A Personal Board of Directors

Warm-up exercise from Making Comics by Linda Barry, a temporary ‘Member of the Board’.

Every summer we go up to the mountains for a few weeks. It’s idyllic. Everything about it is perfect for de-stressing and relaxing. For several summers in a row I accompanied my time there with great books and podcasts. Three years ago it was Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, two years ago it was many episodes of the Adam Buxton podcast (he’s a comedian who interviews interesting people) – I’d listen happily to carefully selected episodes while drawing the view from the window. We had wonderful holidays.

Then, last summer, things took an unfortunate turn. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, I watched hours of videos from an online Ecommerce course run by a hyper-productive mega-marketer who admitted he worked fastest with a combination of several expressos and a couple of nicotine patches.

I finished just before we packed the car to head to the mountains, and decided that this year I couldn’t afford to take so many weeks off, instead I needed to carry on with the Ecommerce guru’s advice and dive into learning Facebook Ads for our Spanish-teaching business.

So while my wife went on a beautiful walk in the woods every morning, I ignored the mountains out of the window and stuffed myself with Facebook Ads tutorials, then spent hours trying to implement everything while the rest of the family had a siesta. I was often grumpy and unresponsive as a husband and dad and had Facebook Ads whirling around in my head all day long. It did not make for one of our best holiday experiences.

It took months for me to work out what had happened: I’d taken the wrong guy on holiday with me. Take Thomas Merton the trappist monk with me, happy holidays. Take the fired-up Ecommerce ‘guru’, unhappy holidays. (And ironically, by the start of autumn I’d ditched Facebook Ads completely, they were totally inappropriate for our business).

All this brought me round to the concept of the Personal Board of Directors, which I heard about from writer Jim Collins. He describes this as:

‘…seven people you deeply respect and would not want to let down. A group like a set of tribal elders that you turn to for guidance at times of ethical dilemma, life transitions, and difficult choices, people who embody the core values and standards you aspire to live up to.’

People whose wisdom we can turn to again and again, to keep us on the healthiest, sanest path. Jim Collins referred to living people, but for me that isn’t necessary. If they are no longer with us or available, we can turn to their books, audio, or video, or consult with them within ourselves.

Some of mine have a permanent seat on the board, like Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, master of compassion and happiness in the present moment, who I’ve mentioned many times in my writing. I also have Thoreau, whose book Walden sent me so happily onto a course of simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Thomas Merton, who first held up the mirror to the ridiculousness of a life chasing ‘success’, and the value of going in the opposite direction. David Hockney for his contagious laughter, unerring love of nature, and endless, joyous creative output and ability.

And many women too – a nun named Sister Chan Khong, Thich Nhat Hanh’s right hand, who works tirelessly for the improvement of other people’s lives, one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met – read her autobiography. A no-nonsense straight-talking lady named Pilar who lives in Madrid and teaches us non-violent communication, and helps us out with difficult emotional situations.

Then there are others who come and go from the list – sub-members – like Lynda Barry – whose book Making Comics is giving me marvellous artistic fun and inspiration at the moment. But the core Board has been pretty strong for many years now. I think they should be responsible for deciding who else I let into my life. The wired Ecommerce guy? Just before the summer holidays? I think the board would vote a resounding ‘NO!’

So this year I’ve got a calendar reminder set up for about a month before our summer trip. It tells me to go and read a letter I wrote to myself and have stored in Google Docs. The letter tells me to be careful who I take on holiday this year, to start right then and there, a month out, by turning to creative or spiritual books, biographies and podcasts. Nothing that’s going to wind me up into a business-frenzy just before I get into the car with my wife and kids and head into the purest nature we see all year. I don’t have to read and listen exclusively to the founding members of the board if I don’t want to, but I have to be damn sure they’d approve of who I’m taking with me!

Photography for the Soul

I’ve heard that if you look after your passions you look after your soul. The other day I saw a black-and-white photograph of some telegraph poles disappearing into the mist, and I ached to go and take pictures like that again… So today I took my camera up to El Escorial, an hour from Madrid. And it felt great.

