For peace of mind, focus on the small spaces in-between

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The simple things bring lasting pleasure

Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.
Liz Vassey

Pausing the monkey mind was once a major priority for me. The constant chatter was deafening and debilitating. A wise woman shared with me a strategy; focus on the silence between the Oms in meditation.  It worked.  Those tiny spaces, for a breath, between the rhythmic chanting allowed my mind to rest and I eventually turned down and tuned out the monkey mind.

Today I see a great need to soothe nervous tension and anxiety, whether caused by work related stress or the result of too many responsibilities and expectations.  A great many people are being pulled into the eddy of chronic psychological dis-ease. Without discounting the support of professionals there may be a way we can help ourselves to resurface and recreate a more joyful life, using a similar strategy as described above. Instead, the attention would be on the small moments of joy between the larger grey periods.  Leader in the field of positive-psychology Marty Seligman, found that by consciously focusing our attention on what we want more of in life we increase our chance of getting it.  So turn your attention away from what you don’t want and see the things you do.  This is tough when you feel overwhelmed, on edge, lacking energy or can’t leave the house. So start small.

A posy of home-grown flowers from a friend, watching birds and animals in the wild (substitute garden), the soft ache of used muscles at the end of a long walk. These things bring me joy. As do following the path of a balloon as it rises into the sky until it is no longer visible or spotting a brightly coloured bush flower in a sea of green undergrowth as well as taking a moment to appreciate the magic of a giant tree soaring overhead while feeling the texture of its bark.  Filling the house with warm and soothing aromas on a cold, wet afternoon while baking cookies and brewing chai tea, the sound of a child’s laughter,  a smile from a stranger. These are the pauses in between.

Peace can be ours. We can rebuild joyful lives and it need cost nothing. Harmony can be restored. These things can be ours if we appreciate the many small moments in life. The first step is to notice. Notice where you focus most of your attention and refocus it if necessary.

Good fences make good neighbours

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There, by the starlit fences the wanderer halts and hears my soul that lingers sighing about the glimmering weirs.       A.E Housman

I wasn’t keen on a new fence and I wasn’t on board with the design or the height. Though I lament I can’t fault the workmanship or the expediency with which it was built. I have no quarrel there. Now this fence has been constructed I recall thoughts I had in Berlin where I started thinking about the concept of walls and barriers; to segregate and mark territory, to keep some within and some out. I recall too when I stood on the Great Wall of China and traipsed along Hadrian’s Wall and had similar thoughts. I realise, these structures are walls and not to be confused with fences which are made of lighter weight materials and usually for different purposes.  Nevertheless, a fence is a barrier. Plain and simple.

I’ve mix feelings about this new wall of ours. I can’t help agreeing with Frost who, communicates in his poem Mending Wall that a fence is unnecessary and unfriendly.  Though others would no doubt side with his neighbour who believes “Good fences make good neighbours.”  I can’t see my neighbours anymore. I like them. I’d have been glad not to see the previous neighbours but alas no fence would have stopped their repugnant reverberations from drifting across the top in the wee hours.

“A good neighbour is a fellow who smiles at you over the back fence, but doesn’t climb over it.”  Oh, Baer, too true. Though if I can’t see them I can’t smile at them. Our old, decrepit fence was low enough for me to hurdle which was fortuitous on a number of occasions:  one night to check on the elderly lady adjacent to my property during an electrical blackout and on another, leaping the fence enabled me to help a neighbour after she fell in her garden.  There are times jumping fences is acceptable.

“To be fenced in is to be withheld.” – Kurt Tippett I hear you. I feel hemmed in. I liked the openness between yards, the view to the forest unimpeded by barriers or blockades. Now this timber wall confronts me each and everyday and I immediately feel enclosed.

Fences are not new. We humans have a long history of fence building and of erecting barriers for all manner and purposes. The moat was a type of fence.  I could just about live with a moat, I think, though I’d have to brush up on my long jumping skills.  As I become accustomed to the new boundary around my home I’ll leave you with some interesting fence trivia.

