The regular meanderings of an author’s mind. This author’s. Thoughts and commentary about just about everything, bookended in the context of my writing career. Links to fascinating tidbits I’ve inadvertently stumbled across, reflections on intentional living and a good dose of mindfulness to boot.
I was challenged to produce a list of ten ‘must-reads’. With the proviso that I have issues with the concept, here it is. Of course, this would be a different list were I to write it again tomorrow, and this list is restricted to fiction. I may produce a non-fiction version if I’m pressured enough…
Theses are not in order; that would be too challenging.
David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Nikos Kazantakis – The Last Temptation
Richard Bach – Illusions
Donna Tartt – The Secret History
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
Hermann Hesse – The Glass Bead Game
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Terry Pratchett – Small Gods
Oriana Fallaci – A Man
Milan Kundera – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Of course, now I’m frustrated with what I had to leave out, and I’m sure I’ll wake up at two in the morning with an absolute inclusion which I forgot to include. Such is life.
What would your list look like? Feel free to add it in the comments…
Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin: An Anthology Alan Bennett
I was moved and intrigued, both by the poems themselves and by Bennett’s commentary. I find myself genuinely interested in poetry for the first time in my life and it’s as though a whole new world has opened up. I’ve tried with poetry before, so maybe I’m just a late developer and this arrived at the right time.
So it’s a beautiful sunny day and we’re seeing this place at it’s best.
Sunlight is trying to stream through the bay windows, impeded by months of neglected housekeeping, dappled dust all but obscuring the view of the maple trees slowly turning to red and gold in the late September coolness. It’s not exactly a ‘spacious’ one bedroom apartment, as advertised. Comparing the photos on the website to the reality, it’s possible to see where the camera was held up to the corner of each room. The actual 3m square kitchen does appear to be large enough to cook in; the actual 3 by 4 metre lounge big enough to lounge in. There is single glazing in all the windows and none of them locks. The fact that the apartment is on the third floor does not instill much confidence – there are custom-cut lengths of bamboo slotted into the inner rail of the lounge and the bedroom windows. It’s only for two nights, he’s thinking. The hallway cupboard reveals discarded trainers and a shoebox full of cigarette lighters, playing cards, disembodied electrical cables and a forlorn-looking remote control, minus batteries. This place has been deserted in a hurry, he’s thinking. Trying out the Lazy-boy armchair, he notices the recent ceiling paint-job, the edges having been amateurishly rushed before the roller applied, giving an unintended border to every wall. He sighs and gets to his feet, wanting to leave but knowing he’s too tired to do so. The bathroom seems clean, at first sight. But opening drawers and cupboards, he finds razors, cotton buds and toothbrushes, not all of them clean. For fuck’s sake. The bed looks comfortable, at least, and an experimental bounce confirms it. Okay, so we’ll stay and leave a shitty review, he’s thinking. Is that honest? Is that decent? Better to leave now, or better to suck it up, stay and leave quietly? He checks the cancellation policy and sees that they can’t leave early. At least not without losing what they’ve paid. It could be worse. it could be way worse, he knows, A little psychological effort and he’s got a calming mantra going in his head, Windows are open, and some organic music is filtering through the fug of abandonment which seems to pervade the apartment. Salt in the corners of the rooms, he’d once read, would absorb bad vibes. Tomorrow would be another day. There was a Canadian Shiraz in the fridge; how bad could that be? Resignedly, he washed the glass he’d found in the cupboard above the sink. Was it really that dirty, or was it the general ambiance which cast it’s gloom on everything he saw? The first glass emptied almost before he’d tasted it and, to be fair, he’d had worse. Well, much worse. This was okay. No, really, this wasn’t too bad at all. He sat back in the fake leather mammoth armchair, depressed the ‘recline’ switch and inhaled the aroma of what was, in fact, pretty good wine. This was okay, he repeated to himself. This was okay. Right here, right now, this breath. The perfection of the moment. There was always a new day, another opportunity to make new choices.
This year, The Year of the Monkey, will be the year that my next novel, The Year of the Monkey, gets revived. Not finished, you’ll note, I’m not that confident, but revived. For sure. It’s playing out in my head and it’s growing of its own accord. It’s changing direction. It’s taking on new life. It’s ditched a character, and opened the door for another. It’s entering the realm of magical realism. It’s alive!
An here’s an extract:
It was dark when she awoke. She was cold. The air-conditioning remote control showed her both that it was eleven pm and that the room was at 20 degrees centigrade. Neither of these particulars was a comfort to her. Channel surfing twenty minutes later, Tien berated herself for not being sufficiently courageous to step out into the night to explore. There was no rush though, this was an investment in her future – she didn’t need to follow the back-packer route around the country in less than three weeks. There was no desperate need to ‘do’ Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it remained in her stolen memories. She had enough money to stay comfortably ensconced in middle-of-the-range hotels for the next month or so before resorting to looking for work. She found that in fact she was happy, sitting cross-legged on this strange bed, having settled on a soundless MTV as background to her thoughts, mentally ticking off everything that she had going for her. An unanticipated confidence sprang from unfamiliar depths. She was charged, with jetlag, or caffeine, or plain excitement. She sat in a trance-like state, breathing in the optimism she now felt about her life. Suddenly the lingering doubts had vanished, and she knew she had made the right decision.
