Directing your attention towards what really matters (without resorting to a battle cry or tears)

Posted on 8 min read
I have a bit of an affinity for building log piles. Throwing logs around forces you to focus on what you’re doing. Otherwise you bash your fingers.

If your ugliness was remarkable, and you lived in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century, you might have found yourself invited over for drinks with the handsome Leonardo da Vinci. He was keen to meet ugly people.

Leonardo was a gifted story-teller and could induce a plethora of emotions in you though his tales. He’d make sure you were well entertained. His stories would make you crease up with laughter. Laughter so violent your face would contort into extreme expressions.

And then, he would disappear. He’d scamper straight back to his studio, where in painstaking detail he would recreate your fantastical features into drawings designed to entertain his patron and make the Milanese court howl with laughter.

His magic came from his intense ability to focus his attention on your face. As he was telling his stories he would be observing your movements until he knew your expressions better than you’d know the expressions of your own lover.

Such intense attention isn’t something many of us are very good at. Which is a pity really, because intense attention is at the crux of a good life.

In this article I am going to skip speedily through three ideas that changed how I structure my time so that I would be more attentive (and therefore lead a better life):

  1. The relationship between happiness and attention
  2. The ‘attention residue effect’ (or why distractions are doubly bad)
  3. The aim for greatness

Let’s start.

Of the many books I have read, Flow by Mihalyi Cskiszentmihalyi might have had the biggest impact

In his book Cskiszentmihalyi talks about that elusive sensation where we are so immersed in a task that it feels almost like a different reality. We are doing something that’s difficult enough to challenge us, but at the same time is just within our abilities.

For me, painting, when it’s going well gives me some of this feeling… or writing a story, where the characters seem to be leading the way and I am compelled to follow along. Or a conversation with an old friend who knows the right questions to ask and so time disappears.

It’s in this state of activity that people report being the happiest.

This was a bit of a ah-ha moment for me, because I figured that if I could work out how to get to this ‘flow’ state, I could make myself happy more consistently.

As you might have guessed though, attention is a prerequisite for flow.

This point was hammered home again when I was reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work

He quotes a science writer called Winifred Gallagher who after discovering she had cancer decided to put more effort into choosing what it was she was paying attention to.

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt (Quoted by Cal Newport in Deep Work)

For me this translates to setting time aside, free from distraction, to do the things I love.

So I know now that I have to fight to create a distraction free zone within my life

I have complete sympathy for the teenager at school who explained that she waits until her parents and sister have all gone to bed before getting out her books and beginning her homework and exam revision. This is obviously not an ideal situation, but it drums home how if a fourteen-year-old can make it happen, we can too.

There are small steps you can take

For me, having a meditation practice has been a great instructor. It has shown me the difference between trying to control yourself with willpower, and surrendering and accepting. Battle cries, even internal ones, are exhausting.

I also keep my phone at a distance, play dull background music and try to keep a clear desk. Little things, but each contributes to keeping me on track.

This however isn’t enough

I thought I was doing well, but in reality I was still struggling. No surprise really as the brain is terrible at separating one task from another.

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

It sounds obvious when you read it like that

Before sitting down to write this article I was listening to a podcast, and now, although a bit of time has passed, a small part of my mind is still drawn back to the ideas of the podcast. Part of me is thinking ‘how do I share this information I’ve learnt with my sister’ whilst another part of me is trying to write this article. My attention is subtly divided.

Cal Newport goes on to explain that this residue is worse if Task A was a light task that was not definitively ended… all that instant messaging is bogging down our brains. I can easily be thinking about a number of different conversations at once, but the truth is, I can’t do this and also write this article well.

I try to soften this attention residue effect with a cup of tea before I start working on a new project

Does that sound counter intuitive? Before I thought the best idea what to jump straight into the next task and not waste time. Take my tea to my desk. But now I’m beginning to think that maybe there is a benefit to ‘putting the toys away’ and having a moment of calm before starting something new.

Meditation and moments of calm might make you a little uncomfortable

And some people get a bit embarrassed by the pseudo-science and the self-help label of some of what I read, but what I’m searching for are techniques I can apply which make me better at what I do. Once I have the idea from the book, it’s time to test it.

After all, the end goal of this is that I want to do some solid work
I want my life to be meaningful. I might believe we’re just a speck of dust in an incomprehensibly large universe, but ambition resides amongst these particles of mine.