“Sometimes I long so much to do landscape, just as one would go for a long walk to refresh oneself, and in all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul, as it were.” – Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, 1882

The Farmer's Peace and Lorca's Drawings

The farmer’s horse, inspired by Garcia Lorca’s drawings

I’m sure you know the wonderful Zen Story of the Chinese Farmer, here told by Alan Watts:

“Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” 

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.” ” – Alan Watts

The point is that we never know whether anything that happens in life is really good or bad, what will be the real consequences of fortune or misfortune.

This is without doubt one of my favourite tales, and gets me out of many a mental tangle. Most of life’s difficult and seemingly impossible events can be met with a quiet “Maybe…”

What I have just been very struck by though, is the immense peace with which the farmer greets each of these events. The point isn’t just that some things can be good and some bad and we never really know, it’s that this understanding can leave us unruffled when each of these events comes along. Or at least able to regain our inner peace and composure very quickly.

I find this crucially important right now in dealing with parenting and other close and complex human relations. A difficult morning with the kids? It’s OK. Above all, maintain the farmer’s composure and deal with it from there.

I think the Zen farmer is in all of us. What’s needed is a conscious decision to connect with our farmer and stay centered, solid and in peace.


The drawing at the top of this post was inspired by a horse drawing by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

My Lorcan horse

Exploring Lorca’s drawings, I found this, ‘Man with black animal’:

Man with black animal, by Garcia Lorca

I practically jumped when I saw that! It immediately reminded me of prints by my artist sister Ellie, like this one:

Animal and man, by Ellie Curtis

When I sent her the ‘Man with black animal’ Lorca drawing above, she was amazed and said she’d never seen his art before! It seems a version of this magical creature makes his way secretly between imaginations!

Walk

Early morning…

An interesting way to set out on a walk from A to B is to choose the path of greatest silence. In the city this is just as possible as it is in the suburbs or the countryside – choosing the backstreets instead of the main roads, detouring through the middle of parks – even if it means a detour…

Then practice some sort of walking meditation, or simply the wonderful Art of Noticing… See what you can see!

This morning on the walk to the library, I saw:

Catkins springing out of a woody winter tree,
A little brother leaping into the arms of his teenage sister to board the school bus,
Pigeons gathered high in the branches of a naked leafless tree,
A glimpse of an empty swimming pool through a closing garden gate,
A neon-yellow workman’s jacket zooming above a hedge on a tractor-mower,
A suited man scratching his head outside a carwash,
A woman with bright orange hair and bright-blue sunglasses,
Sultans of Swing playing over loudspeakers as kids ran into the school yard…

Fragments of life on planet earth. Small things that gave me great pleasure to see.

On the walk home, I found this:

Almond in blossom
Wow!

When I walk around awake, I find there is a lot going on out there. All these things seem small, normal, insignificant, but they are significantly more interesting than most of my thoughts. They are real life and beauty and energy and motion, happening now!

I wish I had stopped the lady with the bright-orange hair and bright-blue glasses to thank her for brightening up the world.

Brightening life.

Favourite Books…

Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, first edition)

I had a very nice email from a reader of this blog:

“Could you share some of your all-time favorite books? I had to think hard about this; you might have to do the same. These are books that have moved you, ones you tell others about, ones that sadden you when you finish because you want there to be more, ones that give you joy. Maybe your readers will stop to think about this, too... Books are a great source of pleasure and really do make my life happier.”

What a wonderful question. And quite difficult to answer! When I think about my favourite books – especially novels – that I might recommend to others, the ones that appear are mainly from the last few years. Like, A Gentleman in Moscow, A Man Called Ove, To Kill a Mockingbird – these are books I absolutely didn’t want to end, which moved me enormously, and which I bought for other people.

(As for To Kill a Mockingbird, wow, I could write a post called ‘Atticus Finch changed my life’!)

But would I say they are my favourite books of all time? There have been so many! When I was in my teens, I read Kane and Abel by Jeffery Archer and thought it was the best read on planet earth, but probably wouldn’t buy it for anyone now! I thought the same about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Less than Zero when I was at university, favourites then because they were packed with themes that appealed at the time.