Ngoc smiled knowingly. She didn’t interfere, but instead revelled in the strength of her granddaughter. All was coming together. Her smile broadened.
In the morning, when Tien awoke to the clatter of metal shutters opening, motorbikes starting and street hawkers announcing their wares, she would vaguely remember dreaming of her grandmother, of a parting wink and a pat on her shoulder. The aroma of garlic and chilli would linger in her room, but she would assume it came from the street.
Bringing mindful, paying non-judgmental attention to the present moment has been gaining in popularity these days – once considered a developed a spiritual practice, it’s now got a foothold in pop culture. Research shows time and time again that people are happier when paying attention to what they’re doing. While the best way to build up a strong level of mindfulness into your life is by developing a regular sitting meditation practice, the ultimate goal is to make it a part of your day-to-day life – paying increasingly peaceful attention on the present moment.
In this online store, there are a range of products to buy which you might use everyday, each with a Mindfully Growing logo as a prompt to you to Stop and Be.
Of course, you don’t need to buy anything to do this! Here’s a picture of my computer as I write. A simple post-it note reminds me to Breathe. There’s one on my office door that I see when I leave, one on a mirror in the bathroom – clearly, leaving notes to yourself to remind you to stop and be present is easy.
Using an app with reminders might also work for you. I use an app called Productive which sets reminder bells throughout the day and as each rings, I take the next opportunity to sit and focus on my breath for one minute.
You can also set regular daily activities as mindfulness prompts. Brushing your teeth, tying your laces, making coffee, sitting to a meal – all of these things we tend to do mindlessly and yet they can be some of the most powerful reminders to be present in the moment.
Mindful waking. Do you hit the alarm and jump out of bed, or retreat groaning under your duvet? Try to be aware of your transition from sleep to wakefulness. Make waking each day a moment to cherish as you become mindful of your breathing, how your body feels, sounds in the room, thoughts which race for your attention.
Mindful eating. Do you ever finish a snack or even a meal without remembering having enjoyed the food you were eating. Make a commitment to have one good slow mindful mouthful of each meal you have during the day. Pay attention to the smell, texture and taste of the food. Wait until you have completely finished your mouthful before reaching for another!
Mindful housework. Seriously? Yes. Be it the washing, washing a plate or cup, sweeping or vacuuming a floor – bringing a sense of awareness and alertness to the activity will intensify your experience and make it something positive and constructive in your life, rather than a chore. Notice movements of your hands and arms, shifting your weight and the sounds you create.
Mindful showering. A great moment to stop, enjoy the sensation of water on skin, to breathe calmly, feel the texture of your own skin under your hands as you wash. Notice water temperate and movement, notice smells and sounds. See the shower not as a process to complete, but as a place you are. Now.
My advice would be to pick one activity and go with that for a week or so, before trying to be mindful in your entire day.
I’m currently taking an online mindfulness course offered by mindfulschools.com, and in the material on a section about training for compassion, I found this story which I felt compelled to share.
This iconic photograph was taken in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during a White Supremacist parade in 1996. Protestors had turned out in this progressive University town to send the message that the KKK were not welcome there. One of the SS tattooed marchers got on the wrong side of the fencing, and find himself surrounded by the anti-march protestors. He was chased and beaten to the ground.
18 year old Keshia Thomas reacted to the shouts of “Kill the Nazi,”.by jumping on the man to protect him from the mob attack she feared was likely to seriously injure or kill the man,
“Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘this isn’t right’… I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me… violence is violence – nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea,” explained Thomas, when asked why she did this.
Months later, she was approached by a young man who thanked her for saving his father (though she never heard from the father). She observed, “For the most part, people who hurt… they come from hurt. It’s a cycle. Let’s say they had killed him or hurt him really bad. How does the son feel? Does he carry on the violence?”
Mark Brunner was the student photographer who captured the image. He observed, “She put herself at physical risk to protect someone who, in my opinion, would not have done the same for her. Who does that in this world?”
Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator Leonard Pitts Jr. offered this in The Miami Herald: “That some in Ann Arbor have been heard grumbling that she should have left the man to his fate, only speaks of how far they have drifted from their own humanity. And of the crying need to get it back. Keshia’s choice was to affirm what they have lost. Keshia’s choice was human. Keshia’s choice was hope.”
