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.

Starting something new… Now!

Our new podcast’s cover art

My wife Marina and I started a new podcast last week for our Spanish-teaching website Notes in Spanish. It’s called “3 Words for Ascuas“. We made episode 1 and put it out into the world the next day. She said, “Let’s record a few more before we put the first one out, it’s good to have a few in the bag just in case we can’t record one week for some reason.” And I said, “No, let’s put the first one out now, and next week we’ll make another, and if one week we can’t put one out, it doesn’t matter, but we need to get episode 1 out now!”

She sighed, she knows what I’m like. So I put together some cover art myself (above) in Photoshop in about an hour, found some intro music on a music library website I found via Google, and that was it, our new podcast was made and launched in 24-hours flat.

Now it may have been a better idea to get a profesional to do the cover art, to record a few other episodes to have just in case as Marina suggested, but I think we would have lost the joyous immediacy of just getting going…

In my book Notes on the Internet Dream, about how we started our Spanish podcasting business, I wrote about the importance of starting imperfectly, as soon as possible:

“… don’t worry about being tech-savvy, don’t hang around, don’t worry about having a vast, complex business plan (you’ll only end up changing it as you follow your nose along the unimagined paths the real world feeds back to you), and just get on with it. Today. Start that blog now! Get recording your new podcast this morning! You’ll make endless mistakes, put out some very mediocre things to start with, but you can forgive yourself, because if you didn’t begin imperfectly, you’d never get going in the first place.”

I think it really is that simple. Just start. Imperfectly. Get on with it! Get it out into the world. We published our second episode of “3 Words for Ascuas” today, we’re getting some great feedback and listener contributions, and best of all, we are enjoying recording it immensely. Go on then, get going with your imperfect idea now 🙂

The Road to Panticosa…

The Road to Panticosa

We had the unbelievable luck of spending the summer in the Spanish Pyrenees in the region of Aragon, and photography came flooding back into my life. I would nervously send photos to friends and family knowing that they might think I was a provocative pain in the backside for sending them a continuous stream of unbelievable views. Really (I think), I just wanted to share the absolute glory I was seeing every day.

The photo that got the most animated responses (OMG! … Wow! … Bloody Hell! – things like that) was the image above. I was cycling on dirt backroads to the town of Panticosa, seen in the valley below. I came round a corner, saw the view, and got off my bike. It took my breath away. I felt unbelievably lucky. I grabbed my phone.

Down in the village 20 minutes later, I sat at a bar terrace I like very much and had a glass of wine. The Estate Agents next door had speakers above the pictures of houses and flats in the window display, and was playing surprisingly relaxing, happy, summery music. I kept Shazaming things to add to my summer playlist. Kids ran around in the street in front of the ancient, honey-coloured stone gothic church on the other side of the street. All was right with the world.

I’ve looked often at the photo since – it has begun to fascinate me – what makes it so ‘OMG-Bloody Hell-Wow…’? The mountains are amazing, the village is perfectly nestled below, but I think it’s the lines that lead us into the picture and the stories they might tell. The road I’m on, down to the village where unknown joys await. The great mountain valley in the middle of the picture that leads the eye, and perhaps (we wish!) our feet, off to distant peaks and unknown, magical lands beyond, the grassy path that veers off to the right – actually a ski run – which takes us off into the forest, or the hidden valley on the left. And the shadow figure at the bottom, me, dreaming of which way to go.

It’s like a grand old landscape painting, full of all the possibilities of the great vistas of life. Full of what’s waiting for us, full of beyonds. I take no credit for it, it was there for the taking, so to speak. It’s what happens when you get on your bike, or take to your heels, and head off down unknown paths. Pure magical possibility awaits!

Now I’m obsessed with going into mountains and taking pictures with paths in…

Spanish Pyrenees, Aragon
The Sierra de Madrid

Grasses

Casa de Campo Grasses

A few mornings ago I cycled up to the top of the Madrid’s Casa de Campo wild parkland, to a quiet spot between two great oak trees. I found myself looking at the parched grasses moving gently in the wind. They stand there quietly, in peace, free from worries and concerns, and when the time comes they’ll fall to the ground, returning to the earth that holds and sustains them, mixing with other organic matter to give new life to the trees, or next year’s grasses.

So they are not worried at all, they are from the earth, the earth holds them with a sort of gentle completeness, and it will help them later to return as something new.

If we have time to look, the earth offers us the same gentle completeness, and we can be as quiet and peaceful as the grasses as we move around on it. Why rush and fret and suffer at the mercy of wants and time and timetables? There is no reason not to live in stillness like the grasses, reassured by the solid, regenerative earth beneath our feet.

A few mornings later I left the house in despair, after receiving difficult words in a family argument. I went to the quietest suburban street near our house, and walked quietly, remembering everything I’ve ever learned about dealing with strong, difficult emotions like despair. Breathe, pay attention to your steps, come back again and again to the present moment, look at the wonders around you in the here and now… and I heard the wind in the trees, and saw the blue of the sky, and growing on the curb, a host of gently swaying, dry wild grasses. So beautiful! So peaceful! I stopped to look at them for a while, then carried on walking, returning home later with no more despair.