I imagine you have ambition too.

Not being mediocre, but being great is the main purpose for profound attention

The biggest theme of the Deep Work book is that if you want to be great at something, you need to spend time deliberately practicing in a focused manner at a deep level.

Which led me to my next book.

The church at Sella. Got to practice my painting!


My current read is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci

I picked up this book not because of the artistic merit, but because Cal Newport wrote about how Walter Isaacson could fall into a deep, writerly trance and focus with incredible detail on the work he was doing at any moment. This was a skill that he picked up from his journalism career. It’s not an easy skill to muster.

Of course I was curious. I want to be able to focus intently on writing, even when my life is chaotic because I’m in the midst of travelling. However this ability requires a lot of practice. You can’t just sit down and write at this depth as a matter of willpower. You’ll just exhaust yourself trying. Instead you have to train your attention like a muscle.

I admit, I’m motivated to read the book by envy

I marvel at that crisp elegant writing style. But it’s not enough to stare at the phrasing longing for the skill. My job is to keep on creating distraction free moments for myself. I have to deliberately practice the skills that I want to acquire. With time, and deep attention, I will, inevitably, get better.

But of course, reading the book I am also envious of Leonardo himself. Let’s take the odd piece of work of his known as the Vitruvian man, the famous image of a man stood in a circle and a square, arms outstretched. And briefly look at how Leonardo’s obsessive attention managed to create the version of the Vitruvian man we recognise today.

The first thing I was amazed to learn was that Leonardo wasn’t the first man to try creating this image

It was not a novel idea. There was plenty of competition. He had multiple friends (or colleagues) working in Milan at the time, who also took an interest in the old writings of the Ancient Roman called Vitruvius and set about drawing out the proportional image Vitruvius described.

Each of them drew a man, stood with his feet touching the base of a square, head touching the top. From there though things weren’t quite the same. Some artists took the measurements of the ‘perfect man’ straight from Vitruvius’ writing. Leonardo gave the challenge more attention. He got out a tape measure and corrected the measurements, producing an image of a man with incredibly accurate proportions.

Leonardo was great because he paid such greater attention to the detail of his work

He’s great despite barely finishing anything at all. He’s great because with that power of attention he developed a incredible skill. The skill was recognised for its greatness.

And so history has picked a winner, and the version of the Vitruvian man we know today belonged to Leonardo.

And don’t we all want to be winners?

Which brings us to the end.

To quickly recap what we’ve covered here:

  1. If you want a rewarding life, you need to have skillful management of your attention.
  2. Skillful management of attention includes being aware of what we do before we sit down to work because of the ‘attention residue’ effect.
  3. Greatness typically requires committing our focus to the activity we want to be great at, probably almost obsessively so.

One last thought. Remember those ugly people? Well one of Leonardo’s ‘grotesques’, those super ugly pictures, went on to inspire the image of the vile-looking Queen of Hearts in the original illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. I find it quite formidable to think that the incredible expression of her face (I hated her image as a child) came from a real woman, living in Milan in the 1400s, and her momentary emotion has been shared now to entertain so many children.

If you enjoyed any of these ideas, you might enjoy one of the following books:

  • Walter Isaacson’s beautifully written Leonardo da Vinci
  • Cal Newport’s easy to read Deep Work
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s a bit heavier, but totally worth it book simply called Flow

Or perhaps Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi’s TED talk

Reducing phone dependence (and not getting stabbed)

Posted on 6 min read
Imagine the conversations that happen here. Greece, 2016.

It is not unusual to hear that there has been some sort of problem with a child at school. These students weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. They aren’t hand-held. They are discovering how to get on within society by trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error.

Occasionally though, a story you hear doesn’t seem to fit.

One morning I found myself sitting chatting with a teenager, practicing exam questions. Her English was smooth, her answers grammatically intact, she had a clean face, her hair neatly brushed. The sort of student you don’t worry about.

But behind the scenes I knew that her story was more complex

That week she’d brandished a kitchen knife at her mother.

Because?

Because her mother had tried to take her phone away from her.

At first I couldn’t believe it

But then I began noticing how frequently the students were touching their phones in class. How when they were straining to find the vocabulary to speak with me, beneath the desk they were caressing their phones like a comfort blanket.