  • Hedge fencing and topiary fencing is one of the earliest forms of fencing ever recorded and were first used for enclosing cereal crops.
  • Military areas, zoos and industrial plants are required by law to have appropriate fencing.
  • In 1873, barbed wire fencing was invented at the De Kalb County Fair in Illinois.
  • Strangely, Marilyn Monroe was quoted as saying ‘A women’s dress should be like a barbed wire fence: serving it’s purpose without obstructing the view’. (The analogy is a harsh one in my mind.)
  • The ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ in Western Australia was more than 3000 kilometres long.
  • The ‘Dingo Fence’, also in Australia, is the longest fence on earth at 5,600 kilometres.
  • A fence hidden in a ditch is called a Ha-ha.
  • There is a tiny town called Fence in Aurora County in Wisconsin, USA.

My letter to you

My spelling wasn't great but I was only 10. Is that a reasonable excuse?

My spelling wasn’t great but I was only 10. Is that a reasonable excuse?

“In an age like ours, which is not given to letter-writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people’s lives.” – Anatole Broyard

Dear Reader,

I miss letter writing.  Actually, what I miss is receiving letters. The thrill of opening the letter box and finding a missive, addressed to me from a loved one, is now just a beautiful memory, a lost joy.  As a child and young adolescent I took great delight in this now old-fashioned communique.  My grandmother and I, separated by distance, closed the miles between us through our regular handwritten correspondence.  This was a time when our household did not have a telephone and weekend phone calls were made at the local phone box.  Our family of five crammed in the booth, each vying for their two minutes to hear our grandparents soothing and loving tones before the coins ran out.  This was a time before email and Skype and Snapchat.

Our letters did not contain acronyms, shortened or abbreviated phrases as is common with forms of messaging today. My handwriting, now decrepit through lack of use, was easy to read, the pen felt good in my hand as it glided across pretty stationery, of which I had a great stash.  Pretty stationery of matching letter paper and envelopes was always a gratefully received gift.

I’ve read a great many books and seem some film recently where letter writing was a significant means of communication, informing confidantes of discoveries, expeditions and life in general.  Our understating of the past has been gleaned from lengthy and detailed letters. In fact, the history of the letter weaves a beautiful passage through the ages.

The material on which and with which letters were written has progressed from the use of tree leaves and folded bark, to papyrus, cotton and paper. Writing implements from bone, reeds and quills to modern-day pen offer a fascinating study. For a long time letters were folded and sealed by wax, no lick and go glue strips on envelopes then.  In fact, no envelopes at all. The stamped letter in an envelope came into being much later, in the reign of Queen Victoria in 1840. Postal services too have seen many changes through the ages. Modern cities and advancements in courier services have improved the lag between writing and delivery of the letter.  No longer are letters passed on by footed couriers, chariot or coach.

In all of this fascinating history the single most intriguing point for me is where the first letter originated.  That, I guess we will never know, though by luck and good fortune we can trace the origin of the first recorded handwritten letter. It was crafted by a woman, a Queen from Persia no less.  This small fact teased the recesses of my mind; I had to research who Queen Atossa was, who wrote this letter around 500 BC.  What was she like? What prompted her to write? What was the content of her letter and to whom did she send it?

Letter writing might be old-fashioned now, though I notice researchers are encouraging the act of putting pen to paper and citing the benefits to both writer and receiver.   Letters communicate an emotional closeness that is often lost in email, texts and the like.  The thrill of receiving a letter is beyond words.  It lifts the spirits and lightens the mood. We have to concentrate, be deliberate and mindful when writing a letter.  No backspacing or deleting, no automatic spell check or thesaurus. We are forced to preserve or improve our long-lost art of handwriting. Letters are a lovely way to enclose little mementos, heightening the personal connection.

On several occasions I have written little messages and tucked them into my husband’s luggage when he travels away or in his lunchbox to discover and remind him of how much he is loved. A handwritten and posted message expressing thanks for a dinner invitation or thoughtful gesture is so much nicer than a text.  Letters leave a legacy.  My much-loved bundle of letters between my grandmother and I tell a story spanning years that may, at some point in the future, be of interest to our descendants adding some depth and form to the lives of otherwise intangible names on the family tree.

