Friday, October 17, 2014

Into the Wild..

In this post I'm asking whether our lives are too tame, are there things in our own worlds that we can "re-wild" or processes we need to stop restricting to help us live a richer and more diverse existence.

The Call of the Wild


The call of the wild..
One of my favourite literary genres is the travel book. Our bookshelves are full of them, and having filled our bookshelves up years ago I now get my fix of travel books from the library instead.

I particularly like adventure-travel books, where people run around the world, row the Atlantic, cycle home from Siberia etc. Suffice to say I am also a big fan of these kinds of documentaries, like the Long Way Round.

As I've been reading Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" this week on the train, it's set me thinking about wanderlust. And as I've travelled from home to work, from the office to other offices for meetings, I've been wondering if I like reading these kinds of books because they take me out of the "tameness" of ordinary existence.

When you're in the midst of the ordinary, there's something exciting about untamed, unrestrained wildness. Jack London was right - I think there really is a "Call of the Wild" - and is our appetite for travel books, nature documentaries and the like a reaction to the restraints we experience in our 21st century urban western lives?

"..in the midst of the ordinary, there's something exciting about untamed, unrestrained wildness.."

Re-wilding

It's hard to find true wilderness these days
There are few "true" wildernesses around these days. Certainly in the UK it's hard to experience remoteness. This was something Robert MacFarlane explored in his excellent book The Wild Places, and from my own reading of it, I recall he came away with a slightly altered perspective on wildness, appreciating more the pockets of wild he could find much closer to home.

More recently George Monbiot has been exploring the whole "rewilding" movement - allowing natural processes to resume in parts of the country that have, for instance, been excessively grazed. I'd really recommend his book Feral which is a well researched and well reasoned book about not just the more "official" rewilding efforts around the world, but also George's own personal efforts to rewild his own life.

One of the many things that struck me from his book was that a signature feature of wildness is diversity - the need that ecosystems have for keystone species and trophic cascades. Rather than me feebly trying to explain what this means why not instead watch this beautiful and hopeful 5 minute film about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the (positive) impact that cascaded down the entire ecosystem as a result.

I'm challenged by the need to think bigger about some of our conservation priorities.

Monoculture vs Diversity

We're blessed that the road we live on is adjacent to farmland. Whilst doing the washing up I can look out of our kitchen window and observe the crops growing in the field, see the tractor diligently ploughing or sowing or spraying. I see murders (collective noun!) of charcoal grey crows picking out grubs from the freshly churned soil after the plough, or just occupying the fields in their brooding, cawing way. The fields raise a single crop per year, expanses of monoculture - tamed and restrained by the hard work of the farmer.
"..a signature feature of wildness is diversity.."
But, I'm pleased to say, in the spaces between the fields are thriving and diverse hedgerows. Rich in blackberries, birds, sloes, nettles, elderberries, even raspberries if you know where to look! A small copse has fought it's way to life between field boundaries, and is abounding in young oaks. These days I often walk the margins of the fields with our Guide Dog puppy, and I appreciate the wild edges right on our doorstep. There is fruit to be found in wild places.

Too much monoculture in our lives?
Developing this metaphor, perhaps there are parts of our own lives that are overly cultivated, unnecessarily tame. Perhaps we need a monoculture in parts of our life, a regular cash crop to pay the bills. But equally, maybe there are parts of our lives which we need to un-tame.. to re-wild.. our dreams and passions, our time, our resources, our energy.

One key point about the rewilding movement in our land and seas is that it’s about processes not outcome. It's not about creating particular ecosystems but allowing ecosystems to develop in the ways they need to. I like this aspect, it's a different slant on the conservation movement. In our lives, perhaps there are spaces in-between our regular structures where we can introduce some diversity, allow things to be a bit messy but potentially richer - less tame.. more wild.

A point I've raised before that life is more about journeys then destinations - process is often more important than outcome.

A step into the wild

Maybe this week it's time to set some processes to work again in your own ecosystem. I don't know what the metaphorical equivalent of releasing wolves is! (If you can think of a good example, let me know in the comments below). Either way, I want to challenge you this week to un-tame, un-restrain and re-wild.. let's take a journey into the wild.