In our heads we might think, how can a child be addicted to her phone, but in our hearts we know a deeper truth. As a society we’re more dependent on our phones than we would like.

When we’re happy, when life is going well, this phone-reliance doesn’t necessarily strike us as a problem

It might strike us as annoying when conversations with friends get derailed by a bleep or a flash, and sometimes we find that more time has slid by than we intended, but by and large we’re just doing as everyone else around us seems to be. It all seems pretty normal.

But life isn’t all butterflies and sunshine. There are days where the phone feels like an anchor and we are terrified of drifting away. Fingers flick across the screen as if it were an activity as necessary as breathing. We’re seeking out notifications, a moment of acknowledgment of our existence, and a balm for the discomfort of reality.

This article will talk about two techniques I started using when I was in therapy, and one used by my sister.

  1. A desk drawer
  2. Knitting
  3. De-notification

I love writing and so writing was always going to be a big part of my therapy

Recording how I was feeling, finding words to express the inexpressible, pounding the keys and seeing the words appear on the screen, all this gave me a sense of being me again. But it was touch and go at one point, because beside my keyboard I would place my phone.

My desk is one of those beautiful green-leather topped creations

I rescued it from a junk shop in Wales, telling the man that if he could fit it in my car I would buy it from him. He grinned. Of course the desk would fit. The two legs, thick blocks of ornate wooden drawers detach from the surface, making it easy to slide straight into my car.

It was these drawers, the top ones which are lockable, which I turned to when my mind was a mess. My technique was not complex. All I did was move my phone from resting on the green leather surface to laying in a drawer amongst my papers.

This created a barrier

And the barrier made me think, it made me realise how frequently I was reaching out to my phone. It didn’t stop me looking, but it made me more aware of how often I actually did so. Which made me see how ridiculous I was being, and so, slowly, I stopped.

And began to write more.

But not everyone is trying to create more writing space

My sister doesn’t write in the same obsessive manner as I do. And so the technique she has taken up is slightly different. I visited her for Christmas and was astounded to see a large ball of white wool squished between the sofa cushions.

“My psychotherapist suggested I find something to do with my hands,” she explained

I could understand this. She’s always been a fidgeter, tapping surfaces, wobbling tables, tearing serviettes into tiny pieces. And touching her phone had taken a similar role. Like drumming her fingers on the dining-room table, her constant phone use had become rather anti-social, but unlike tapping her fingers, her phone was just making her feel more and more anxious, whilst simultaneously becoming more and more addictive.

Knitting seems to have stepped into this role

At Christmas she was simply working on white squares. White was the colour wool she’d found, a remnant of when the Nonna taught us both to knit as children, but since then the Mother has provided her with different colours, and my sister has developed her squares to include different stitches.

It’s a simple way that she keeps her hands busy in the evenings. She doesn’t, after all, want to lose count.

But what do we do about the bleeping screams of our phones?

My second technique (the third in this article), and the one that felt more ruthless, involved saying no to notifications. At first this felt like something rather rude. As my life is moving from solely revolving around being my mother’s poorly child to an independent adult I am having to be a little more lenient in some respects, but in general I don’t have a half-hearted approach for notifications.

I want to choose when you’re allowed to interrupt me.

So I went into the app notifications part of my phone settings and turned off everything

If an email arrives, nothing happens. If someone comments on an Instagram post, the first I will know about it is when I open up Instagram. And if you have me on WhatsApp, unless I would consider myself one of your emergency contacts (i.e. you are my sister), you can assume that you are muted.

Basically, the only people likely to ever get an instantaneous response are my parents and my sister. If we have plans in the next day or two I might unmute you, temporarily. But otherwise my phone behaves as if I had no friends whatsoever.

Now I have a boss and a few clients, I occasionally make a few additional exceptions. When a lesson is cancelled I do want to know. But in general I still stick to my approach of limiting instantaneousness to the moments when I’m the one choosing to chat.

Maybe this lack of availability strikes you as crazy or selfish

Or worse, like I’m avoiding life, running away from people who just want to chat. But this is not the case. This technique allows me to have bigger, substantial chunks of time which I can dedicate to the people I love in a meaningful manner. Instead of a constant pattering back and forth I tend to invite my friends to come visit me, schedule video calls and write longer more in-depth emails.

