The Snow and the Fish

Madrid’s recent historic snowfall

My sister said, I’ll send you an exercise to write something short, just three minutes, about nature. But she never did. So I wrote something short about nature for three minutes anyway, and I’m glad I did. Writing is great, short it good. Here it is:


–  “This snow, amazing how peaceful it makes us.”

– “Yes. All the colours go and we all calm down.”

– “It’s like… scuba-diving at night, when you only see what’s in the torch beam and hear the lull of the bubbles and your breathing. You get really calm. Once we were diving at night and on the bottom we found this fish in a big glass bottle, like the ones people use for making wine in, and the fish was bigger than the neck of the bottle and it couldn’t get out. It must have swum in there when it was young and eaten whatever floated in, and then suddenly was too big to squeeze out. A few of us gathered round the bottle and watched the fish for a while in our torchlights, we were just hanging a few feet above the bottom of the sea watching the fish…”

– “Hmm.”

– “… Ha! Maybe we’re all a bit like that fish!”

– “Hmm.”

–  “…”

– “It’s all about having less information I suppose. Look at this… Just snow and space and the winter trees. Lots of white and a few lines… and hardly anyone around, that helps too.”

– “I wonder what the fish made of it when we turned up with our torches in the middle of the night.”

– “He was probably pretty pissed off. Or thought the sun had come out at the wrong time and then gone away again. Like a backwards solar eclipse. Shortest day of his life!”

– “Haha, yes!”

– “It’s so beautiful when it’s just lines and branches and snow. I hope it lasts…”

What I Read in 2020

This post is for bibliophiles and book-list lovers.

One of my desires for 2020 was to read more, and to my delight I certainly did. I read around 45 books (25 fiction, the rest non-fiction), and abandoned about 5 – I think it’s very important to abandon books you can’t get into.

I’m sure I was able to read more by watching TV less, and I don’t regret that trade-off at all. Books are like gold to me, I’d favour reading over the screen any time and pretty much abandoned series this year (though I did start getting into Woody Allen films towards the end of the year).

Here’s the complete list, more or less in the order I read them, with some comments. The great joys of the year were discovering Chekhov’s short stories, and the Indian novels of R. K. Narayan. Both provided simple, uncomplicated and un-dramatic transportation to distant places from the past, in a year that really needed it. Perhaps my favourite book was the Roald Dahl short stories collection, aimed at teen kids and above, at the bottom of the list – it took me back to the reading joys of youth.

The books:

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober – Catherine Gray – Audiobook, helped me take a break from wine for 5 months.

The Art Of Noticing – Rob Walker – Often dipped into this year, fun ways to be more observant.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction – Alan Jacobs – Really helped me get back into the joy of reading at whim whatever I feel like.

Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello – Enormous common sense on ways we go madly wrong and can live much better.

Help, Thanks, Wow – Anne Lamott – Fun meditations on easy concepts of prayer.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie – Reading for fun and pleasure and whim.

Good to Great – Jim Collins – Often dipped into business classic.

Echoes of Silence – Thomas Merton – Good old Merton on writing, dipped into.

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse – Charlie Mackesy – Beautiful book of ink drawings.

The Hobbit – J R R Tolkein – Great fun re-read.

Making Comics – Linda Barry – Got me drawing a lot, good fun.

Touching Peace – Thich Nhat Hanh – For doses of peace.

Range – David Epstein – Read most of this, pretty interesting non-fiction on why it’s good not to overspecialise in life. I agree with the premise.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J R R Tolkein – Wow, I couldn’t deal with it when I was 12, but was riveted by this now. Later I watched the films which I found, overall, rather disturbing.

Selected Stories – Chekhov – One of the greatest discoveries of the year, Chekhov’s short stories. Pure joy to be transported back to life in Russia 100+ years ago.

Swami and Friends – R.K. Narayan – The other great discovery of the year, R.K. Narayan, what a joy to be transported to early C20 India on a regular basis. Beautiful, innocent writing that leaves you feeling better.

Cathedral – Raymond Carver – Just this one short story, very powerful. I read a couple more of his, but it wasn’t a year to read too many dark short stories. Light was required!

The Complete Short Fiction – Oscar Wilde – Rereading a few of these wildly imaginative classics.

Malgudi Days – R.K. Narayan – Beautiful, wonderful, lovely, innocent, transporting short stories from one of my favourite authors of the year.