"..I want to challenge you this week to un-tame, un-restrain and re-wild.."

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"Rhubarbalade"

A happy blend of sun and rain
Has caused our plants to blossom.
None more so than our rhubarb patch
Which leaves us with a problem:

Our sticks are over two feet long!
At least two inches wide!
But what to do will all these stalks,
When more crumbles makes you cry?

So marmalade it is. Or Jam.
I never know the difference?
(Although I’ve heard it’s something
About adding extra citrus).

In the cauldron, on the hob,
Stewing the hours away.
Until “that point” when it’s done,
And we’ve made “rhubarbalade”!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Life under the magnifying glass

I mentioned the other week that I'd recently read a great book by Daniel Goleman called Focus, which was all about how our brains direct our attention. Funnily enough, this week my blog buddies set the title "Focus is not something you find but something your create" (Jeff Goins).

So initially I thought I'd write on some of the brain-stuff surrounding focus.. but then (ironically) my mind went off on a tangent and I ended up somewhere completely different! This is something I enjoy about writing blog posts!

Finding caterpillars
My kids love finding bugs and creepy crawly things outside. When we're on our allotment my daughter is usually on a mission to find as many worms and ladybirds as she can find. In our back garden they are always collecting caterpillars, woodlice, and other small creatures. Many of these find their way into a special collection pot with a magnifying glass lid. We all enjoy getting a closer look at these creatures through the lid, counting legs and identifying mandibles and other features. They come into crisper focus when viewed in this way.

Something my kids have not yet learnt to do (although we should try it soon) is harness the focusing power of a magnifying glass to start a fire, which is the picture that came to mind when thinking of the Jeff Goins quote above: "Focus is.. something you create".

The key thing about starting a fire in this way isn't necessarily the size of the magnifying glass, but about position and patience. If you orient it appropriately to the sun, and if you're patient at sustaining it's focus, then the focussed sunlight heats up the locus point enough to cause ignition. Ideally it's paper or twigs that are being burnt and not small insects!

My dad's amazing sundial.. 
A few years ago my dad made me a sundial (I've mentioned before how he inspires me to make things). Since this was my dad we're talking about, this was no ordinary sundial. For a start he made the base out of slate, into which he engraved not only the numbers around the dial but the co-ordinates of our house (at the time in Southampton), since the gnomon (a favourite word of mine, and basically the sticky-uppy bit of a sundial) was calibrated for that exact location.



Here is another example of the importance of correct positioning - for a sundial to be accurate, the angle of the gnomon needs to vary depending on latitude.. so to use the sundial in the West Midlands we need to tilt the base accordingly to compensate for our change in latitude! I love the level of thoughtfulness my dad exhibits in the amazing things he makes.

As regular readers will know, recurring themes for me include thinking big and being the best expression of who you are. For both the sundial and the magnifying glass, it's not about how big or small they are, the key point is about positioning. So too in our lives, it's not necessarily how gifted or talented we may or may not be, it's about how we position ourselves to use those gifts and talents to the best effect. When we're doing what we're made by God to do we'll be happier in ourselves and contributing best to the world around us.

Has your focus diffused?
But.. it's a tension we face that what puts food on the table and pays the bills may not be something we feel is so life-giving, or our life calling. I don't dispute this, and whilst I encourage all of us to dream big and take steps towards that dream, I also recognise that this is often an incremental process, and the pressures of providing for family can override rash or drastic action.

On this note, I read a really helpful LinkedIn article by Chester Elton the other week on job-sculpting. The essential premise was that "dream jobs" are rare, but by making small changes to your current situation you can make it more satisfying. I'd encourage you to read the article, but the main questions it asked were: What can I add/alter/delegate?

Not giant questions, but a helpful framework to help you adjust your position - like the magnifying glass - to better effect. Making small changes can make a big difference - as Sir Clive Woodward would say "Doing 100 things 1% better" to make a 100% change.