I have many friends at home with whom I want to maintain a deep and meaningful relationship, but I don’t need to know what they’re doing today, or tomorrow, or even next week. I need to clear time in my diary for them, and then I need to live my life so that when we do talk, I have something worthwhile to say.

You might imagine that ignoring people upsets them

But I actually get more people apologising for pestering me than complaining that I’m ignoring them. And those people who do complain that I’m ignoring them, or not being a very good friend… well I start to question how healthy our relationship actually is.

These are just three tiny techniques

But by using an array of tiny techniques we can start to build a better relationship with our phones.

To recap:

  1. Put your phone behind a barrier such as in a drawer or separate room
  2. Occupy your hands when you’re most likely to mindlessly flick back and forth
  3. Switch off all but the most essential notifications to remove the flashes and beeps that steal your attention

But where does that leave our knife wielding teenager?

We can’t know. I cross my fingers and hope that someone in her life will demonstrate how to have a healthy relationship with technology to her, and in the meantime, her dependence will be treated with kindness and as the serious addiction, the illness, that it has become.

So what can you do today?

Get mindful about who’s watching how you use your phone. Are you setting a good example, or do you need to experiment with some of these techniques?

Changed by a conversation and then changed again, and again, and again

Posted on 3 min read
An evening walk and time to reflect.

I have a delusion in my mind that life will somehow become a little simpler. It is a delusion because life does not unfold that way. Each crease brings out a more nuanced view of the world. Every person you meet complicates matters. You realise that you are more than you thought, and less than you thought, and that these two, logically contradictory thoughts are simultaneously true.

When you are child existence is only that which you can see and feel

The idea that your parents might have another life outside of you is something that creeps upon you slowly. At some point I realised that the Mother was a nurse, which was good because nurses are good, that she looked after poorly children, which is also good because looking after poorly children is good. And then, sometime a little later, these thoughts coalesced in my brain and I realised that there were other children in the Mother’s life, children who were not me or my sister, and I was jealous.

At first such a jealousy is acute. However, as time passes, whilst it remains, and will most likely always remain, it merges into something else. My mummy is a nurse. She looks after poorly children. The words circulate and embed themselves. Jealousy meets pride and the two emotions, which at first seem to point in opposite directions – I both want my mummy to be saving these poorly children and I really don’t want to share her – collide. More emotions build up, I am simultaneously happy and sad about the Mother’s other existence.

In conversations, the deep moving ones, the ones that put a course correction on our lives we often walk smack bang into these contradictions. For example, you find yourself listening to someone relaying something that it difficult to hear and whilst you are terribly uncomfortable with the listening, you appreciate being the chosen one who is trusted enough to hear.

Hearing great stories of resilience, humbly told, we realise how small our own achievements really are

Just this week I felt the shock hit through my chest as I reflected upon a recent conversation. I pride myself on my resilience, my insistence on loving my life, my determination to appreciate and be grateful for that which I have. The sensation that I felt in my chest, the shock, reminded me how many other, incredibly resilient people there are out there who don’t have things as easy as I do, who don’t have the same levels of support around them, who don’t have a strong foundation of a loving family, who have no anchor, but at the same time are carrying much heavier responsibilities.

And yet, at the same time, that conversation was a dialogue not a monologue. I had earnt that conversation by being me, by trusting, by listening, by being open to a reality that is not so splendidly shiny as we sometimes imagine life should be.

Occasionally someone walks through my life and in the process of assimilating their story, which is not just a moment of listening, but involves deeper reflection and awareness, I am changed. Conversation redirect my thinking. It’s a two-way game. Being heard gives me the confidence to take a step forward. Listening teaches me where to take that step.

A friend who listens reflects my voice back towards me

The more people we encounter and converse with like this, the more stories we immerse ourselves in, the more complex our vision of the world becomes. Through such challenging conversation we can, if we chose, begin to learn what we sound like. It’s not always easy listening. I frequently get the difficult things wrong and have to adjust the acoustics. Time and time again I say the wrong things in the wrong moments, but I know that if I keep adjusting, keep subduing the need to defend myself from every uncertain whisper, then I learn. If you are lucky, you spend your life adjusting the acoustics of you own voice.

Voices after all aren’t found, they are grown.

A miraculous transformation to being a morning person (should it last)

Posted on 5 min read
No, I didn’t set an alarm. Yes I really did just wake up to this.