My first years in Spain were filled with Spain travelogues, like the wonderful South From Granada, that I thought was the best book I’d ever read and prompted me to write a version of my own, Errant in Iberia. And just before coming to Spain, I’d lie in the bath in London reading For Whom The Bell Tolls ’til the water got cold, dreaming of the pine forests of the Sierra of Madrid, that I now walk regularly at weekends – did that book help bring me here?

There are so many more favourite books, each accompanying me at the perfect time in my life – Walden, which along with Peace is Every Step started a tectonic shift in my way of seeing the world… Don Quijote (read in English) that helped my dive into the heart of Spain soon after arriving… Throwing ideas for this post into my notebook, I have Slaughterhouse-Five, Hard Times, The Shiralee, L’Etranger, Stig of the Dump, the Narnia series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (in fact, the whole series of Maya Angelou’s autobiography), and many more Spain books that were immensely important to me in my first years here: Homage to Catalonia, Monsignor Quixote, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Voices of the Old Sea… All complete happiness to me at the time (and surely now if I were to reread them).

Aren’t we lucky that ‘favourite books’ is such a shifting sand, that books come along just when we need them, that they accompany us where we are, or help us go where we need to go. Books are pure joy.

In the last few years, after finishing the perfect book, or reading everything by the perfect author, I might suddenly worry that I would never find anything as good again. But look how many authors, epochs and themes there are in the random and surely incomplete list of favourite books above – From Dickens to Vonnegut, from Spain to America’s deep south, Victorian England to Pre-Civil War Spain, via Sweden, Australia and Moscow. And Google tells me there are 140 million more books in the world, so I think I’ll be OK – how many more authors, places, epochs and themes are waiting within!

Thank you so much for the question S., it’s reminded me how incredibly important books have been and continue to be in my life. So many ideas and new ways of life revealed, so many places travelled, so many lives lived, so many helping hands guiding me along the way. And so many more favourites waiting to be read!

Don Q. study, copied gratefully from Pablo P.

Collaboration

My little daughter occasionally takes my phone when no one is looking and manages to activate the camera. Then I find lots of photos like this:

Untitled!

I thought this next one was actually very good, no idea what it is:

Chair and wall?

When she went to bed I put it into Photoshop, spun it 90º, fiddled with the colours, and found a nice landscape. A fine bit of collaboration!

Mountains and snow and grass.

Change 4: The Body and the Bird Feeder

A few days ago I had a nice conversation with one of my sisters about the bird feeders in her garden, how her family love watching all the local bird life gathering there to eat.

‘I want to buy some bird feeders!’ I thought, so I jumped onto Amazon and entered ‘bird feeder’. Hundreds of great options appeared, and I began opening the ones with the best reviews in separate browser tabs – soon I had 15 tabs open for 15 bird feeders, and began to read the reviews for each.

10 bird feeder-pages later I was confused, stressed, annoyed, and felt my blood pressure surging. This happens pretty much every time I start researching and review-reading online for objects to buy – whether I need them or not. A flood of browser tabs and reviews, a flood of stress hormones. Sometimes I feel an overall discomfort for hours afterwards.

The same thing happens when I work far too long on the computer without proper breaks. Or the rare times I get lost for a while on social media.

So change number 4, to add to the rest, is: Less Tech. Stress!

My body is an amazing barometer of what is and what isn’t good for me – perhaps far more insightful than my mind. Some activities make it feel good, some not so good.

It seems my body knows what I really value in life – peace, creativity, walks, reading, learning, exploring, time with friends and family, and when I’m doing something that really doesn’t match these valuable ways of spending time, it lets me know before my mind does. I aim to listen to it more closely, do more of those valuable things that feel good, and less of what my body tells me it doesn’t like at all, especially online.

Last night I sat down next to my daughter and drew a bird feeder instead. That felt great.