For me, 1% changes are manageable. In my work, one thing I've been trying to add over the last year is more writing in different forms. I've been able to delegate some technical aspects to make space for this. I'm enjoying my job more as a result.

"So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God." (Ecclesiastes 2:24)

Need to refocus your magnifying glass?
It can be hard sometimes to find satisfaction in our work, in our ordinary day to day existence. Maybe you're waiting for that dream job, dream opportunity to come along. But waiting is hard isn't it? And how you wait can be as important as whatever it is you're waiting for. My friend Dan Bennett spoke on this subject recently, his talk is well worth a listen.

Has the sun moved since you last focussed your magnifying glass? Or maybe your life is in a different place now than when you set up your sundial. Either way, to create (or re-create) focus, it might be time to assess your position again - are there small things to add, alter or delegate?

I'd love to hear from you - if this post has been helpful, why not share some things you plan to add, alter or delegate in the comments box below?




Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Interview with Theo Amer, Highline Aerial Media

Ok, for my interview this week I am here with Theo Amer, who is part of Highline Aerial Media and has graciously decided to be interviewed for The Potting Shed. So, Theo, would you mind briefly introducing yourself and what your company does please?

So I'm Theo, based in Southampton, and our company Highline Aerial Media provides aerial media in the form of photography, video, film, cinematography and aerial survey using a drone, also known as a multi-rotor helicopter in order to capture the images from the air.

Sounds pretty cool, and I know that some of your stuff's been featured by the BBC and you've been in the national press this week. How did you end up getting involved with aerial media?

HAM's multi-rotor helicopter. Image courtesy of Highline Aerial Media
It was an interesting journey actually. Probably it was about 18 months ago we were inspired by the work of a guy called Johnny Beavers over in the States who had been using a drone to capture some incredible footage, and it was really early days for the industry.

He happened to be the brother-in-law of a friend, so I was shown his stuff via the friend and found myself saying "this is incredible!" the kind of footage this guy's got, the kind of angles - there was nothing else out there creating this kind of footage.

We looked around to see what was going on in the UK - there was very little going on and what was just wasn't of the kind of quality that Johnny was doing over in the States. I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a cinematographer - I'm a professional pilot - and combining the two skills of aviation and cinematography we thought "Let's see what we can do here in the UK" having had the inspiration from Johnny in the States to do something to a similar standard over here.

We spent some time looking at the feasibility, looking at the options and then got in touch with Johnny, and with his help we got ourselves set up over here in the UK, and that's how it got started really, with the aim just to combine our skills to put something together and make it work.


That's really interesting. You said you trained as a pilot, do you need to use your flying skills for flying it or could anybody do that? Does it add an extra dimension to it for you?

Chatting via FaceTime
I think ultimately anyone with enough practice could fly it, although obviously there's an element of aptitude to be able to fly it reasonably well! Having a flying background and having the understanding, aptitude and experience helps, but it's not that you would need to have trained as a pilot in order to fly it - you can pick one of these things up and with some time and some practice you could fly it.

Where my pilot training's really helped has been around the regulatory side of it. The difference between the States and the UK is that in the UK it's been highly regulated since 2010, whereas in the States they've literally in the last two weeks brought in some regulations.

What that means is that it's a requirement to get certified by the Civil Aviation Authority in order to be able to operate these drones commercially. So we had to do that which meant me taking ground exams, doing actual flight tests with the helicopter, and putting together a big operations manual.

For that side of things I've found my aviation experience is invaluable. Having worked as a flying instructor training other people to fly then having to get qualified myself with all the exams that are required over here, that was all very straightforward. Also when it comes to actually operating, having an understanding of airspace, where you can fly where you can't fly, working with the CAA - it's been really helpful as we've developed and set up as a business.

Do you think your business and what you set out to do has that turned out how you expected? Or have you had to be quite versatile in terms of what you've ended up doing and your approach to it?

Yeah I think we've had to be reasonably versatile in that its such a new industry over here - some people are doing it quite well, some people are doing it quite badly, some people are doing it blatantly illegally! A lot of people don't really have an understanding of how it works, what you can do and can't do.