The Bachelor of Arts – R.K. Narayan – You’ll see lots more Narayan in the list below, all lovely, take your pick!

The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa – Nice modern Japanese travel tale – or tail – it’s all about a cat and his owner.

Be Free Where You Are – Thich Nhat Hanh – Transcripts from a talk given to inmates in a US prison. Highly appropriate in lockdown but wisdom for any moment in life.

The Painter of Signs – R.K. Narayan

Leonard and Hungry Paul – Ronan Hession – Curious book about quiet people.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work – Matthew B. Crawford – Very interesting. Why are we stuck in front of these screens when we’d be happier repairing motorcycles for a living or making furniture? Still got lots to think about this months after reading.

Waiting for the Mahatma – R.K. Narayan – Perhaps my favourite of his novels as it has lots of Gandhi in it.

Autobiography – Gandhi – Incredible, wonderful, inspiring, must read book.

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry – Beautiful wake-up call for all men. Highly recommended.

Playing To The Gallery – Grayson Perry – The state of modern art.

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman – Grayson Perry – A big coffee table art book full of his work alongside art from the British museum.

The Untethered Soul – Michael A. Singer – Some chapters of this audiobook saved my sanity and my summer.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl – Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones – Nice short auto-bio on the early life of this artist.

Norwood – Charles Portis – Portis was another fun discovery this year, I read four in a row. I think I liked this one and True Grit the most, though The Dog of the South had some really classic lines and is a fun road trip too.

True Grit – Charles Portis

Gringos – Charles Portis

The Dog of the South – Charles Portis

Little Big Man – Thomas Berger – One of my favourite books of the year. A little more violent than I’d like, but a marevelous bedside companion of a few weeks. Wonderful adventures of the white kid growing up with Indian tribes as they are slowly ousted from their lands in the wild west. Great stuff.

The Guide – R. K. Narayan

The Wisdom of No Escape: How to love yourself and your world – Pema Chödrön – Just a couple of chapters, just what I needed this year when radical acceptance of this crazy year was required.

A Quaker Book Of Wisdom: Life Lessons In Simplicity, Service, And Common Sense – Robert Lawrence Smith – I wanted to find out more about Quakerism and this book was a lovely, personal introduction to a very interesting faith.

A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver – Mark Shriver – Looking for good father-figure examples, I remembered this book I’d heard about a few years ago. Turning out to be more interesting than I’d imagined, as the father in question (a fascinating man in his own right) married into the Kennedy family at the height of their fame.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain – A lovely river adventure reflecting the unthinkable realities of slavery and racism of the time.

The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar – Roald Dahl – Possibly my favourite book of the year. 7 lovely short stories. I read the Henry Sugar story when I was about 12, and have been trying to remember who wrote it for years. Recently I got a feeling it must have been Roald Dahl and a bit of Googling found it for me again – what a joy! It’s a lovley story.

Abandoned: Essays in Idleness: and Hojoki, The Narnian – Adam Jacobs, Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese, Before the Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Breaking Bread with the Dead – Alan Jacobs

Did I draw more?

In January I proposed a series of changes for myself this year, which I would like to revisit this week, to see if any progress has been made. The first was to draw more.

Well, I think I succeeded. I didn’t draw a lot, but I definitely drew more. I got very into doing portrait sketches on index cards in the spring. None drawn from life – except Hockney, top right, copied from a book, and the chap below him, whose name escapes me – the rest are characters that appear from nowhere with their own back stories, past lives and worlds to explore:

Portraits laid out of the floor

I also loved drawing trees…

The great Pine

Spring
Autumn
Winter

And I got back into a favourite kind of doodling from my childhood. Draw a mess of lines, colour them in. Joy.

This I will definitely carry into 2021. Drawing is wonderful, restful, colourful, imaginative, creative, and a joy to do with the kids. It doesn’t matter a bit how ‘good’ one is. It’s playful and healthy, no matter the results. Seems I particularly like portraits and trees, so I think I’ll keep exploring those, and hopefully different mediums too, digital and analogue. Great!

Fun in Times of Pandemic

The Ripple Pool

A cool day in the Casa de Campo wild parkland west of Madrid. A huge pool from recent rains, the reflection of a dead tree. The kids throw in some sticks – ripples! Click! … Rotate 180 degrees, the tree is upright again! Take it home, have fun with photoshop. Over the top colours, over the top filters. I love it!