Change 3: Effortlessness

Trees and cloud…

The first two changes I’m making are tangible, you can hold them in your hands and see them with your eyes: drawing, and reading books. This third change is abstract, but just as real. Change 3 is Effortlessness. To live with Effortlessness.

What does that even mean?!

I have been going to the physiotherapist every month or so to get some muscle in my back manipulated back into place. If I were more mindful of my posture in chairs, and slumped less on sofa’s, I would apparently save myself a fortune. After she has sorted that out, she squeezes the knots of tension out of my shoulders and neck. Every time I go back, there they are again. It sort of annoys me. ‘Is it stress?’ I ask her… ‘Yup!’ She replies. ‘Grrrrrrrrr…’ I growl to myself, ‘I want to live without stress!’

I left the last session promising myself, and her, to take a look at my life from a metaphorical 50,000 feet, to see why these knots of stress keep coming back. What am I doing wrong? The answer was clear: Effort.

Effort as in: toil, stress, strain. Effort isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it has plenty of worthy synonyms too: application, aspiration, industry… But I often do things the first way, stressing, toiling and straining. I toil my way across town on a walk instead of taking a relaxing ramble. I stress my way through an evening’s parenting instead of smiling at all the chaos unfolding around me. I strain my way through a new piece I’m learning on the piano, and give myself wrist strain. It’s exhausting!

I really want to live like the Bobby McFerrin song, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, or Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ (Rise up this mornin, Smiled with the risin sun…) I need to chill out!

I want to master the art of letting go, letting go of stresses, of worries and anxieties, of frustrations and expectations. Letting go of the troubles of the world. Letting go of all the mad, mad running around.

Effortlessness, I believe, means living as the real me. Deep inside, this real me is very peaceful and quiet and clear. He doesn’t need to get swept away by the furious pace of our world, doesn’t need to run around, overdo it, strain and strive. The real me knows exactly what effortlessness means and knows exactly how to do it: with ease, pause, peace. All I have to do is listen, and practice.

I went looking for help from my books, and rediscovered this from Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s exactly what I have in mind:

“Have you ever met someone who seems to be skilled in the art of letting go? [They] can remind us and help us let go of worry, craving, and concern, so we can be free to encounter the wonders of life that are in the here and the now. If we see someone living in this world who is not disturbed by the ebb and flow of life, not enmeshed in afflictions, that person has freedom, that person is solid. To see such a person is the highest blessing. When we master this quality, all of our worldly afflictions dissolve and we become indestructible, completely at peace. We can become that person by practicing happiness in the present moment.” – From Two Treasures

I read it to my wife Marina. ‘Do you know anyone like that?’ she asked? ‘Just the man who wrote it…’ I said. But I know that we all have the ability to live like that. And I’m working on it.

Rise up this mornin, Smiled with the risin sun…

And the setting sun….

Change 2: Read!

We are practically Neanderthals. We don’t have a tele, we’ve never owned an iPad or tablet, and we only occasionally subscribe to a month here and there of Netflix, which we watch on the laptop.

But the last few months have seen a definite swerve from these Thoreauvean tendencies. It started when we rented a summer house in the Pyrenees with an ancient TV in it. At lunchtime, my son would flick around the good-old Spanish terrestrial TV stations, and usually end up watching an episode or two of Big Bang Theory. I’d be at the other end of the room trying to get some work done, but slowly but surely I gravitated to the sofa to watch Sheldon and friends, badly dubbed into Spanish, doing their Big Bang things.

A few episodes later I was hooked. As soon as we got home to Madrid, I resubscribed to Netflix, and began watching Big Bang Theory from Season 1, Episode 1 (in English!) A couple of months later I’d seen all 279 episodes. At 20 minutes each that’s 93 hours of TV. Ouch. Well, I don’t regret a minute of it. I laughed and laughed, it was totally therapeutic.

When I got to the end I felt a definite void, which after a brief search, I filled with Mad Men. Pure escapism into 60’s New York. It got me through the social vigours of a full-on Spanish Christmas. Of the 7 seasons, each with 13, 45-minute episodes, I watched 6 seasons, that’s 58.5 hours more TV in less than a month.