I am in trouble.

You see I was rather loud in my breaking of a glass, outside of the Casera’s bedroom door, at seven in the morning. Making noise at 11pm is normal here. The kids in the apartment above run up and down the hallway. The ‘grandmas and grandpas’ in the ‘grandma and grandpa club’ hold a weekly disco. At seven though the apartment block is in silence. As there are no carpets, and few curtains, every sound, especially my clunking door reverberates throughout.

When you smash a glass of yogurt and then proceed to clear it up, cut your finger and wrestle with the cat who is very much awake and bored, you get into trouble.

History would suggest that I wouldn’t even think of being up this early

However something has changed. For reasons unknown to me I’m doing morning. I’m up early drinking coffee made in my new, tiny Italian moka (pot that you put on the hob to brew coffee). I eat breakfast. I have a short yoga routine. I practice my Spanish. And all before heading out to school.

Waking up, doing yoga, meditating before bed…

These are all things I have wished to do in an elegant habitual fashion for many years. Doing them though didn’t happen. I lacked the willpower to force any of it to happen. There were odd days, once every six months or so where I would wake in a spritely fashion and have a remarkable morning. Odd days. A good intention of executing efficient and energetic morning routines everyday would gestate in my mind. I’d tell myself that this would be a new beginning. The beginning would never get started. The next day I would find myself wondering what devil possessed me to set my alarm clock so early.

So when, at the beginning of January I found myself waking up, and feeling awake before seven, I figured that it was a temporary aberration. I would soon revert to my clumsy bear-coming-out-of-hibernation style getting out of the front door. Brushing my hair would return to the wayside. My hair would revert back to its messy bun. Coffee would wait until break time.

A few days later, when I was still getting up early, I began to worry. Yes, I could now touch my toes, what with all the yoga, but the awake-ness was weird. It was abnormal.

The teachers at school were still recovering from Christmas

They bumped into students as they passed them in the corridors, eyes not quite open, cheeks limp. In classes, the students folded their arms and lay their heads down to rest. The teachers forgot what they were supposed to be teaching and their already Spanish timekeeping took a turn for the worse.

Meanwhile I was bouncing. The children were drinking chocolate milk and eating cookies for breakfast, but it was me who exhibited the characteristics of a nine am sugar high. I experimented with decaffeinated coffee in the mornings, but it made no difference.

I began to worry. When I have too much energy, or when I sleep for fewer hours, I tend to be charging into a wall. I decided that with so much energy, the outcome could only be a catastrophic crash and so, wiser than I once was, I decided that I needed to implement emergency measures.

I figured my emergency measures needed to reflect my resources

I’m practical like that. And January has been sunny. Daily, I have a bright blue sky, a warm yellow sun and I have to wear a moisturiser with UV protection. On a tangent here I’ll add that it would be embarrassing to burn. The colloquial Spanish word for a Brit is ‘gamba’, which means prawn. Back to my resources, I have sunshine and access to a balcony. So, on arriving home from school, I pop the kettle on and migrate to my plastic chair in the sunshine. The heat can be so intense that I have to turn my back to the sun, but it’s a place good for relaxation.

Here I engage in the very serious task of winding down.

This is important as at school I am a fountain of energy

I have no idea how to persuade a teenager on too few hours’ sleep who hasn’t had a decent breakfast to tell me about his life in a language he feels foolish speaking in without spurting stories. My tactic is visible, genuine fascination. I smile; I laugh. I am a caricature of the English. They tell me that in their free time they play football, see television and play video games. I tell them they watch television and ask what position they play on the pitch and how they win their favourite video game.

In England I would be pretty self-conscious about the bursts of extroversion that spew from my mouth each day. I cross the threshold of the staff-room each morning with a cheerful doubling up of my welcomes: “¡Hola! Morning! How’s thee? ¿Qué tal?” When I do speak Spanish, I find that putting it across with a bubbly extroverted spring is much more successful than with self-doubting, quiet articulation. Nobody understands doubt within a voice. Everyone understands grandiose gestures.

All this is exhausting

Exhausting, excessive bubbly behaviour and changes in my sleep pattern are to me like a sick canary in a mine shaft. They’re a warning of trouble.