Here’s to bringing back the waning art of handwritten letters.

With kind regards,

Shannyn

 

Using tech to keep track of resolutions

“I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me. ”
― Anaïs Nin

“Good resolutions are like babies crying in church. They should be carried out immediately.”
― Charles M. Sheldon

Every year between 41 and 63% of us, depending on the country you are from, make resolutions, set goals and have shiny new aspirations for the year ahead. January is usually a month of promise. All our plans are firmly in our heart and mind, they are enacted with zeal. February sees us still buoyed by our visions, by March we are slipping away slightly from the goal. In April, May, June that little voice in our head tells us we really should get back on track and do that stuff we’d planned. Sadly, as the months roll on the resolution is a dim memory, discarded detritus. Most resolutions don’t see the year out.  80% are forgotten, sidestepped or bypassed in 3 months.  Does that mean it’s futile to set resolutions?  I don’t think so, though I think there are better ways to improve life.

I gave up on the resolution idea a long time ago.  It  didn’t work for me, I sucked at it and it added more pressure than was necessary to a life already complicated in other ways. I opted instead for making a bucket list to support a well lived life.  It was a long list of joyful activities, challenges and pursuits to colour and flavour the year ahead. No pressure, no strict deadlines, no do or die expectations. Some years later I started creating a photographic montage, a treasure map of sorts, a nice visual reminder of those bucket list items which I started to call my love list (giving it a more positive spin). The visual cue was  successful. I achieved way more on my love list than ever before. It was appealing, motivating and in view each day.  Some time in between I used post it notes and a big wall chart to plot my goals and progress.  The visual was good. Adding, updating and moving notes to the progressed section was appealing.  I experimented with boldly writing goals on the shower screen in non-permanent pen.  In bright colours my yearly goals were accompanied by affirmations and uplifting quotes.  There was no missing them. They were quite ‘in your face’.  I liked that too. Though I’m not sure I saw any progress.

This year, as I contemplated my visual treasure map, my son intervened.  He sent me an invitation to view his goal list for the year.  He was building accountability by sharing his goals and aspirations.  I was honoured that he would consider me a worthy ally in his quest.  The vehicle he chose to keep track of his goals is a tool called Trello.  He encouraged me to use it too. My first challenge for the year.

I have a fairly open mind when it comes to technology but I’m awkward with it.  I love pen and paper, I love building things and crafting things by hand.  So I wasn’t at first impressed by it.  It felt flat and bland and simply too hard for me to work out.  Until one Saturday morning with a cup of tea I decided to explore a little more.  I moved away from the way my son had used it and painted my own adventure.  I created something I liked. I added some images for appeal and was quite happy with my creation. Doubt lingered however. I wasn’t convinced it would be as immediate, arresting and useful as my good old A5 photographic treasure map. It required a different set of behaviours and habits on my part for it to work.  I can report, that two months later, with a little persistence and a change of attitude, I’m hooked.

I am pretty sure Trello was never designed for a middle-aged woman (despite how young at heart, vibrant and energetic she may be) to create her love list for the year.  It is, however, a brilliant project management tool that can aid the smallest personal project through to the very largest corporate projects.  It’s basically a great big empty wall you can fill with ‘post it’  notes to keep track of your stuff. You can add comments, create lists, add labels, cue due dates, send messages to other people in your project, label progress and that’s just in the free version. For a small fee there are loads more tools at user disposal.  Oh, gosh, that sounds like an advertisement, doesn’t it?  It’s not meant to be.  I simply wanted to share a new tool that is working for me that may work for you.

