Saturday, July 19, 2014

Poem: Summer Storm

Thunder through the early hours;
an artillery alarm clock.
The sky releasing tension after a searing summer's day.

Rain battering buildings,
washing the Black Country clean.
Soaking our sunburnt soils,
and feeding plants and streams.

I really love the rain. 
Lightning storms bring a smile to my face
and a twinkle to my eye.

They quieten down the world outside
but stir me up inside. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

What's your story?

Reading the news this week a story caught my eye about the practice of solitary confinement in prison. There is a debate around this technique as a form of punishment, and in simplistic terms you could argue that the reason it's seen by some as damaging is that we are hard wired for relationship.

We all need other people in order to survive. As babies we are completely dependent on others to meet our needs. We become more independent as we mature, but then as we enter old age we may find ourselves increasingly reliant on others again. 

That's not to say that we all need people in the same way. Extroverts may gain energy from being in a large group, whilst for introverts large group situations could be a cause of stress!  And it's likely that we're a blend of both character types anyway - for me there are times when I enjoy the big crowd, the stage, the limelight, and other times when I need to escape into myself and recharge. Susan Cain's inspiring TED talk on the power of introverts is well worth a watch on this subject, whether you're introverted or not. She makes an excellent point that we may over value extroverted behaviour in our schools and workplaces, and she goes into more detail in her book Quiet which a friend was recommending to me last night at the pub.

I love the proverb that 'it takes a village to raise a child', particularly for the implicit notion it brings of relationship with a wide variety of people and across the generations. In Ken Robinson's book 'The Element', he tells a story of a primary school in America that moved some of it's pre-school classes into a nursing home over the road. The rooms where the classes were held had glass walls, the doors were open so the residents could hear the babble of the children's lessons, and the residents had to walk past it to get to the canteen. Soon many of the residents started to help read with the pre-schoolers, not only improving the pre-schoolers' literacy well above the state average, but as an added bonus the residents also began to need less medication. Relationship with others, and especially across the generations, is good for our health! I still find this story very moving, especially when I hear the statistics in the UK about loneliness amongst older people, some of whom can get so isolated that they may go for long periods without meaningful human contact. Sadly solitary confinement doesn't seem to be limited to prisons in our society.

As a family, a huge benefit for us has been moving closer to family in the last few years. A highlight and regular fixture in our week is tea together on Saturday afternoons. Round the table the age ranges from 2 to 93, and it's priceless for my children to spend time with their grandparents and great grandparents (I enjoy it very much too, in case that reads like the only reason we do it is for the kids!).

For many years of human history, history itself was passed on by oral tradition, and in my opinion our family stories are still really important to pass on. We need to know where we fit in the bigger story, and family history helps with that. Living memory connects us with the past in a way that textbooks and documentaries can't. This becomes especially poingnent around major world events, where our family stories can make what can seem to be distant events much more personal. My parents have done a great job of recording and researching the family stories, going back generations, and I love the mix of quirkiness and ordinariness in our family tree. 

The subject my fellow bloggers and I were set this week is a quote from a film: 'We need relationships because we need a witness to our lives'. For me, knowing and passing on our stories is the 'witness to our lives' that's such a key reason we need relationship.

We need to hear each other's stories, and we need to pass our stories on. And it's only once you know someone's story that you can really get to know and appreciate them. It's good to share stories over the dinner table, or round a campfire, or over a beer.  For extroverts, it's equally important (maybe more important!) to take the time to listen to other people's stories rather than just telling their own (I'm talking to myself here). Likewise it's really important for introverts to open up and tell their stories too - often it's the introverts who might have the most profound thing to say anyway (a point Susan Cain makes!).

So now that Summer's arrived and school's out, maybe it's a good opportunity to catch up with family and friends, share a meal and take some time out to listen to each other's stories again. Happy holidays everyone.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Keep calm and..?

Over the last few years the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' wartime motto has exploded into a plague of 'Keep Calm' merchandise covering every possible theme you can think of.. And then some! The weirdest one I've seen is 'Keep Calm and love Guinea Pigs' which is, quite frankly, bizarre. My favourite variant is 'Get Excited and Make Things', which emblazons a mug my sister gave my dad the other Christmas. 

We may not be under wartime conditions, but staying calm under pressure can be hard can't it? Stress can be hard to deal with, whatever form it manifests itself in our lives. So what makes us stressed and how can we deal with it? 

I'm a fan of the series Black Books, and in the first episode Manny (an extremely stressed accountant) accidentally swallows The Little Book of a Calm, resulting in a miraculous personality change to become an extremely calm and laid back person. Sadly swallowing books isn't likely to make us less stressed, although maybe more of us could do with following the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's advice: 'Don't Panic'.