Getting Through Christmas

Around the time we took down the Christmas decorations, I decided enough TV, or in this case laptop, was enough. I wanted books back in my life.

I rounded up all my favourite books and stacked them on my bedside table. Like a sea wall, a great literary defensive fortification against my serious Netflix habit. I dipped into them here, and dipped into them there, desperate to lose myself again in the joys of a book that you just can’t put down, until, suddenly, a few days later I bought the book-answer to all my problems, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs:

… and I couldn’t put it down.

The book, a delightful, encouraging, intelligent essay, love letter and compendium of reading wisdom, is dedicated to those who know ‘what reading can give – pleasure, wisdom, joy – even if that glimpse came long ago…’ It follows the premise, made obvious in the title, that it’s increasingly hard to read, and to maintain the long periods of dedicated attention a good book requires, in this crazy age of short and often idiotic messages bombarding us from everywhere.

Even the author, a lifelong reader and English Literature professor, was having a hard time sticking with his beloved books.

Now I’m not a totally lost cause. I read a lot of books last year, but since the series-binging stared around late August, I’ve hardly read a thing. Certainly I haven’t found myself joyfully rapt in an unputdownable novel (mainly because I haven’t picked any up!) And I was beginning to worry it would never happen again. Then just as I decided I wanted to do something about it, along came this great book telling me, it’s OK, it’s happening to me too, and don’t worry, says Alan Jacobs, here’s what we are going to do to get back into books:

First and foremost, Read at Whim – don’t read like you are taking vitamins, like you are doing something that’s really good for you, like eating Broccoli, forget the guilty feeling you should only read the classics, read whatever you like!

Don’t read to tick the great books off the latest great-books list. Don’t read to see how many books you can read in a year. Read what makes you happy! Read slowly. There’s no hurry! Who cares how many books you read in a year, this isn’t some competition! As long as you are happy, just read!

I have read quite a few of the classics, either because I wanted to or was obliged to, but remember some of the best reads of my life have been born from just such moments of Whim. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code picked up years ago (guiltily – no one was looking and I was travelling alone!) at Madrid airport and devoured on an Easy Jet flight to London. A great new novel called The Nix bought about a year back on a Whim in our local bookstore. A whimsical decision last spring to buy and reread To Kill a Mockingbird – What a book! Obliged to read it at school, rapt and delighted to reread it now.

So here is the change I am making, change 2. Read. Read books! Lose myself in books! Read at Whim – whatever I like! Good books, bad books, great books, new books, old books, wise books, instructive books… and yes, some classic books. It’s all good. Read not to eat my literary vitamins (though I’ll probably get lots anyway), but for pure, pure pleasure, the way we read as kids.

To celebrate the end of Alan Jacob’s book, I popped down to the local bookshop with a headful of Whim and picked up a page-turner, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

So bye for now. The sofa beckons… Thanks for reading!

Books read, unread, bought, borrowed and received.

Change 1: Draw

There are a series of nice changes I am making in my life. I’d like to write about them, and see how they stick. The first, is to draw more again.

My grandmother was an artist, and my mother worked for a while in a shop selling antiquarian books and art, which meant that we ended up in a house with very beautiful drawings on the walls. Drawings by artist friends of my grandmother, and old drawings collected by my mother. Drawings of people, landscapes, and amongst my favourites, the occasional cat. Simple pencil drawings, and fine ink drawings. All my life I just wanted to be able to draw like that, simple drawings of nice people, places and cats.

My sisters were also very good at drawing, so drawing was ever-present at the kitchen table. My sister Ellie is now an illustrator:

‘Mushroomy lady pelting it through the evening woods’, Ellie Curtis

… and my sister Rebekah is an illustrator, artist and writer:

’50 Trees’, Rebekah Curtis

While they drew and drew, I got madly into photography, and that became my art, ‘Ben’s thing’.

A year or two after our first child was born, I got back into drawing. “Got back”, because like most people it was something I did as a child naturally, did at school because we had art classes, then stopped doing pretty much around the age of 16 (apart from doodling in margins, or while on the phone, which I’ve never been able to stop myself doing – the repressed child squeezed into the margins!)