Hence, when I arrive home I curl up in the sun and read. I choose to slow down. Sometimes I have a siesta. I cook and listen to a podcast. Instead of writing on my computer, I pick up my journal. In fact, I avoid my desk. There are so many ways to get sucked into the computer that feel good, but are, after a while, quite draining.

Sometimes I go for a walk.

I have no idea how regular folk manage their energy

I work less than twenty hours a week and it still takes me a lot of effort to manage that small demand on my time and energy.

So far though, I haven’t crashed. I’m still doing yoga each morning. I’m still meditating before I go to bed. I’m still making a fool of myself at school in such a way that the children can’t help themselves but engage. I am happy.

I’m wondering, if, maybe, just maybe, I’ve cracked this morning thing…

As long as I don’t disturb the Casera’s sleep with any more broken glassware.

A yoga masterclass, this time in Spanish

Posted on 9 min read
Sunrise across the salt lagoons at Mar Menor.

My father likes to say that I land on my feet. I like to think it’s the effect of my wonderful, charming personality. I compel people to be wonderful around me. Either way, when I arrived in Spain, I found myself falling straight into the safe hands of the Casera/Landlady.

Our first conversation, back in October, was the twenty-minute drive from the bus station to her house and was inhibited by our lacking language skills, neither of us could speak a sentence of the other person’s language. With another person, this might have led to a very quiet trip, but the Casera is an extroverted Spaniard who believes in good hospitality. We talked the entire way.

A few months on and we can converse in an almost fluid manner. Predominantly I speak Spanish and she speaks English, although we both regularly revert into our own languages for some clarification. Oddly this leads to us taking journeys together where I explain English grammar to her in Spanish and she explains Spanish pronunciation in English. Grammar is a good conversation topic. I like her to keep both hands on the wheel when she’s driving.

Anyway, the Casera is a woman full of life. She’s a national swimming champion, a professional coach and a pilates teacher. She’s also fascinated by some weird branch of yoga called Kundalini, which has some relation to yoga, but as she tells me on a regular basis is more spiritual.

Yesterday, she decided to go to a masterclass in Kundalini. Since she didn’t want to go alone she invited me. She made it more enticing by suggesting that I join her at her sister’s house and spend the afternoon in the large garden there with the puppies and 22 degrees of sunshine. She would cook lunch.

I’m not one to say no to such an offer. Plus, I figured I could write a blog post about it and that would amuse the Mother. I stuffed my book and my leggings in my bag and slathered sun cream on my legs and arms.

I could write about the afternoon, but you’d probably just be jealous. It was tranquil. And is rather overshadowed in my mind by the yoga. Now, I could write about navigational difficulties and getting the time wrong and the Casera forgetting her phone and my phone battery dying, but that would distract from the experience itself.

Eventually we arrived, early, having previously got the wrong time, and were welcomed into the yoga studio. Like other yoga studios, there was a place for depositing bags and shoes, a set of shelves holding mats, cushions, blankets and blocks, gentle music and dimmed lights. I was worried, initially, that the class was going to be just the teacher, the Casera and I, but soon another woman arrived. She looked normal, until she started getting changed into all white and covered her hair in a peculiar little white hat which reminded me of a swimming cap.

The Casera and the teacher clearly knew each other, and conversation was instant and voluble. I was introduced, and the teacher, smiling in a yoga-teacher-who-won’t-be-fazed manner, asked me if I could speak Spanish.

I told him a little. The cogs whirred in his brain. Then he started speaking in English. Not fluent English, but the broken English of someone who is a new but enthusiastic learner and has just realised that this is a grand opportunity to practice. I replied in my mixture of Spanish and English, smiling in a you-can-speak-English grin with regular encouraging nods.

In a gentle, unrushed style we found mats. The teacher made sure that I had everything I needed and asked me about my yoga experience.

The problem with my yoga experience is that I’ve never had a regular teacher. I first did yoga at the gym when I was at school. I did some yoga at university, but it was a large class and there was no specific feedback. I have been on a yoga retreat with the Mother, in which we did some different styles of yoga. I have frequently done yoga from the Mother’s over 50s DVD. And then there was a yoga experience in Germany, in German, a language which I don’t understand. I explained some highlights of this in Spanish, badly. Normally people frown when they don’t understand, but I’m not sure yoga teachers of deeply spiritual strange yoga practices, where they dress in all white, can frown. I was therefore uncertain whether I was understood at all.