For many of us, our workplace can be the main place we experience stress, maybe due to the amount of time we spend doing our jobs. Since my team and I provide a consultancy service to both internal and external clients, most of our stress relates to this. All our clients want a gold-plated service, as cheaply as possible, and immediately! It's the classic cost-time-quality triangle, and realistically two out of three ain't bad - although managing client expectations can be stressful all round and inevitably people feel disappointed at some stage no matter how hard you try.

Balancing the daily demands of our many clients can be really stressful at times. Working in the construction industry things can occur which require an immediate response, so one of the ways we deal with this particular stress is to Keep Calm and Prioritise. A tool we often use is what's known as the Eisenhower method - a diagrammatic way to prioritise tasks into urgent or not urgent, important or not important (although in our team we have a variant which is just more/less important, on the basis that everything is urgent!!).

The 'nowness' of 21st century mass communication means that many of us are now held hostageto our  email inboxes, and it's easy to get diverted from our tasks by the next email that arrives, and then the next etc. So after we've prioritised, the way to deal with the stress of our overflowing inboxes is to Keep Calm and Focus on the Task in Hand. 

Another angle on the cult of 'now' is that we can get so caught up in the daily demands of our lives that there's no time for the future. So perhaps an antidote to the stress of daily business is to Keep Calm and Take Time to Think. It's good to take time out from time to time and give ourselves time to dream, plan and make adjustments to our course. 

Finally, when we've prioritised, focused on the task in hand and taken time to think.. Keep Calm and Be Brave. It can take courage to act in a big way, likewise it can take bravery to face the same battleground each day when we have to stick at situations we need to see through. As Churchill famously said: 'When you're going through hell, keep going'. 

I know that many of us may be facing stresses in our lives that we can't immediately escape from. Many of you may be going through hell, and I don't want to spout trite cliches that will magically make things better. But maybe there are day to day stresses that my musings may help with, and I offer them in this spirit.  

As a closing thought about dealing with stress, a quote from Paul's letter to the Phillipians I read this week, which speaks for itself:
'Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.' (Phil 4:6-7 NIV)

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Sabbath Saturday

Sleepy Saturday morning.
Rain calming restless streets.
Clouds shrouding the hills outside my windows.
Coffee brewing, puppy chewing,
collared doves cooing outside.
Memories of mountains in my head, 
and dreams of things that may come.
A day to rest with family.
A Sabbath Saturday.

Friday, July 04, 2014

What inspires you?

'Some years ago, a good friend and former housemate of mine gave me a copy of Bear Grylls's book 'Facing Up'. He wrote me a nice note on an inside page, and it was only later that we both discovered that it was a copy signed by Bear himself! The book is the story of Bear's ascent of Mount Everest, and it's an inspiring read if you like that kind of book (as I do). One thing I particularly remember is that after a parachute accident which left him bed bound with a broken back, it was the poster of Everest on his bedroom wall which provided daily inspiration for him not only to recover but to start his journey to the highest point on the planet. I like this detail because as a teenager I had a poster of K2 (the second highest mountain in the world) on the wall at the end of my bed. As it happens, my poster didn't inspire me to climb the actual mountain, but it was a nice picture, and my parents no doubt preferred it to the Robocop poster I had for a while, or the Alien poster I put on my door which mysteriously disappeared rather quickly.

This week my blog buddies and I have been collectively wondering what inspires us. Inspiration can be a funny old thing - the root of the word is linked to breathing, and therefore life. So perhaps another way of approaching the question is to ask yourself what gives you life? 

When I took up swimming more seriously in my mid-twenties, having been inspired to take up triathlon after spending time with some triathlete friends during the Three Peaks Challenge, I very quickly learnt what it was to become very out of breath. Recently I was reminded of this when competing in a team triathlon. Neither of my team mates particularly wanted to do the swim, so I gallantly took the plunge (excuse the pun), despite not having swum properly for about three years. All was going well until about halfway in, when I realised with some alarm that I'd gone off far too fast and wasn't able to suck enough air into my lungs in the short side-breaths every other stroke and was on the verge of hyperventilating! Typically this was mid-length, and I had to pull up rather self consciously, gulp some air down and wait for my heart rate to slow before resuming at a less ambitious race pace (I may have pretended I'd just swallowed some water).