It’s an extremely flexible tool too.  Once you create your “post it notes” you can move them around and order them, you can insert new ones at will, discard them, batch or group them.   I am finding it a useful place to hold my ideas, I can share them, I can ask for input from my son who I share my board with.  My initial fears and concerns have been allayed.  I am referring to it regularly to keep track of my progress and add new adventures.  It’s fun and engaging.  I could use it to plan an overseas holiday.  I could also have used it to plan the multi million dollar project I am managing at work.  If you are looking for a way to motivate your goal setting or a neat project management tool, check out Trello.

If, like me, you are a novice with technology, keep Walt Disney’s sentiment in mind – don’t be afraid to keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things. Being curious leads us down new paths and who knows where that will lead?

 

Everything old is new again

A word was secretly brought to me, my ears caught a whisper of it.
Job 4:12

I faltered as I wandered through a vintage retro store. I didn’t trip, though I did stumble; on a message, a soft whispery message. A message that fluttered so delicately on the surface of my mind that I wasn’t sure I’d caught it. It intrigued me. I grappled to hold it, teetering between understanding and ignorance.

The message, a slogan almost, comprised just five little words: Everything Old is New Again.  Now that’s not so odd, given where I was. Vintage, retro and antique items are hugely popular again.  Inflated prices and crowds in store attest to that. But this message wasn’t about the items I was browsing. It was a message to reflect upon, one to shine a light on life and to learn from.

My short inner struggle lead me to realise that at this time of year in particular, when people are looking to make change and improvements, that we should look within rather than outward.  This was a prompt to look back and remember the strategies, the habits, the tools, the rituals and routines that helped us reach our goals in the past and to reinstate those that can help us achieve the curent changes we long to make?

From observation, and acknowledging my own behaviour, we too often seek the answers elsewhere when in fact, we so very often hold the key to unlocking the casket of treasures we are seeking. What routines did you have in place in the past that supported a better work life balance?  What habits did you formerly employ to stay fit? What rituals have you previously used to address overwhelm? How did you deal with difficult people successfully before? We let go of successful strategies for all sorts of reasons; they were no longer necessary, we tried a different way, we got neglectful.  It’s okay. Life happens.

If you find yourself looking for a quick fix, an off the shelf no fail plan or someone to help ‘fix’ things, take a moment to reflect. You might find you have a wealth of knowledge and actions you can revive to make your current goal a success.  Everything old could be new again — only the best bits of course.

Harnessing the power of your emotions

… let’s harness the power of emotion to get things done, to lead fulfilling lives of integrity and adventure.  ― Shannyn Steel

“Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.”

― Helen Keller

I have completed a number of small projects around the house already this year and I feel a great sense of achievement. To actually get in and tick them off my ‘want to do’ list has made me feel, well, good.  I thought the emotion might be pride. I don’t  like the connotations connected to pride. On closer inspection I realise it’s joy I feel.  If the power of joy can help get things done and keep me motivated, I’m choosing joy as my motivator this year.

There is some research behind engaging with your emotions to create change in your life. Dr Tara Brach says we can use the eight main emotions to help us reach our goals.  As rational beings we require the power of emotional engagement to propel us and keep us motivated. For instance, someone might think the local creek needs to be cleaned up (rational thinking) but it may not be until their disgust (emotion) becomes the powerful motivator that they join the ‘clean up Australia day’, or similar, activity to restore it. Another’s anger may be the spark that leads them to campaign for equality. Love is powerful emotion that drives people to do incredible things for others.  Instead of shying away from or hiding our emotions, let’s harness the power of emotion to get things done, to lead fulfilling lives of integrity and adventure.

How might you engage with fear, anger, disgust, shame, sadness, love, joy and surprise to move you to take positive and purposeful action this year?

 

 

Create your own reading festival

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Reading has been a huge part of my life, since, well, almost forever.  I loved being read to as a child and once I could read I enjoyed learning new things that came from understanding print.  Exploring different literary periods at university enhanced my insatiable need to consume the printed word.  A few years back I set myself a goal of reading fifty books in the year. I ended up reading many more than that.  It was a great experiment and afforded me the opportunity to explore different genres and forms of writing. Since then I have been reading anything that takes my fancy: I’ve read whole series, one-off books of interest, recommendations from friends, plays, novels, non-fiction etc.  At times I’ve struggled to select books and found myself hankering for a little guidance in my selections.