The worry I think that the teacher had, I realised later, was that Kundalini yoga is not like other yoga. Asking me about my yoga experience was kind of irrelevant. It was the wrong question. The question they should have asked was about meditation, but they didn’t. The Casera reassured the teacher that I was a meditative, spiritual person, a description which in her English translates as ‘nun-like’ and involves her shutting her eyes and pretending to pray. It’s a subject to avoid when she’s driving.

I was given a card with the chants written on them, the teacher tried to explain, the Casera interjected that I didn’t have to chat, I asked for pronunciation clarification and we began. A gong hung on the wall. I sat on my meditation cushion and copied everyone else.

After a little strange chanting we began a few stretches. The teacher decided that this was the place to practice his English and so the Spanish instructions (which I mostly understood) were supplemented with English. When we got to ‘put your hands on your knees’, the yoga teacher couldn’t remember the word for knee and so paused to ask me. I successfully gave him the word.

However, the weird bending I was then supposed to do flummoxed me. The teacher came over to help. The Casera stopped bending and turned around to help too. The lady across the room kept bending, repeating what I found a strenuous challenge in an elegant manner. If I were her I would have been rolling my eyes at the commotion. The yoga teacher and the Casera wanted me to move my hips in a different way, but as nobody knew the word for hips the Casera resorted to some wild gesturing. Eventually I either got it or they gave up.

We returned to sitting on the floor. From then on, the session focused on meditation. There was no more strange stretching, just sitting very still. My posture was deemed acceptable for this and so we got going.

At this point it’s worth noting that I had no idea when the class ended. It started at half eight, but there was no clock on the wall and I had taken off my watch.

There was a gong. The teacher gonged the gong and I sat with my hands in front of my heart being still. The teacher gonged the gong again and again. I sat still.

A life of travel is very good at teaching you to surrender to the moment. It’s a life of train stations and airports, immigration queues and incomprehensible menus. I regularly don’t understand the conversations I have; the culture surprises me (we don’t greet our yoga teachers with kisses in England); and I’m frequently oblivious as to what I’m supposed to be doing – hence the earlier navigational difficulties.

The gongs kept sounding, every time I thought the chimes might be about to slow down, there would be another gong-g-g-g and after a long time I realised that I was going to be sitting here a while.

When I did Vipassana meditation, which my friends like to describe as cult-like and weird, I could barely sit straight for fifteen minutes. Feeling sorry for me, the people who look after the meditators gave me a back board. Since then I have not really done much Vipassana, it’s quite heavy-going meditation, but I have done some more ‘mindfulness’ style meditations and now have a daily practice. It turns of that if you practice mediation every day then your back does in fact get stronger.

This all might deceive you into thinking that when it comes to meditation I know what I’m doing. This isn’t true. Frequently, I find meditation rather challenging. My mind starts thinking about other things. When it falls into the trap of pondering the past I drag it back out, but when it is excited, creative, or fantasising about the future, I get swept up in my thoughts. Quite frequently I meditate with a little odd chanting meditation – although weirder it’s gentler than a more silent meditation – and instead of just doing what I’m supposed to I spend the time trying to roll an r at the end of every syllable. ‘Sa, ta, na, ma’ becomes ‘SaRR, taRR, naRR, MaRR’. I still can’t roll my r and it rather disrupts the meditation.

The book that I’m reading, Deep Work by Cal Newport, mentions the idea that sometimes, if you want to do something properly, deeply in fact, a good trick is to attack it with a grand gesture. He gives the example of J.K. Rowling, when struggling to finish the Deathly Hallows, moving herself into a hotel. I figure this is what enabled me to do ten days of silent Vipassana. I also believe that a serious Kundalini yoga masterclass, in Spanish, is a pretty grand gesture compared to my normal meditation practice which involves me sitting on my bed for ten minutes.

I think, that last night, kept myself going with the bewilderment that I could.

Then the session got weird. Instead of gongs or chants, which I do at least associate with more spiritually inclined meditation practices, I heard the teacher tell us that he would play a song in English. At first, I didn’t think I could have translated right, but nope, a few moments later, some feel happy some about flowers being reborn started playing from the speakers.