Time to buy some paints I’ve never played with before. Gouache or acrylics – or both! Time to make some heads with clay, to cook flapjacks and eat them somewhere cold. Time to watch more of the newer Woody Allen films – I smiled all the way through ‘Magic in the Moonlight‘ this weekend, so I’m going to watch lots more. Time to find ways to cook outside, like Hugh in the wonderful old episodes of River Cottage we’ve been watching with the kids. Time to dance on my own in the mornings any way I like while the family is still asleep. Time to revise the books on my bedside table – too much Gandhi (can’t get enough Gandhi) but not enough fun. Time to keep getting into nature whenever possible and walking new paths, time to keep seeing friends in sensible ways however these crazy times allow.

All this is Vitamin F – Vitamin Fun! It’s essential to the health, and an obligation we have with ourselves. The obligation to have fun, whatever that means for us, pandemic or no pandemic, no matter what is going on in the outside world.

Here, a mantra, an affirmation, I’ll stick it up around the house:

“I have an obligation to have fun. It’s good for me, my health, and for everyone around me. I shall not shirk this obligation but enter into it with all my heart and soul!”

… starting with the paints and walks and the films and the flapjacks, I’ll document it all here… except perhaps for the early morning dancing, I think I’ll keep that for myself 🙂

Depth of Place

There’s something special about going to a certain landscape again, and again. In all seasons, in all weathers. Finding all its paths, all its secrets. This landscape, above and below, is up in Madrid’s Sierra, a spot I return to over and over. There’s a wildness to it that connects with something deep inside me. I’m not from Spain, but it feels like I’ve been wandering these mountainsides for centuries. Maybe…

A Deeper Life

Sierra above El Escorial, Sierra de Gredos
The Sierra above El Escorial, towards Gredos.

As mentioned in a recent newsletter, I’ve been listening to Cal Newport’s Deep Questions podcast. When I want to make changes in my life, I find appropriate allies, and he is a good one right now. His focus is on living and working more deeply, and he’s very good at articulating the value and methodology in achieving this.

Working deeply involves uninterrupted blocks of real concentrated work, that get valuable stuff done. For me that currently includes our work making Notes in Spanish podcasts (and maintaining that business in good shape), and writing this blog. Mainly creative work that requires lack of distraction, thinking, creating.

As for the deep life, most of it is summed up by the photo above. The chance to go for a walk somewhere beautiful in nature, and some days to make – and then share – a beautiful photograph of it. There is space, fresh air, contemplation, and craft. These things are all-important.

At the same time as I look after the deep, I’m interested in reducing the shallow – uses of my time that don’t forge a deep connection with life, that don’t add up to much. ‘Shallow‘ includes social media and other mindless web surfing, bad books, crappy TV. ‘Deep‘ means time with family and friends, reading good books, good films, walking, nature, writing, photography, art, eating well, valuable work.

Newport is a great ally at this moment, but if I had a hero in all this I’d have to go back further. To Thoreau, whose ‘Walden‘ epitomises all this, Gandhi (his autobiography is another incredible exploration of depth and experimental living), and the self-sufficient Harlan Hubbard, people who deliberately sought out, experimented with and cultivated a different, deeper, less distracted path.

All this can seem a bit over OTT, too regimented, no room for just being-a-bit-lazy-and-useless, but I’ve tried that too, many times over the years, and I’ve realised something important. When I intentionally work and live more deeply, using my brain, looking after the quality of my life, I’m happier, calmer, and saner, and I can’t argue with that.

Being Happiness Here

I have moved several hundred posts from my previous blog, Being Happiness, here to Notes from Ben, and deactivated Beinghappiness.com. Most of the writing from Being Happiness focuses on the themes that I’m developing here – depth in life, creativity, and present moment happiness. These imported posts all predate the writing I’ve done here, so they all fit in nicely below the Notes from Ben posts in the overall timeline. I’m happy to have all this writing here in one place now, plus one less website means one less cow to look after, and that’s always a good thing!

(The two links in this post are to older Being Happiness posts that I’m fond of, and which now reside here.)

10 Rules for A Quiet Life

From a morning walk

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and overloaded since the end of the summer. A lot of it is unavoidable – getting several appliances fixed in the house, work, the start of the kid’s school after six months – normal life is busy. I’ve really noticed how I’m feeling overwhelmed by the endless choice of media to fill my life with, and by the endless temptation to check incoming messages.