This ‘getting back into drawing‘ was wonderful, with a few fatal caveats (obsessive self-judgement, terrible timing – I’ll get to those in a minute). To start, I found a well-known book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and was amazed by my before-and-after-the-book self-portraits:

Ben, before and after…

My illustrator sister Ellie said she preferred the ‘before’ version, and in retrospect I think she was right! It’s free and natural. (So I’m not sure I’d recommend that book – perhaps it’s better to draw as you just draw, like the ‘before’ version above, then look at and copy amazing artists, and just keep going).

Then I discovered the joys of the Urban Sketching movement, and drawing whatever was in front of me wherever I was, and produced some things I really liked, often adding watercolour :

View to our roof terrace in Madrid

As is my way, I kept a blog about my drawing experiences, and even started a sketching group in Madrid. A few of us, total strangers, would meet, wander, and sketch.

Drawing became very important to me for about two years. It was creative, meditative and pleasing. Then slowly but surely it began to fade. Why?

Firstly, it was muddled up with my age-old need for recognition, mixed with my skill for incredibly inappropriate timing. I’d often draw at times when I should have been helping, helping to get our toddler out of the house, to make lunch, pack a suitcase… I’d thrust my finished drawing under the nose of my tired, overworked, by now p’d-off-at-drawing wife, and say, ‘What do you think? Is it any good?’ Then I’d find out where I could stick my drawings … but never if they were works of art or not.

My obsessive nature, (now mellowing!), which had me doing new things at all the wrong hours of the day, and my desire to do things incredibly well, just didn’t fit in with the needs of our new husband-wife-child life. We had no help and little clue how to be parents – bad time for Ben to dive headlong into a new hobby.

And then there was the judging mind. ‘Is it any good? Am I getting any better? It’s terrible! I’m rubbish! Ooooh, this one is really good… or is it? etc etc etc’ – the exhausting inner-dialogue! Anything that makes my mind do that needs to be paused purely on mental health grounds!

So the drawing slowly disappeared, and I went back to doodling in margins and being slightly envious of people that draw, seemingly effortlessly, and usually beautifully, just because they can’t help themselves.

So this is Change number 1!

I would like to draw more again. I’ve started already and it’s giving me joy. I’d like to draw with no judgement – who cares if it’s any good! Some will be, some won’t be. I’d like to draw with zero need for recognition (might be asking a lot…) I’d like to draw so my kids see me drawing and understand that drawing is a wonderful thing. No, hang on, I’d like to draw because it is a wonderful thing, and I learned that in the last few months by watching my 3 year-old daughter draw! (To get unstuck borrow a kid!)

Yes, I’d like to draw for fun! That’s it, for fun! For pleasure, for joy, for delight, to lose myself for a while.

Here’s the tree I drew in the library this weekend, while my daughter was drawing with other kids at a nearby table:

Tree from imagination

Here’s a motorbike I sketched while we sat in the parked car listening to the end of a podcast:

Bike sketch!

Here’s what the table looks like when I draw with my daughter.

How tables should be

So that’s it. I’ve worked it out:

Change 1 is: I want to draw for fun and pleasure. Nothing else. Not to be good. Not to be told I’m good. Not because I want to show my kids anything – they’re the ones showing me! I want to draw because like them I found it fun as a child and I want to regain and reclaim that childlike fun, do things I can lose myself in, in any way I can. I want to draw like my daughter. For hours, without a care in the world.

And finally…

  • I am very grateful to Austin Kleon. I like his books, especially the latest, Keep Going, and his blog is one of the few I read with regular devotion. He’s creative, writes intelligently, isn’t ashamed of sharing the doodles and sketches in his notebooks, and has fun.
  • This is a very good TEDx talk, refreshingly unplanned and disorganised, by a great artist who asks, why on earth to do we draw when we are kids, then stop until we are old and retired – what happens in between? I’m in between, and take up his challenge.