Now that the new year has begun and many of us are pondering the terrain ahead and how we can make it joyful, I’ve been inspired to consider focusing my reading choices and reading with purpose.

My son was the first point of inspiration.  He discovered a book reading challenge where you read a book every two weeks from a different category.  Categories include a book:

  • you read in school
  • from your childhood
  • published over 100 years ago
  • set in your hometown/region
  • with someone’s name in the title
  • with a number in the title
  • with a character with your first name
  • you can finish in a day
  • previously banned
  • with a one-word title
  • translated from another language
  • that’s a memoir or journal
  • set somewhere you’ll be visiting this year.

Sounds like fun. Check out this link for more ideas.

Then I read my friend Nicole Cody’s blog and she had an interesting take on a reading challenge and it sits very nicely with the idea of paying it forward and donating to charity.  Her idea is to read a book a month, put aside a small amount of money for each book read and then at then end of the year buy a book and donate it to charity for Christmas.  How neat is that?

Tim Ferriss, in his 5 bullet Friday, always has some interesting book recommendations – things I would not select myself.  He is a great source for reading inspiration, as is Pinterest, the weekend newspaper and Avid Reader bookshop.

Having been motivated by the two reading challenge ideas and having good sources for recommendations (although I do have enough unread books on my shelves and in my kindle that I probably don’t need to purchase a book this year) I am going to combine the two ideas and read at least a book a month from a different category, putting aside a few dollars for each book I read to purchase one for  someone in hospital, a nursing home or shelter at the end of the year.

Where will your reading take you this year?

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You’ll never be disappointed if you always keep an eye on uncharted territory, where you’ll be challenged and growing and having fun.     Kirstie Alley

I celebrated a birthday this week and decided to treat myself. No it wasn’t a BIG birthday, though each birthday is a big bonus. I usually go pretty low-key on my birthday, let it slip by without causing a blip but this year I made plans. I booked in for a skydive.

There’s a small caveat I should add – it was indoor skydiving. I’m not known for being outrageously spontaneous or reckless so I figure you can’t go from zero to 100 right off the bat.

The experience was immensely entertaining and massively good fun. Ten other flyers aged from 4 through to late 60’s arrived for a morning of high-speed adventure.  After a short training session we suited up in overalls, goggles, earplugs and a helmet. I’m not sure how the instructor expected us to hear him once earplugs and helmet were firmly in place but we did manage through sign language.

We took seats in the viewing area around the twelve-foot vertical wind tunnel into which we would soon venture.  It’s always amusing watching people try to manouver into the first position when faced with a queue.  Strangely, there was no jockeying or positioning this day.  Perhaps, like me, no one really wanted to be first, despite the excitement.  This is one of those rare occasions where I knew it would be beneficial to watch someone do it before I had my attempt.  Having successfully secured the third position I took mental notes, between cheering and clapping, laughing and grinning like a Cheshire cat, and was sure I could overcome the body alignment issues my fellow flyers had encountered.

It’s fascinating how difficult it is to maintain control over your limbs when you’ve literally been swept off your feet and buoyed by a surge of air.  A surge of air that is causing your nostrils to flare alarmingly, like that of a skittish steed. Once I’d reassured myself I could breath, despite my initial alarm, I was heady and slightly disoriented and I couldn’t stop laughing. That was until I realised I had little control over my saliva and that it was now dampening my face (I had wondered why the instructor wore a helmet with a full face cover.) Trying to laugh with a closed mouth, breathe, ensure my legs and arms were positioned well and smile for the camera was an awful lot to pay attention to all at once.  My certificate states I can fly with minimal assistance, move up and down in the air flow, turn 360 degrees as well as hold a still, controlled body position.  I have a way to go to fly to a given point and move forward or backward apparently.  I had no idea I could do so much in so short a time frame – it really wasn’t a conscious effort.  I’m almost sure it was all luck.