So in terms of working with clients and customers we've had to work in a variety of environments that perhaps we didn't perhaps initially expect we'd need to work in, with challenges coming with that. Also with the technology itself, it's fairly "early days" technology, so some of it isn't as robust as you'd like it to be.

So there's been an element of having to really get quite technical - sometimes at key moments when you've got a piece of equipment that isn't doing exactly what it's supposed to do and having to sort it out - being versatile in effecting a repair or trying to sort out some electronics. Especially when you're on a job and you've got that time pressure of needing to get the helicopter flying whilst some of the technology,  because it's fairly cutting edge technology, is not responding quite how it's supposed to.. we've needed a fair bit of flexibility every time we work!
"..at that point I said goodbye to the airline industry.."
And also just in terms of planning what's possible. Because the regulations in the UK are actually quite tight, there are quite a few environments where you have to work very hard to be able to fly within the regulations. A lot of places it's possible but it means you've got to be quite adaptable. We plan before we fly, using things like Google Earth, satellite imagery, to get a feel where we could fly, how we could fly, what lines we could fly.

But often when you get to the site on the day a few things have changed so you've got to be able to adapt quickly and make sure that you are still flying legally  - that ultimately you are within those regulations but getting the great shots you're there for. You want to work within the regulations absolutely rightly, but also you want to be able to get a great "wow" image. So working out how you can do that within the set boundaries needs quite a bit of creativity.

When you trained as a pilot Theo, did you think you would end up doing this kind of thing? Did you have different plans and if so, how do you marry the two things up?

Image courtesy of Highline Aerial Media
Yeah, I mean it's been an interesting journey for me with the flying and the aviation side of things. Having been a private pilot for quite a number of years I trained as a commercial pilot, just before the recession hit.

At the time I went into my training there was a world shortage of pilots, everyone was desperate for pilots. In fact before I came out of my training I'd already had three job offers as a flying instructor before I'd even done that element of my training!

By the time I came out the other side of my training the recession had hit. The airlines were some of the first to be hit really severely, and laid a load of people off. Certainly in the western world there was suddenly a surplus of pilots and my employment prospects just changed overnight. I got into Flybe's books just after my training, but the way it works with an airline is that you join a holding pool waiting for actual vacancies in the aircraft to come up.

I thought that would be a few months before I got on board and did the Flybe element of my training - but it was three and half years before I had a call from them with a position available. By that time our life circumstances had changed quite considerably and some of our ability to just up and move to the other side of the country or even offshore to some of the places the jobs were offered  - Isle of Man, the Channel Islands - it just wasn't possible for us in the same way.

So at that point I said goodbye to the airline industry, recognising that times had changed and our life was in a very different place. So yeah, I find myself in a very different place now to where I'd have imagined myself five or ten years ago. So it's quite a change, quite a different place. I certainly didn't imagine myself ending up flying drones having gone through all my flying training!

How have you dealt with that? Has that been a tough thing to deal with, or have you been embracing positive opportunities instead  - or a mixture of both?

Theo piloting the drone (image courtesy Highline Aerial Media)
It's definitely been a mixture of both. In the early days there was a huge amount of frustration, sitting there in the Flybe holding pool, every month hoping that the job was going to start, that a job was going to come up.

In the meantime I was working as a flying instructor which was fantastic. I absolutely loved it. It's a great form of actual hands-on flying and working with people - the actual job itself I really enjoy.

Unfortunately the pay is very unreliable because you only get paid when you fly, and the weather's often bad in the UK. So at that point of providing for your family there was an element of frustration there, married to the fact that you're doing a fantastic job. So there was a lot of frustration for me just wanting to get that job and fly with the airline.

In those three and a half years of waiting, the way life's circumstances changed meant that a few years in I reached a really unsettling place of going "hang on, I'm really wanting to step into this airline job that's not coming through but at the same time I'm not quite sure that's where I'm meant to be at the moment, not quite sure that's where I'm supposed to step". So there was quite a feeling and uncertainty in the midst of that, wondering "what's going on, where should I be stepping and where should I be looking?" Which then came to the point where I was offered the job and had to make the difficult decision of turning it down.