So I’ve set some rules, with the idea that they will generate a sense of freedom. I’ll try them for a month. Here they are, with further explanation below.

1. No series, only films. Aim for heartwarming and great films that improve life!

2. Check email twice per day only, and after creative or necessary work, not before. Not in the evenings or at weekends.

3. Whatsapp only twice per day, as above, and via the web… if possible.

4. Read the news very infrequently, once a day max, no doomscrolling or opinion pieces.

5. Ring more.

6. Social Media only for work, and on Thursdays.

7. Buy only important things, don’t read a million online reviews.

8. Podcasts for the car.

9. Follow a fixed daily routine.

10. A long walk a day helps me work, rest and play!

Here is an explanation of each rule:

1. No series, only films. Aim for heartwarming and great films that improve life!

I think I need a break from series for a while. They can hook you in for months, and often distract me from things I hold dearer, mainly reading books or just being quiet in the evening. Also, I’d like to watch the occasional very, very good film. The kind that can stay with your for weeks. The exception is Big Bang Theory and old episodes of River Cottage which we watch with our kids, and makes us all laugh a lot.

2. Check email twice per day only, and after creative or necessary work, not before. Not in the evenings or at weekends.

It is incredibly wonderful to check your email at say 5pm, think ‘that’s my second check for the day’, and know that it won’t enter your life again for the rest of the evening, or a whole weekend! Years ago I took email off my phone, which was a great start. The other point is to only look at email for the first time after I’ve done some creative or productive work. Nothing takes away the drive to get something good done like checking any kind of messaging system first.

3. WhatsApp only twice per day, as above, and via the web… if possible.

I would happily get a dumb phone but WhatsApp is what I use to arrange to see friends, happily communicate with my sisters and distant friends, plus my kids social, school and sports groups are organised there. So no dumb phone (I’ve dumbed down my smart phone as far as I can instead), and that’s OK, WhatsApp definitely enhances my life. What I can do is put it in with email – just twice a day, and if I do it via WhatsApp Web, it’s another reason not to pick up the phone. By the way, due to the nature of the beast, this is rule most likely to be bent, hence the “…if possible”.

(Thoreau echoes in my ears – “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” Change ‘going to the post-office’ for ‘checking email and WhatApp’ – from his essay Life without Principle.)

4. Read the new infrequently, once a day max, no doomscrolling or opinion pieces.

I’ve gone years without regularly reading the news at all, and found my life to be much calmer – the news nearly always affected my mood negatively. Since the pandemic started I’ve been reading it as infrequently as possible, often for vital information regarding our personal liberties – are we locked down or not? What can we do now? I’ve gained some insight into how the news works – a lot of it is presented to scare the hell out of us, or to manipulate our behaviour (stay in and see no-one vs. go out and spend). Now I can spot those articles fairly quickly. Also, I don’t read opinion pieces and whatever else isn’t really factual news – these writers cannot predict the future any better than we can! I’ve also noticed a lot of ‘drama’ posing as news – details of political infighting that is just soap opera and easy to get sucked into. And no doomscrolling, i.e. going down and down the page to consume more and more doom. Just the essential stuff above the fold. Once a day max, briefly, and as few days a week as possible.

5. Ring more.

I got this from the wonderful Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, a joy of a book. When time permits and it seems like a nice idea, have a nice chat with someone very close to you, albeit brief, rather than filling their lives with more messages to read. Personal interaction is nice!

6. Social Media only for work, and on Thursdays.

I long ago ditched personal social media, especially on the phone, and it has only been a good idea. Having said that, we need it for work, but luckily I’m able to limit that to very quick posts on Thursdays. Post and go – don’t hang around looking at lots of other Social Media stuff! We are all fairly aware now of the manipulation involved in Social Media platforms – high-tech psychological manipulation keeps us in-platform as long as possible and returning to platform as often as possible to increase share value – and I think our time is vastly more valuable to ourselves than that.

7. Buy only important things, don’t read a million online reviews.

I get stressed when I spend ages reading endless reviews of things I might need to buy. Like with the bird feeders. Answer, stop buying stuff unless it’s really important, and don’t go mad with reviews.

8. Podcasts for the car.

Podcasts are great (of course I would say that, we earn our living with them!) I keep them for the return from the school run, or when I drive up to the mountains for a walk. (Usually when I drive back down from the mountains again I can’t consume a thing. Nature has filled me with peace, and I just want silence for the drive home.)