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Indoor skydiving was a most unusual and exciting experience. It’s quite unlike anything else, expect, I imagine, jumping out of a plane. As a result of this and another recent exhilarating escapade in an escape room I am on the hunt for fun and exciting experiences to add to my love list (more commonly known as a bucket list). Any ideas?

Inside a mystery box

Image sourced from Lacy Lane

Image sourced from Lacy Lane

Even though you’re growing up, you should never stop having fun.  – Nina Dobrev

You can be childlike without being childish. A child always wants to have fun. Ask yourself, ‘Am I having fun?’ – Christopher Meloni

Life is more fun if you play games.  – Roald Dahl

As a child I was fascinated by mystery boxes.  Being presented with a number of unobtrusive boxes and being tasked with choosing one to reveal either a welcome bounty or a dud souvenir was excruciatingly enticing . I delighted in the weighing up of possibilities and the anticipation –  would there be ultimate enjoyment or a momentary disappointment from having made the wrong decision?  Recently the tables were turned slightly. I was not choosing a box for a reward but rather I was put inside a mystery box and the ultimate reward came from escape.

My analogy is weak, I agree, so let me tell you a little about one of the most exhilarating  fun experience I have had in a very long time.

It all began with a shake down.  Phones and other electronic devices were confiscated and locked away.  A hood was placed over my head. I don’t go in much for blindfolds and I certainly don’t like hessian bags over my head but in the spirit of adventure and fun I played along.  We were led to our chamber and once our captor departed and locked us within we removed our bags to find we were in the dark bowels of the Butcher’s Burrow.  We had 50 minutes to escape our fate and I had no idea how to begin. There were limited tools at our disposal and those that seemed to exist were sealed away with combination locks. Time was of the essence and the two of us had to work together to escape.  Our first objective was to find light.

I would love to describe in detail the steps we took to escape and the challenges we faced but that would spoil the fun should you attempt this yourself. The Exitus escape rooms are an exciting addition to the adult fun arena.  The room we visited is part of the entertainment at Strike Bowling in the city of Brisbane but they are popping up almost everywhere.  Each room has a theme where minimal clues are given and teams must use their wits and combined brain power to solve the puzzles confronting them. The goal is to escape before the nominated time is up.  You can ask for clues – using the iPad that is supplied or the mobile phone that links directly to the administrator.  Beware – there are time penalties for clues.

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Before entering, I was a little apprehensive.  The thought of being locked in an unfamiliar room for close to an hour, sent my heart a flutter.  What if I felt claustrophobic and too confined, what if I  needed to get out?  Those thoughts soon passed and then a sheen of sweat broke out as I wondered if I would know what to do. Would I be able to solve the puzzles?  What if I needed maths? I need not have worried.  Precautions are in place in case of panic – the mobile phone allows for an instant exit should you need it and the puzzles, well, while they initially  seemed unsolvable, once an instinctual need to ‘escape’ kicked in the fuzziness of my mind was miraculously unlocked and I forged ahead.  Good news too – no maths needed.

My adult son and I worked exceptionally well as a team.  He had been in an escape room before and had some sense of what was required so with a little guidance we set about our task with the pressure and weight of a ticking clock as a constant motivator. We each had our moments of clarity and success and often times it was our combined collaboration that saw the different clues uncovered and puzzles solved.  Teams of up to six can enter the rooms.  I would have found that a little difficult; coping with too many personalities and noise may have rendered me incapable of clear throughout but it may also add to the fun for many.

We escaped, triumphant.  In our last three minutes, holding our final clue we were stumped.  We tossed around ideas, tried various options but relented and asked for a clue.  We weighed the alternative – time penalty or eviction without resolution.  We chose to finish the puzzle.  Surprisingly we were on the right path and probably would have gotten to the end point unaided but that ticking clock forced our hand.

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If you want to experience the difference between fun and enjoyment but don’t want to jump out of planes, travel too far from home or spend a fortune; try escape rooms – they are loads of fun and worth every cent. The warm after glow will provide you with plenty of lasting enjoyment once the thrill of the moment has passed.

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