So I made that decision, and it felt like the right thing to do. But I wondered whether I'd regret that decision having done so much training and having had this passion and then turning it down and saying no. I thought that in the weeks and months I might go "what on earth have I done?" but actually I haven't. I've felt peaceful about the decision, feel I made the right decision and actually if anything it has opened up more variety, more opportunity and more creativity.

That's good to hear. So what's the best thing about what you do now?

I think it's the satisfaction you get when you see that first edit and you see the footage. You've filmed on location, but you come away and it normally takes a couple of weeks until you've got the first edit. There's almost that period of anticipation for me - I do the flying so when I'm flying the helicopter I'm not seeing what footage we're getting. And Mikey, who's my business partner, he's the cinematographer he can see what's being filmed on his screen on the ground.
"..if anything it's opened up more variety, more opportunity and more creativity."
So I'm always there in anticipation asking "What are the shots like, how are they looking?" and he'll say "It's looking great, I've got some great stuff". I then have to wait a couple of weeks before I see it, but that moment when you see it all put together  - wow!

Especially when it's been a step up for us - taking things to a new level in what we've been filming. A different environment or a different event maybe. For example a lot of our initial filming was of buildings - stately homes or structures, that kind of stuff. Then we did a job filming professional wakeboarders doing a load of tricks at a wake park - it was a completely different thing we were filming. Suddenly we were doing action sports!

And just to see that for the first time, put together in a good edit with some great music in the background  - it's great, that moment of satisfaction. And then you start all over again with the next project.

What's been the most unexpected thing then about working in aerial media and where you've ended up?

Image courtesy of Highline Aerial Media
I think what's been most unexpected for us is where our early jobs have come from. We imagined we'd ultimately be aiming for the TV media side of things but thought that in the early days we might be filming golf courses and country house hotels, that sort of thing.

But probably from our first three jobs we had some footage on the BBC, which came out really early in our business. We actually got our first pay-check from the Royal Household because we did some aerial survey work on Windsor Castle, which was a fantastic experience just being there and doing that! Then also getting some work with Marks and Spencers early on - it's felt quite exciting where some of our jobs have come from in a very positive sense.

Just being there at Windsor Castle knowing the Queen was in residence and Prince Philip could pop around the corner at any time in his Range Rover and ask what we were doing (we didn't actually meet him!!) but working there with an amazing team on an amazing building, a thousand year old structure was just a real privilege, and we didn't imagine we'd be somewhere like that certainly at that early stage.

That's really exciting. You've ended up in quite a creative industry, doing creative things, you've been creative in how you're using your skills  - you've seen something and you've gone for it. How do you stay inspired?

That's a good question. I think partly it's seeing some of the other stuff out there that other people are doing which is inspiring. Talking about our friend Johnny Beavers over the United States - when we first got in contact with him and he was helping us get set up he was doing some TV stuff, some sporting events  - he's since done a number of Hollywood movies. Recently he was filming on The Incredibles 3, and the trailer for that movie has 9 or 10 of his shots in it.
"..Prince Philip could pop around the corner at any time in his Range Rover.."
Seeing some of that level of stuff done, and some of the other creativity that just keeps coming out as drones are just pushing the envelope of what they can do and where they can film is really inspiring and just pushes us on to want to be doing that sort of thing in the UK.

The challenge are the restrictions in the UK, which mean that whereas there's a whole load of freedom in other countries to film some incredible places, and especially when there are lots of people around some incredible scenes, that's not so straightforward here. So there are challenges within that to push us on to develop that creativity within the boundaries we've got over here.

You've had to deal with disappointment, you've had to change your plans, has your faith played a part in that at all?