Breathing's really important, but if I recall correctly from Biology at school, most of the time we only use a smallish proportion of the air in our lungs, only deep breathing occasionally or during exercise. The air we breathe matters too, as well as the degree to which we really breathe it in (but the way, I bet many of you have just taken a deep breath - I have as I've been writing this!). Athletes know the benefits of training at altitude, where the pressure of the oxygen is lower, causing the body to overproduce red blood cells, the body's system for transporting oxygen around the body. When back at lower altitudes the athletes get the benefit of having more red blood cells to transport oxygen around, giving them the ability to perform harder for longer. In a similar way, if you're at hospital you may be put on oxygen to help your body to recover from some trauma and heal faster. 

Perhaps in a similar fashion, finding things that inspire our souls is akin to deep breathing, or training at altitude, or enjoying the benefits of an oxygen mask. It helps us be more healthy, more energised, to perform better, and maybe to heal us as well - emotionally and spiritually.

There are lots of things that I take inspiration from, and I feel that in the last few years I've been more consciously seeking inspiration in different places. I'm a voracious reader, I love learning new things and I love facts and ideas, so books on interesting topics inspire me, as do stories of people who've done amazing things, or travelled to interesting places. We have a section of these adventure type books on our bookshelves in our lounge, including people who've cycled home from Siberia, run around the world, run ultramathathons, climbed mountains, taken up fell running, or run marathons with cancer (we like books about running clearly!). One thing I really appreciate about these stories is that they're real people and therefore the achievements are somehow more in reach for mere mortals like me. I often take inspiration from Rosie Swale-Pope's world run when I'm plodding up the steep hill home from the station with a heavy rucksack in bad weather - if she can run around the world I can jolly well make it home! 

I find music very inspiring. I feel it very deeply, as I've written about before, and perhaps the most lingering musical inspiration I've had has been the TV programme the Transatlantic Sessions, which features top folk and country artists from the British Isles and North America. As a gawky fifteen year old, six months into playing guitar, stumbling across this music show on BBC2 one evening was dynamite, and the aftershocks remain with me still. Happily the show has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last few years, and I even saw them on tour here in Birmingham a few years ago. To date I've been inspired by these phenomenal musicians in my songwriting, my singing, my guitar playing, mandolin, banjo and accordion as a consequence of the inspiration I received as a teenager from the show. As an aside, the other week I had the delight of playing in the most Transatlantic Sessions-esque band at my church, which was a dream come true! People commented that 'even the banjo' sounded good, so it can't have been all bad! 

There are certain people who are inspiring to be around, and one of my hopes is that I become an inspiring person for others to be around - my family, colleagues and friends. A bit like in a nuclear reactor, when we bounce ideas and dreams off inspiring people this leads to a release of energy, so it's good to find those people in your life who give you the energy and encouragement you need to dream big and step out. 

I can't write about inspiration without mentioning how grateful I am to my parents for inspiring me to be the person I am today, and providing an excellent example for my siblings and I to follow. And without meaning to be super spiritual, my relationship with God is the deepest and most foundational inspiration I have to become the best expression of who I'm made to be. It's God's Holy Spirit that breathes life in to me on a daily basis - whether in the good times, the mundane times or the tough. For me, everything else flows from this source, and all the other things that inspire me are subject to the immense gravitational pull of God.

"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely and admirable. Think about these things that are excellent and worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8, NLT)

So what inspires you? Are you getting enough inspiration? Do you need to spend more time with people that draw the best out of you? What are you listening to and reading - is this building you up or dragging you down? Maybe, like that poster of Everest, you need a daily reminder of a big dream - perhaps a post it note on the fridge, or a quote on your mirror. Whatever it is, whatever builds you up, maybe this week you could carve out some time to breathe in some inspiration - you may feel more alive as a result.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The problem of difference

Difference can be a thorny subject can't it? Often differences of opinion can lead to disagreement and conflict, from a personal level to an international level. We are often completely "right" in our own mind, and can be surprised when not everyone sees the situation or issue in the same way as us!

Difference doesn't necessarily mean wrong, as life is generally more grey than black and white, which means that while we're in this world we need to learn to live in the tension of difference with those around us (and in ourselves). How we handle difference is really important, and we can either handle it in a negative or a positive way.

On the negative side, difference can become a reason to exclude, to isolate, to ridicule. I'm sure many of us growing up experienced this either directly or indirectly - maybe we knew (or we were) the different kid, the black sheep, the one who saw the world differently to their peers.

Comparison can be really tough to deal with, whether it's put on us by others, or whether internally we (negatively) compare ourselves to others. The thing is, we're all unique people with unique combinations of skills. As Einstein may or may not have put it "Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live it's whole life believing that it's stupid."