9. Follow a fixed daily routine.

I would like to exercise every day, I would like to meditate a little in the mornings, I would like to do a little creative work every day. It seems to me that people who manage to do the things they want to do, follow a routine, so I am refining one now. I will probably write more about it later.

10. A long walk a day helps me work, rest and play!

The very cornerstone of my routine, my mood, my happiness is the walk. This morning I went for an hour and a half walk in wild parkland near Madrid. When I got back my wife said, ‘You look taller, your back is straighter’. Walking in fresh air is good for me in innumerable ways. I’m practicing walking meditation again, Plum Village style, part of my great desire to have more inner peace. Of all the rules above, perhaps the walk should be held most sacred.

A fine old friend

This is, Now

The sun, with felt tip pens

When I walked up to the top of a mountain pass recently, and sat looking out over incredible views of distant sierras, with birds breaking the silence occasionally on either side, I thought about what we can really know. And I came to the conclusion that the only thing we can be sure of is what is right in front of us, in the absolute now. We can say, ‘this is’, this scene, this happening, and when? Right now. And then a second thought occurred to me… This is, now… and it’s incredible.

Goodness only knows what we are doing here in this bizarre life, but it’s not worth over-thinking too much (take all the greatest philosophers who have ever lived, and all the great religions, and they all have different theories about what’s going on!) Life comes upon us every day in one form or another, just as it likes, and it’s quite unbelievable what shows up from one day to the next. People, places, joys, sorrows, trees, buildings, sky, sun and leaves. It’s incredible. And we strive and talk about productivity and worry and fret… but with a moment of awareness we can sit back and watch it all and say, this is, now, and it’s incredible, and that’s about all I know, so I might as well relax. Relax, watch it all, take part in it all, but no need to let anything get to me too much. It’s all just a bizarre and inexplicable magic show. Let’s enjoy it!


I heard this today from the poet Rumi… “When you enter a garden do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses and jasmine.”

And this from poet Mary Oliver:

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love you life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.

Eagles, Kites and Freedom

I asked my friend Mike, ‘What do you call it when you have a blog and you think you should be writing it regularly but aren’t and you feel bad about it?’

And he replied, ‘I think that’s just called being a blogger these days’.

Hmmmm.

This post is in rebellion to my inactivity and his spot-on answer! We had driven up to the side of a mountain between Madrid and Avila and were staring across a vast open space of pine trees towards the gentle, hazy, wave-lines of the Sierra de Gredos range in the distance. Like in the photo Mike took above. Below us lay a finca, a ranch, where the trees where cleared a little and lime-green grassland surrounded a lone farmhouse like the sea.

We sat up there for two hours, just chatting, eating sandwiches, doing nothing. Looking at that vast open space, that slowly works away at opening up a similar vastness in your mind. Later we drove to another spot nearby, another version of the same view, but with a pine forest right at our backs. We watched black vultures, eagles and kites with his binoculars and spotting scope. I realised that no amount of even the best nature writing can beat the meditative feeling of watching such magnificent birds in flight, out in the fresh air.

Well, Madrid heads back into a strange semi-lockdown tonight, or soon… it’s hard to work out what’s going on. We’ll be able to move around our own neighbourhood, or maybe the whole city, and get out of the center if work or school-runs demand, plus go to bars, terraces and restaurants if we so wish – they’ll be open at 50% capacity.

But no more mountains for a while it seems. That’s OK, between our summer holiday in the Pyrenees and September trips up to the Sierra de Madrid, I’ve had more mountains in the last few months that I’ve ever had in my life. Now it’s time to sit quietly for a while, something I find very hard to do, but think will do me the world of good.

Young children are said to need firm limits from parents, about what they can do, where they can go, how they can behave, otherwise the world seems way too limitless, dizzyingly so, and it can drive them a bit crazy to feel so boundless. Limits keep them calm. I heard a talk by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh describing how monastic precepts, which often tell new monks and nuns what they now can’t do – like drinking alcohol, or wearing make up – actually give them more freedom. If you know you can’t drink, you are more free, as you don’t have to think about drinking or not drinking all the time. No cosmetics – free from having to worry about that anymore. So I’m looking for the freedom in these latest limitations. I think there is a lot to be found.

And the chimney has been swept, ready for autumn fires. We have plenty of art supplies, lots of books. Time to be happy and keep still for a while.

But I’ll miss hanging around on the sides of mountains with Mike while we sit this one out.