever seen.

Dragging everyone else in

All of which explains why, in an early morning flash of inspiration, I hatched a plan: to spend the next year or so on adventures with each of my favourite five people on this planet. As well as – undoubtedly – a few adventures in my own company.

No-one protested when I asked if they’d be willing to share an adventure with me – and feature in the blogs I’d be writing to record this ‘best year yet’. Indeed they were – and are – all keen. Just not as free to drop everything as a freelancing career allows me to be.

The story so far

Bob, however, is retired, so my first adventure is going to be with him: cycling from coast to coast. Not, this time, Wainwright’s unbeatable coast to coast walk which I’ve now done four times with my sis. That route will forever be our special place. Besides, she’d never allow me to do it without her!

But a route we’re making up for ourselves, using a couple of Sustrans maps of cycleways in the south of England, our own knowledge of Kent, Sussex and Dorset, plus a wishlist of places on the south coast that we’d love to spend time in.

It turns out that route planning is only one of many preparations that need to be made when it comes to adventuring. We both need decent bikes, decent kit, and to learn to fix punctures. We also need to work out where to make our overnights, which is how I came to be googling ‘how many miles can beginners cycle in a day?’

Believe it or not, I’m not the first one to ask that question. There were HUNDREDS of links with answers.

I expect to be spending more time on Google in the coming days finding out how thick padded shorts need to be to prevent a sore bottom, how to use gears, fix a broken chain, and the rest.

Watch this space!

Lifelong learning

At the age of five I won a fancy dress competition dressed in a green curtain as a bookworm. It was a fitting start to a lifelong love affair with books – as the teetering pile of titles waiting beside my bed to be read confirms.

I read to be entertained or distracted, of course, but also because one lifetime isn’t enough to visit all the places I want to see, to understand the experience of the billions who have inhabited this beautiful planet, or to delve into the depths of my own soul and truly know myself.

I’ve triple tagged this post because I couldn’t decide whether making time every day for reading – as I sit in bed with a mug of tea and the silence of the early morning – fits best in the grow, expand or explore category of Best Year.

I think it’s actually all three.

Since the start of this year I’ve explored the dusty shelves of threatening atmosphere of The Stationery Shop of Tehran thanks to Marjan Kamali. I’ve walked Alpine lanes jewelled with wild flowers with author Eva Ibbotson. And I’ve studied Howard Carter as he excavated the Valley of the Kings in the pages of Sally Beauman’s The Visitors.

I’ve understood a fraction more about how different my life and experience would have been if I’d been born with black skin, in Brit Bennett’s brilliant The Vanishing Half. Or if I’d been born female in another century – Elizabethan England say, through Maggie O’Farrell’s delicious Hamnet.

And I have nodded in recognition and gratitude to those writers able to capture in words some of the things I’ve felt, who’ve made sense of things that confuse me, opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about my life and life on earth. Above all, who have empowered me to want to live as deliberately as they seem to be living their lives.

Thank you Brene Brown for Braving the Wilderness, Glennon Doyle for Untamed and Julia Baird for your beautiful book Phosporescence. In their own way each of them has made the morning light a little brighter and expansive as the world awakes.

May we NEVER stop reading, learning and sharing our truths with each other in order to grow.

Disconnecting to connect

Two a.m. and in place of sleep I’m feeling fury: angered and shamed by the behaviour of England football supporters who not only booed their own side for taking the knee, but booed throughout the German national anthem. I’m outraged at their arrogance, lack of respect, and loutishness which is on show for the rest of Europe to see and shake its collective head over.

The irony is that I didn’t actually see any of this. I only read it reported on Twitter.

In other words, I was suffering exactly the same secondhand emotions and response to the things they’ve heard and read – in their social, print and broadcast media – that caused those supporters to behave as they did.

All of us trapped in an endless loop of our own stories of racism, fascism, flake-ism, communism, ignorance and incomprehension.

Me included every time I sign into Twitter or the Guardian and find more stuff to get outraged about.

Last night I realised how much it is hurting me, not just physically to be awake and feeling too churned up to sleep. But at a deeper level where my anger is distracting me from my core beliefs: that most people are good, and doing their best based on their knowledge, awareness and understanding; and that most of us want the same things for our loved ones and ourselves – to live lives of peace, comfort, meaning and love.

In the words of Jo Cox, murdered by someone who was also subject to this anger and outrage fuelled by the stories he chose to believe, there is far more that connects us than divides us.

That’s why the first act of my six month reboot is going to be coming off Twitter; stepping away from this disturbing echo chamber where my own views are bounced back at me a zillion times a day at ever increasing volume until that’s all I can hear inside my skull. We’re right. They’re wrong. You’re either with us or against us. We’re fighting for nothing less than the soul of the nation.

I need to care for my own soul first in order to be able to live my life from a place in which I recognise how connected we really are beneath the murky surface of positions and opinions, blame and suspicion, black and white thinking.

It’s being connected electronically, and manipulated by opinion, no matter how well-meaning, that is getting in the way of me making truer connections with people based on what we share, what we fear, what we love and what we want.

Which means disconnecting. For as long as it takes.