Compassion and empathy, as well as a not-small-amount of bravery, are essential tools and skills. I would argue that empowering children to be this way – especially through mindfulness training – is a vital step in turning the tide of hatred and violence. This is something we should be doing in schools. It’s probably more important than teaching Maths and Science (or any academic subject), to be honest.
One of the most powerful things I have begun to do recently is a very simple gratitude practice. This began as I was recuperating from a third operation on my back in six months, and spending a lot of time reflecting, reading and discovering podcasts. One was The Tim Ferris Show, and an episode in particular where he discusses keeping a gratitude journal.
My initial reaction was of the ‘Yeah, right’ variety. But that is our brain’s default reaction to new and scary. So I decided to give myself a week and stick with it to see if I could detect any changes in myself.
The practice I now subscribe to is very simple. Each morning, following my own mindfulness practice, I write down three things for which I am grateful. I select one from each of the following categories:
1 – a relationship, past or present – or a moment within one
2 – an opportunity, past, present of future
3 – a material object in my immediate vicinity (this one is easy and fun, but also has the serious element of getting me to reflect on stuff and what I need)
With each choice, I sit down and consider what I’m actually grateful for, take a moment to picture each one in my mind and ask myself, why am I grateful for this? I try to connect with the feeling of gratitude in my body, as well as my rational mind’s explanation of why I am grateful (which I record in a journal).
Can you identity just one thing you’re grateful for, right now? Bring an open mind to it and see what you notice.
NIS runs regular Pecha Kucha nights – invited speakers have 20 images and 20 seconds per image to give a talk on whatever subject they choose. This is mine from back in 2012, on vegetarianism and saving the planet. Enjoy.
I always intended to do another, but never quite got around to it. I love the format, and the evenings are fun and inspiring. Leaving China and NIS this year, so I’ve missed that opportunity.
I’ve been asked to re-post my 2015 graduation speech, so here it is, both in video format and transcript.
Last year, you may recall that my predecessor played David Bowie’s song ‘Changes’ as a part of his Graduation Speech. I thought I’d develop that idea. So I’m going to perform a song – well, kind of…. My thanks and apologies go to Baz Luhrmann, whose classic, ‘Wear Sunscreen’ I have perhaps destroyed….
The long-term benefits of mindfulness have been documented by scientists
And I advise you to explore it if you haven’t already
If I could give you just one piece of advice for the future
Mindfulness would be it.
The rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
Than my own meandering experience, I will dispense this advice now
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth
Some of you, I know, are able to do this
But to those who cannot, trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back
At photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now
How much possibility lay before you and how radiant you were
You are are more beautiful than you currently imagine
Don’t worry about the future
Or know that worrying won’t ever help you as much as planning will
The real troubles in your life are going to be things you could never have guessed at
And only character and ingenuity you build now will help you then
You will figure out a career. Probably more than one.
You will find someone who loves you. Probably more than one.
You have a whole lifetime.
Time takes time – the only sure way to fail at life is to abstain.
Make some decisions that scare you
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts
Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours
Don’t waste your time on jealousy
Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind
The race is long and in the end, you’ll realise that it’s only with yourself
Be the friend you wish you had
Trust other people – they’re doing the best they can
And dealing with stuff you know nothing about
Enjoy moments of your life
Without feeling you have to post them on Instagram or WeChat
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life.
The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives
Some of the most interesting 30-somethings I know still don’t
Learn to cook
Save for the future
Learn about the stock market and compound interest and investment strategies
Understand that money isn’t evil,
But neither is it an end
Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t
Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t
Maybe you’ll win a Nobel prize, maybe you’ll prevent a war
Or make your parents’ prouder then they already are today
Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much
Or be too hard on yourself either
Your choices are half chance, and so are everybody else’s
Enjoy your body, use it every way you can
Don’t be afraid of it or what other people think of it
It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own
Make that a part of who you are, not just something you do
Disconnect from time to time
Get to know your parents,
Know that they will not always be there, and you have to make the most of the time you have
Be nice to your brothers and sisters, they’re your best link to your past
And the people most likely to stick with you in the future
Understand that friends come and go
Don’t promise to keep in touch when you know you won’t
But don’t burn bridges either, because one day you’ll be happy to meet people you knew when you were young
Know that going back to the country of your birth isn’t necessarily the same as going home
And that going home might never be the same again
Accept certain inalienable truths
One day you will be that 30 year old
And when you are,
You’ll fantasize that when you were young
Prices were reasonable, politicians were more noble, air hostesses were prettier, movies were better
And children respected their elders
Respect your elders
Don’t expect anyone else to support you
The world doesn’t owe you a living, but if you treat it right
You’ll find that it lets you carve one out for yourself
Don’t mess with cosmetic surgery
Your true beauty cannot be reworked with a scalpel
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it
Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of re-working the past
Shining it up and remembering our own dreams
And offering them to future generations to run with, when perhaps we did not