It can be hard to handle difference. A friend of mine has dyslexia, but when he was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s it wasn't something that was well understood in mainstream education. When sitting an exam, he'd been given instructions to write at the top of his exam paper that he was dyslexic (at least a hint that this would be taken sympathetically into account by the examiners). The problem is that the word dyslexia is hard to spell even if you don't suffer from it. He ended up writing 'I am bloody stupid' at the top of his paper. An example of a school not handling difference well - this was probably what he felt he'd been told he was (when in fact he is very bright and entrepreneurial).

So how do we nurture difference? How do we handle it in a positive way? I heard an unverified story in the news recently that in North Korea a diktat went out that all men needed to copy their leader's haircut. We don't have this requirement here in the UK, but as the educationalist Ken Robinson says, our society does seem to value conformity over diversity.

There's a theory that the phobia of spiders and snakes is something inherent from back in the depths of history - fear of difference being a prehistoric defence mechanism. The idea goes that we are naturally predicated to be wary of creatures that are so different to us - giant hairy spiders and poisonous snakes being very different in form to four limbed mammals like ourselves (the theory also suggests this is why we bond so well with cats and dogs, as they're more similar to us). I don't know how well accepted this theory is in scientific circles, but it does illustrate the point that we can find it hard to relate to those different to us, and even to fear difference.

It's so easy to surround ourselves with people who are like us. At university I remember that folk tended to naturally gravitate towards their own "tribe", but there's a richness in diversity that we can miss out on if we only spend time with those who think and behave like us. As a start, recognising that we all think and learn in different ways can begin to help us relate to individuals who are very different to us.

Instead of being afraid of difference, or of being different, perhaps we should embrace it. I was in a meeting recently discussing how to capture good ideas in our company. Many of these are 'slow hunches', incremental improvements to processes or approaches to the everyday things. The interesting question was raised: How do we capture the radical ideas, the crazy plans which don't fit the company strategy or business plan but are still worth exploring? I'm not sure there's an easy answer to this, but I have learnt in my line of work that there is rarely one right answer, and there many different ways of approaching a problem. Two heads are definitely better than one, and I actively seek out the ideas of my team and my peers around the company to the problems we are tasked with solving. It's really helpful to compare notes with other people who might "see" the issue in a completely different way.

'They laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at them because they're all the same'. The other side of the difference coin is about "saminess", bland conformity. It can be easy to tone down our uniqueness in an attempt to fit in, but on the basis that we've each been given a unique remit by a loving God, our mission in life is to make the most of our specific gifts and celebrate these instead of downplaying them. It's not just businesses who need to have a "Unique Selling Point" - every one of us has a specific role to play. I've been inspired recently by John Henry Newman's writings on this subject.

 'I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name. God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.'

So this week, let's not worry about our differences, let's stop comparing ourselves to others, start embracing our uniqueness and enjoy living in the rich 'greyness' of the world around us. 

Stay different folks. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Desert island discs?

Every now and then I find myself wondering how I would deal with particular situations or circumstances that I could potentially encounter. For instance, after watching a gritty war film, I sometimes wonder whether I'd be full of bravery or full of fear if I had been on the front line, or maybe some mixture of the two. Fortunately I've not had to find out how I'd cope with that particular horror. Sometimes I wonder how much I would or wouldn't cope with torture (a cheery thought and another thing I'm grateful not to have experienced!).

Perhaps there are times when we dream of a solitary life on a remote desert island, particularly when we wish we could escape from the drudgery or misery of ordinary life! Beautiful sandy beaches; palm trees; wall to wall sunshine; coconuts; no deadlines, managers or to-do lists - it can certainly feel like an attractive proposition, but maybe only if we have some degree of comfort as well - wifi for instance! 

Is what's behind this occasional (or regular?) dream the feeling that we need to escape from whatever it is we find ourselves facing in the day to day?

Last year I read Daniel Defoe's classic book Robinson Crusoe. I thought I was re-reading it, having read it as a child, but I quickly realised how unfamiliar I was with everything apart from the bare bones of the story. I won't regurgitate the whole plot here, suffice to say that life for Robinson Crusoe on his desert island was quite hard, he had to take real care not to get ill or break any bones (potentially fatal with no treatment), and that both loneliness and fear lived with him in generous doses. In the story he is on the island for many many years, having been marooned in his early 30s (my age), which has led me to question whether I'd have been as resourceful and hardy as he had if I found myself marooned on a desert island like him!

