Slices of Dreams

Garden fern

Todays’ picture, a fern from our small garden. Inspired by David Hockney and his beautiful spring drawings and timely reminder, “Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring” – worth a look!

Reading: inspired by one of my sisters, I’ve been reading short stories.

Short stories are like little dreams, or slices of dreams even, and a little dreaming is pretty good right now. Chekhov’s stories have been taking me to the welcome other-worldliness of 19th Century Russia. Short tales of innocent, innocent childhood in India with R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends soothe the soul, and I’ve been mesmerised in a suburban living room by Raymond Carver’s Cathedral.

Circles of Inspiration

Mike’s house…

The photo above is by my friend Mike Randolph. Usually we have lunch about once a week, favouring simple menu del día places around Madrid, but nowadays, well, we’re staying in for a while!

Apparently, partly inspired by a quote I mentioned to him, he took his professional photography talents to this new indoor life, and the results are beautiful. The hats photo above brings summer into my life, the hint of the drinks brings feelings of company and shared good times.

Inspired by Mike’s photos, I picked up my camera for the first time in weeks and spent a very happy hour wandering around in our small garden, seeing what I could find:

My blackbird friend, taking grubs to his chicks
A shadow of ivy
Rose 1
Rose 2
Spring
Trunk
Bamboo

There are glorious, small universes in the spaces we have available to us right now (my middle-sister’s garden photos constantly inspire me too). Please do check out Mike’s photos, his universe, and his side of the story. May you be inspired to take some photos of your current universe too.

Windows of Happiness

Windows of happiness

While confined at home with the kids, drawing with them is one of the most relaxing things I have found to do. Above is a view from a window, an imaginary view in my mind that I drew with their felt-tip brush pens.

I think I had Matisse in mind, his warm colours in paintings like this (a poster my mother put up in the house I grew up in – thank you mum):

Matisse, Purple Robe and Anemones

Then, searching around today, I found this painting of his, The Window, and the following interpretation of it:

Matisse, The window

“In the year of the Battle of the Somme [1916], he painted The Window… It’s not that Matisse didn’t care about the trenches, a day’s journey from Paris. It intensified his sense of the loveliness of the trunk of a tree just glimpsed through the gap in the curtains, or his delight in the pattern of the floorboards – and the overall freshness and charm of a bowl of flowers in an elegant, but unpretentious room in the city. It’s as if he is reminding himself (and us) that these things are still here. They haven’t been destroyed. It’s not the work of someone who is indifferent. It is created in recognition of how easily one could be paralysed with despair. And the hint of light green leaves through the window might speak kindly to us, even today, when we’re overburdened with our own sense of the weight of life.” From The School of Life, on Matisse

Yes! This is what we need, not to fall into despair, burden, weight – what good does that do? We need a sense that the world is still incredibly beautiful, that this beauty is still available to us today, seen from our own windows, found in our own homes, or in our imagination.

It’s as if he is reminding himself (and us) that these things are still here…”

Putting our version of this onto paper with warm, bright colours, or simply recognising the enduring presence of beauty in our lives, is an uplifting wonder still available to us right now. And we have an eternal right, a human birthright, to uplifting wonder, no matter what is happening outside.

This Day, in Peace

Joy…

First, the illustration, it’s from another Haiku challenge from my sister:

Autumn evening,
there’s joy also
in loneliness.

Thank you to my friend Vincent V.G. for helping me with the sky 🙂

Now for a verse I wrote:

This day, in peace.
Whatever comes up,
Letting go of everything.

I keep this written on a piece of paper in my pocket, it occurred to me a few nights ago, after a particularly difficult day of homeschooling and home-working life.

It seems to me the only important thing right now (and really, always!) is to live in a peaceful, calm state of mind Today… which is made up of this moment. Looking after every moment – every ‘now’ – it’s all we have (the past is no longer here, the future has not yet come… )

And whatever comes up – news from the outside world, internal fears and confusions or difficult emotions – let them go as soon as possible and come back to the peaceful present moment which is full of wonderful things.

And the biggest thing to let go of all – the idea that we are in control of anything in this life and this world. It’s like the famous line, ‘you can’t stop the waves but you can learn now to surf’. Let go, and live in peace.

This day, in peace.
Whatever comes up,
Letting go of everything.

Haiku Fun

My sister Ellie sent me a challenge, illustrate this Haiku:

The mad girl
In the boat at midday,
Spring currents.

Here’s mine…

Haiku illustration
Ben’s

Here’s Ellie’s:

Ellie’s

I really enjoyed this 🙂 Seems like a fine way to spend these strange days.

Apt advice from other times:

“None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it.”
—Laurie Anderson

Art and Opportunity, Success and the Now

Stream in the woods

Being a little enclosed with the kids these days in Madrid (locked in due to Corona virus) seems to be a tremendous opportunity on endless levels. As the outside world has come to a near halt, the inner-world has a great chance to calm down too. How madly we usually live! There is much more to reflect on there, but for now, this is a wonderful opportunity to create.

Today, two watercolours. Above, a mountain stream painted yesterday, at the bottom of this post a face, that started with a roughly brushed shape that told me where to find its eyes, nose and mouth – watercolour is great like that. You stain the paper, and it can tell you what comes next. Both these images were made with the kids’ cheap watercolour set.