Yeah definitely my faith's been a huge part in that. In that journey of transition from where I thought I was going to where I am now just being able to recognise and have faith that I've got a good God who loves me who actually has a plan and purpose for my life. Trying to work out what that plan was in that time of confusion and recognising that within me there was a real peace I received in making the decisions I made. A sense of God guiding and directing me in some of those decisions which I think has led me to step into those decisions with an element of faith.
"..there is something of the adventure of life that is possible when everything doesn't quite work out how you expect it to be."
Some of those decisions which on the surface of it for some people would seem absolutely crazy - having trained as a pilot, had that dream - to then step away from airline flying (I still fly, I still work as a flying instructor from time to time), a lot of people in the aviation industry just couldn't comprehend. So to be able to have a sense of reassurance in terms of my faith, in terms of my relationship with God that it was the right step to take has given me the peace I needed to step and make it. And I feel that for the circumstances I find myself in, for my family, for where I am in life now, what I'm doing, I feel very comfortable that I made the right step and exciting opportunities have come about as a result

That's great. Do you have any advice for people reading this who may be in situations or have had situations where there dreams haven't worked out. What would your advice to them be?

That's hard isn't it? I guess from a point of view of faith, for me, I think there's something absolutely vital in being able to trust God. There were times when to be honest I questioned God in terms of the way things were working out - they weren't working out the way I'd do it if I were God! But the foundational thing is that I believe God is good, I believe that God's got my best interests at heart and so as I stepped in and chose to trust him in the circumstances,  God gave me a new path that's probably been more satisfying, more creative, more exciting and more of an adventure.

I think there is something about the adventure of life that is possible when everything doesn't quite work out how you expect it to be. I heard someone recently talk about adventure, saying that when you imagine adventure it all seems thrilling, exciting and fun, but when you really genuinely walk through adventure there are moments when it's sleepless nights and it's fear and pain. But there's a story that you create and build through that adventure, through those circumstances that's so much bigger than the one when you don't journey through them.

Having that sense of faith and trust as I walk through that has been able to sustain me, and at the moments of questioning and doubt it's kept me going.

That's good advice. From a creative angle, or from any angle, is there anything you might recommend to people reading this interview that might encourage or inspire them to follow their dreams, make tough decisions?

There's that text I see on Land Rovers round here  "One life, live it" - I think it's just the 4x4 community who stick that on their very dirty looking land rovers! But I think there's something of that. There's that sense that we do have one life, that life is very short and we can either spend an awful lot of time trying to make ourselves feel very safe and secure - I'm not sure we ever completely get to that point of safety and security regardless of how safe our career feels or how big our house is or how much income we have.

And I think there's a whole lot more out there in life to be enjoyed! Right through my life I've always followed my dreams, or followed those things that look more interesting, and that has been at the sacrifice of security and good "career". There are moments as I find myself in my late 30s into my 40s that I sometimes wonder what on earth I've done! But most days the reality is that I really enjoy what I do with my life. I get great satisfaction from the things I do, the time I'm able to spend with my family, but also in terms of the stimulation of the work I do. It's always varied, it's very rarely dull, sometimes it's quite nerve-wracking, but it's fulfilling.
"..there's that text I see on Land Rovers round here:
"One life, live it".."
And I think I'd far rather live a life of fulfilment and adventure than simply make myself feel safe and secure. So I would say if opportunities come along do take them, make some wise decisions, don't just jump at every opportunity but do have a look and see if there is any way you could possibly make those things happen. I've always had the philosophy that I'd far rather give something a try and fail than sit on my deathbed with regret after regret of all the things I really wanted to do and never quite gave a go. I think that's far more debilitating than failing and getting up again and giving it another try.

That is absolutely brilliant. Theo it's been an inspirational interview, I'm sure many other people would think so as well. We're really grateful for your time and thanks for sharing your wit and wisdom!

Thanks Luke!

Check out Highline Arial Media's wesbite and cool showreels at: http://www.highlinemedia.co.uk/

Friday, October 03, 2014

The pursuit of peace

A few months ago I posted some musings on Peace – if you missed them you can read them here. I talked about whether peace was a destination, and among other things I compared it to carbon atoms!

Do you feel chased by life?
This week, my fellow bloggers have set each other the title “The pursuit of peace”, and as I've reflected on it, what’s caught my attention is the “pursuit” part.

