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

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!


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

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.


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:


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.