On this theme, I've just been reading an excellent book by Lewis Dartnell called 'The Knowledge', which is both an exploration and explanation of the likely skills and knowledge we'd need to recover civilisation following some kind of worldwide catastrophe. In the book, as well as reconnecting ourselves with agriculture and livestock (something Robinson Crusoe did well), there's chapters about the chemistry we'd need to create the materials we'd need to serve various useful purposes. There's information on the recovery of metallurgy, the principles of electricity and important theories to be aware of to shortcut our society back to somewhere approaching our level of scientific knowledge and technology. As someone who's both futuristic and strategic in outlook and temperament, as well as someone who loves information and learning this is the kind of book that ticks many boxes for me! Heaven forbid a cataclysm of that magnitude ever does occur, however the moral of 'The Knowledge', and perhaps even Robinson Crusoe is that it's important to remember where you've come from, and to keep connected to the bare basics of how to exist and survive - to understand the natural systems, processes and laws which underpin our planet.

The topic of what skills we'd need to survive on a desert island, or post-apocalyptic Hunger Games style future are a surprisingly regular topic of conversation in my family - so much so that my sister spotted a review of The Knowledge and immediately nominated me as the designated person for reading it and disseminating the relevant information amongst the family! 

Across the world many people take this kind of thing very seriously, being collectively known as 'preppers'. These are probably good people to befriend, as they've already accumulated reserves of various essentials, and have probably fortified their house ready for martial law in the event of a breakdown of civilisation! As for me, my response is slightly less extreme: I content myself with growing food on our allotment, brewing various things, rudimentary woodwork and DIY around the place. Hopefully these skills would stand me in good stead if I ever did find myself on a desert island - along with my scavenging skills finding flotsam washed up on the beach and appropriating it into some useful function (taking inspiration from Kevin McCloud's excellent series 'Man Made Home').

If you're familiar with the TV series Lost then there's a good example of this (Spoiler alert) as we discover that the survivors from the front of the plane have had the benefits of all the recovered luggage and wreckage of the plane, and manage to function reasonably well as a community, whilst those from the rear of the plane have no such resources and regress to a wilder and more aggressive existence.

None of this can take away from us the desire at times to escape from our ordinary lives to the romance of a desert island. I'm sure that in many ways it's healthy to have the occasional pipe dream of escape to the Caribbean (sun lounger, cocktail and wifi included of course). However, if we find ourselves thinking more often than not about escaping, then perhaps this is a warning that our life has become too congested, out of balance in some way - maybe we need to take stock of our priorities, time and direction, and create more room for rest in our increasingly fast paced lives.

One thing that being marooned on a desert island would force you to do is to adjust your pace of living. No more convenience food, no shops - decisions about what you really need and the time required to achieve that take on a different meaning. Living on a desert island would also give you plenty of time to think - something that feels harder to do these days in our 24-7 sensory overload culture.

No matter how good our life is, our relationships, our work, our play, we will all experience dissatisfaction at times, and the call of the desert island will ebb and flow. As someone who believes that we're uniquely created by a loving God, the place to truly escape to isn't a desert island but actually to escape from our own flawed and incomplete plans for our lives and into the fulfilling and life-giving plans that God has for us. This can feel easier said than done! Some years ago I listened to an interesting seminar on this topic by one of the Brothers from the Taize community in France. It was along the lines of 'how do I know what God's plans are for me?', and the pragmatic starting point was to at least start with what you think you'd like to really do, and let God take it from there.

The trouble is that we often aren't sure even what we want, or what we're good at! Perhaps we need to spend a little less time dreaming about desert islands, and instead start to dream about where we'd really like our lives to end up, then cede that to God whilst making appropriate, meaningful and measurable steps towards it. Perhaps a helpful tool to frame this is from the technique of appreciative enquiry: Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny.. Essentially starting with a frank look at where you are, good and bad, then dreaming where you'd like to be, then designing a plan or imagining some steps to take you from where you are now in the direction you'd like to go, then keeping going!

If you're stuck with career choices, a classic book to read that might help is 'What Colour is your Parachute', which has loads of helpful questions and tools to help you consider or reconsider your career choice. Why not give over an afternoon or an evening to take a step back and touch base with your priorities again? Maybe you could plan a day's retreat somewhere - it's healthy to give ourselves thinking space from time to time, especially in an age when it can be hard to switch off.

Whenever I think of escaping to a desert island, I usually end up thinking of the people and things I'd miss - my wife and kids for instance, which makes me grateful again for the good things and relationships around me. So this week, as and when you start plotting your escape to the Bahamas, smile and be grateful for the people and relationships you really value, and if you're really feeling the need to escape, then maybe take your dreaming one step further and start to plot your route into the fulfilling and life-giving plans God has for you.