It’s certainly my experience that I often feel pursued - chased by the circumstances and demands of 21st century life. Maybe it’s the relentless need to meet financial targets at work, or the necessity to work long hours to provide for your family, or the 24/7 demands of status updates, photos and “likes” on social media.

Whatever it is, perhaps it’s hard for us to feel in control of our lives enough to be pursuing something ourselves, let alone pursuing peace!

On my train journeys commuting to work, I pass by the many canals of the Black Country. Invariably they look serene in the misty morning light or gentle colours of dusk.
"..I often feel pursued - chased by the circumstances and demands of 21st century life."
It’s at this point that I have a confession to make: the idea of a canal boat holiday is something that really appeals to me. I like the romance of travelling at a sedentary pace, enjoying the scenery and peacefulness of canal life, taking time to read, write and spend time with family.

A few weeks ago I read “The Narrowboat Lad” by Daniel Brown, which is the true (and recent) story of a young man who takes the brave step of leaving home to live on a canal boat. Living a sustainable and off-grid life, he finds he only needs to work part time, so he reduces his hours to spend more time in the great outdoors, something which brings him a sense of wholeness and, dare I say it, peace. Check out his YouTube channel!

A Black Country Narrowboat
A theme I come back to again and again in my posts is that we will feel most alive doing the things we’re passionate about and being the person we’ve been made to be.

Often there’s a restlessness within us when we’re not doing these things - perhaps when we find ourselves doing things we’re not passionate about.

Sometimes, the pursuit of peace is about the pursuit of our dreams and passions – since it is through doing these things that we will find ourselves truly fulfilled and at peace.

"The idea of a canal boat holiday is something that really appeals to me
."

The problem can often be that we expect peace to break out spontaneously, or for our situations to miraculously change overnight. Maybe this does occasionally happen, but more often than not I think that peace is something we need to take steps towards – to pursue. It takes movement, and that’s one of the things I love about the story of the Narrowboat Lad – here’s a young man stepping miles out of his comfort zones in pursuit of the dream in which he will find greater peace in himself and with life.

We can all find ourselves caught in the headlights at times, rooted to the spot. But the pursuit of peace can be taken one decision at a time, big or small. When I interviewed Chris Whyley over the summer about starting his own internet company, one of his key points was about taking small steps to wedge the door of your dream open a bit at a time. Change doesn't have to be immediate or massive, in fact more often I think that it’s incremental and accretive.

I listened to some people earlier this week talking about starting their own businesses, and they made the comment that they wished they’d started them earlier. Perhaps too often we wait for conditions to be perfect – perhaps for peaceful conditions that never come – before we take a step towards something.

"Sometimes, the pursuit of peace is about the pursuit of our dreams and passions.."

But I want to encourage us all this week to take a step towards peace. It might not mean moving onto a canal boat (yet), but maybe it’s looking up a course to study, a place to visit, a skill to develop, a person to talk to. Perhaps it's a step towards a loving God, placing dreams and visions back into his control.

Whatever it is, it’s never too late to pursue peace..

Monday, September 29, 2014

Amazing Rain

Especially after a dry spell,
I sometimes think that rain 
is a form of grace.

The hazy horizon hosed off.

Raindrops graciously bearing 
dust from air to ground

I love the sound.
The clatter of heavy rain
on car, canvas or roof. 

A heavenly, peaceful sound to me.

So pour out sky-water. 
Fall down life drops.
Nourish, cheer, wash.

Amazing, graceful, gracious rain.



Friday, September 26, 2014

What makes us human?

Hi everyone, now that summer is officially turning to autumn it's time for regular service to be resumed here at Potting Shed HQ.

It's been great to post some different things over the summer, and in case you missed them, there were fascinating interviews with Chris Whyley and Chris Eaton as well as a write ups of the spectacular Just So Festival and my moving time working alongside the charity Ten Thousand Homes in South Africa. I've got some more treats lined up for you in the next few months too, so watch this space!

This week's topic set by my fellow blog buddies is the gigantic question 'what makes us human?' - just a small subject to tackle then! 