A note on success and the ‘now’:

There is a postcard on our fridge with a Maya Angelou quote, that says;

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

I’ll take that! At the same time, these strange times have brought me a better definition:

Success is living happily in the present moment without being lost in the past or dragged into the future.

Again, another ‘DOH!’ moment, when you realise the Zen Masters and incredibly wise people from all eons past were right all along… Happiness is about living in the very here and now.

With that in mind I’ve been practicing some of what I learned over the years from the wise books I’ve read and wise people I listened to. Verses, meditations and so on that keep me in the here and now. Here, for example, is a mindfulness verse from the Plum Village tradition to say as you begin to eat:

With the first taste, I offer joy,
With the second, I help relieve the suffering of others.
With the third, I see others’ joy as my own.
With the fourth, I learn the way of letting go.

As I sit and eat with the family these four lines give me a lot!

With line 1, I think about how I can offer joy to my wife and kids these days, and that makes me smile. With line 2, I think about how to help relieve the stress they are suffering while they are shut in the house.

With line 3, I can see their joy as my own and again it really makes me smile. With line 4, I can let go of so much: my interchanging fears, the frustration of not roaming the streets and mountains freely today, all the extraneous needs that I thought were so essential to my happiness and really aren’t at all, the past, the future… Letting go is a path to real freedom.

There are over 60 of these small verses in a little book I bought years ago, Stepping into Freedom, a sort of training manual for buddhist monastics. I like them, and hope to learn many more. (There is also a full list from that book here).

Wherever you are, have a wonderful, present-moment-filled day!

The face that appeared…

Drawing and Change…

The Albaicín, Granada

Over a month ago I proposed 4 changes I wanted to make; now that a fair amount of time has passed, I wish to hold myself to account!

Change 1 is to draw more again. It’s going well! The picture above was drawn from imagination after spending two weekends in a row in Granada (Spain), and particularly in the Albaicín neighbourhood, a labyrinth of white-washed narrow streets on a hill opposite the Alhambra. At the top is the Plaza San Nicholas, where people sit on a low wall and gaze across at the Alhambra Palace and the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains beyond.

The drawing below is what I call a Ben-Van-Hockney, as a hat-tip to obvious influences 🙂 I woke up one morning thinking of this landscape and went straight to get me kids felt-tip pens. Drawing with the kids has been enormous fun, and helped me carry on. Conclusion, this change is going very well and I’m loving it.

Landscape from a dream.

Change 2 is to read more. And to read at whim and for pure pleasure. It’s going very well! I’ve recently loved the Hobbit and am now working through the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, combined with a few of my old favourite Zen books and the wonderful Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (more on that below). Watching zero streaming TV has been key to being able to read more, and a 100% winning trade-off.

Change 3 is effortlessness – mastering the art of letting go, letting go of stresses, of worries and anxieties, of frustrations and expectations. This is a lot harder than the other three changes but is going well. I’m walking a lot in nature, listening to a lot of audios by Thich Nhat Hanh, and practicing a couple of his meditations that I have always liked, particularly walking and breathing. All this is making a huge difference. Also important is paying close attention to what stresses me and not doing those things!

Change 4 is less tech. stress! Less online and phone activities that just don’t make me feel good or add anything to my life. I’ve found a wonderful ally in Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism. Whereas I originally thought this change would just involve opening less browser tabs, I have now gone for the full 30 day digital declutter recommended in the book.

I’ve cut out Spotify, all personal use of social networks, Audible, podcasts (except the above-mentioned Thich Nhat Hahn audios), net browsing (unless for work), and YouTube. Plus, I’ve removed all social apps, web browsers and everything else I can think of from my phone – it’s now simply a device for making calls, texting via Whatsapp, and if really necessary, maps. Finally, I’ve consolidated checking email and Whatsapp to just twice a day.

And my goodness does it all feel great! The amount of other creative things you can get done! The amount of personal-thinking space you have without constant input from devices and screens! The idea is that at the end of the month you see what you really want or need to put back in again. Frankly I think I’d rather continue to live like this, as a digital minimalist.

Andalusian mountains.

Being Solid in the Storm

With regards to how to move through life, how to deal with difficult times, how to be with others, how to be with my children and my family, with myself, I am very fond of this text from Thich Nhat Hanh, taken from a talk around 20 years ago (hence the reference to Vietnamese boat people):

“I like to use the example of a small boat crossing the Gulf of Siam. In Vietnam, there are many people, called boat people, who leave the country in small boats. Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats may sink.

But if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression – face, voice – communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many…

Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person…
We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, from Being Peace (book).

How to achieve the peace and solidity he is talking about? I think the first thing is a decision to go in that direction, rather than in the direction of instability, worries or fear. And then to make the changes in one’s life that are necessary to achieve this. To look after our mental and physical health by seeing what does each good and what doesn’t, and going in the direction of health. To read and listen to wise people. To practice things that help us to calm down, be it walking in nature, sport, deep breathing, meditation (Thich Nhat Hanh has many to choose from on this page).

I truly believe that any of us can change from being tossed around by the seas of life, to being the solid person on the boat, that the change can make an enormous difference to oneself and to others, and that this change is possible very quickly once the decision has been made.

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