Over the summer I've read some interesting books on how our brain works, so I'm going to start to approach our humanity from this angle. The first book is Focus by Daniel Goleman, all about how we use out attention (and the challenges of an information-overloaded society). The second is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, all about how we acquire and retain skill. I'd well recommend both.

Top-down thinking comes from our neocortex
As I was planning this post, I jotted down various things that came to mind that potentially make us different to other living things. But then I thought of other species that could also do these things! For instance, perhaps we're different because we use tools?We certainly use tools in a much more sophisticated way than other creatures on the planet. But apes also use tools, along with some species of crow (in fact, I watched a fascinating documentary with Chris Packham the other month about how the crows in New Caledonia not only passed on tool-making skills within their social groups, but how subsequent generations actually improved and refined the design, something previously only observed in humans - I'd recommend the book Corvus about how clever the crow-family of birds are).

Perhaps what makes us human is that we feel things deeply and have a rich emotional life? But then, so do Orcas (if you haven't seen the documentary Blackfish, about Orcas in captivity it's well worth a watch, so long as you realise that it's been produced with a specific agenda in mind). Is it because we form social groups? Well this also seems to be common among many intelligent animals, like elephants, dolphins and certain birds (the corvid family again!).

So what makes us different? What makes us human? In all the examples I mentioned above we are able to do those things with much greater clarity and sophistication than other living things. There are clearly numerous things our brains can do which other creatures' brains can't do. Our human brains seem uniquely configured in a manner that sets us apart from animals. We are able to picture ourselves in situations outside of the situation we find ourselves in. As Daniel Goleman notes in Focus "The capacity to think in ways that are independent of an immediate stimulus - about what's happened and what might happen in all it's possibilities - sets the human mind apart..".

"Perhaps what makes us human is that we feel things deeply.."

Something that Goleman elaborates on in his book is our ability as humans to override our instinctive, perhaps animal, responses to situations through deliberate choice. This is something he refers to as "top-down" thinking overriding "bottom-up" thinking. When we choose to focus our attention on something, this is an example of the left hand "top-down" part of our brain overriding the right-hand "bottom-up" part of the brain. Our brains are complex, and clearly I am not covering this in great detail, but the point is that we have the ability to make conscious choices, taking into account what may or may not happen, that other species aren't able to do.

A musing chimp?
Why have we been able to use tools, communicate and think to a far greater degree than other species? Another process in our brains may hold the answer to this, and it's something that Daniel Coyle chooses to focus on in his excellent Talent Code book.

Our brains reinforce patterns of learning through a remarkable substance called myelin. Crudely, this wraps around the neural connections we fire the most, making them quicker and more efficient. Coyle explores the way in which our brains reinforce learning, and points out that myelin is not present in anywhere near the same degree in our closest ape relatives. So while other species have been able to use tools, feel emotions, communicate.. they simply don't have the bandwidth we humans do to be able to do those things with with the same level of sophistication. Coyle compares this to the difference between sending data through an old copper cable compared to a fibre-optic cable. Maybe it's as big as the difference between communicating through the telegraph system and the satellite system.

So what makes us human? I think it's about choice. We are able to override our instinctive thinking and reactions (our bottom-up brain), with deliberate choices. Our top-down brain, filled with myelin, enables us to make these deliberate choices.

There was a news article this week that caught my eye, suggesting that chimps are naturally violent. Maybe we are too, given the pandemic of war around the world.  But in the midst of this pandemic there are also deliberate actions of love and peace and beauty going on every second around the world. We may be the naked ape, but what makes us different is our ability to choose - perhaps even to choose peace and love over judgement and war. To love our enemies. To choose mercy over justice.

"So what makes us human? I think it's about choice."
In this light, the Biblical assertion that we're made in the image of God makes sense to me. Made in the image, the likeness, of a sacrificially loving creator god. A God whose plan allowed "mercy to triumph over judgement" (James 2:13).

In the end, we're not just defined by what goes on in our brains, but by our choices and actions. And maybe this week, wherever we find ourselves, we can choose a top-down not bottom-up path of peace, love and mercy.