I was now instructed to put my hands on my forehead, and then a little later, just when my arms felt like they might drop off, on my head. Every now and then some English words would interrupt the Spanish, so I knew that I was clearing out my subconscious or whatever else I was supposed to be doing.

When I finally opened my eyes, I discovered that the lady in white had moved to lean against the wall and the Casera had stretched out her legs and moved around in her heap of cushions. I of course was still sat upright on my cushion in my elegant meditation posture.

More meditation followed, this time lying down. At first I didn’t understand the instruction but after a tangential conversation where the Casera explained to the teacher that it was past my bedtime already, and I rolled my eyes, I worked it out. The Casera thinks I’m strange because I still, even after months of living in Spain, insist on going to bed at dinner time. Personally, I’m quite happy with my ten o’clock bedtime and the more I encounter the zombie like Spaniards at work, the more convinced I become that I’m the one with the healthier strategy.

I stretched out my legs, lay down on my mat and covered my body with my blanket. There was another song, this time in some language that was neither Spanish or English, but which occasionally included a random line in English. I lay still, waiting, and then sometime later I started wiggling my toes and my hands, in the typical fashion that one reawakens oneself after such a yogaing, the teacher delighted in saying words like ‘toes’, ‘feet’ and hands’ in English. I smiled encouragingly and sat up. The lady in white continued to sleep and the Casera began making gentle noises to gently wake her.

We were finished. I was relieved to have survived. We expressed gestures of thanks, and then proceeded to, in a very Spanish fashion, leave. Spanish fashion because you can’t simple say thank you and leave in Spain. It is required that you first engage in a lengthy conversation in my case a discussion of why the English language has so many conflicting rules. We chatted about accommodation, rental agreements, the names in English of kitchen appliances, and the state of language learning in Spain.

Eventually, we left. When we arrived back at the car I glanced at my phone and discovered it was after 11.

I might have a tendency of landing on my feet, as my father so claims, but sometimes I have to admit, I land in the most peculiar places.

A wintery Sunday afternoon in Southern-Spain

Posted on 3 min read
Not my window, but you get the idea. Murcia, December, 2018.

With reluctance, accepting that the sun’s gaze was now facing the other wall of the apartment block and it was only my bare feet, heels resting on the balcony railing, that were in direct sunlight, I decided to come inside. The cat, fast asleep on the concrete block between the balcony and it’s neighbour, was luckier. The concrete block remained sunlit. The cat, twisted on it’s back, one paw in the air, limp, didn’t know how lucky it was.
I reminded myself not to close the balcony door behind me.

Inside I switched my skirt for fleece-lined leggings, pulled on a cardigan followed by a hoodie, rinsed the few remaining grains of post-lunch coffee from my mug and flicked on the kettle for a fresh cup of tea. And to fill up my hot water bottle.

This is the south of Spain in winter. Outside the sky is very blue. I know good writing is not supposed to use the word ‘very’, but the sky is a very blue blue. In the mornings, I peer out of the window, crane my neck upwards at the small amount of it framed by the apartment block’s courtyard, and smile to see an absence of clouds. However, when I step out of the apartment building, wrapped up in scarf and coat, I wish I’d worn my gloves.

I’m told that the reason none of the buildings have central heating, or decent curtains, is that it’s not cold here; this week the temperature is set to drop below zero and all I’m armed with is a half sized hot water bottle. I’m glad that when I was packing I thought a hot water bottle was a good idea. It felt like a mad indulgence at the time. I only thought it was a good idea because I write, and writing is one of those odd tasks which results in cold fingers.

We do have a heater, a couple of them in fact, but if you put them on in tandem you blow the electricity. The main one, white, rectangular, you need no imagination to imagine it, makes an awful racket and so I avoid putting it on where possible. Sometimes I want to curl up on the sofa and read, so I position the heater close enough to my body that I can give it a whack if the fan emits a tantrum.

My hot water bottle is silent. It wears a pale blue woollen jumper with an embroidered rainbow and smiling cloud. The cloud is white and fluffy, you need no imagination to imagine this either as its shape is straight out of a children’s cartoon. The cloud has pink cheeks. Its black eyes look up at me from my lap as I write.

Leaning forward I tip my head back and look up at the very blue sky reminding myself that it’s still there. Yes, it’s January 13th and already my legs have seen the sun.

This is not a bauble.

Posted on 2 min read
This is not a bauble. Photo Sicily, December 2016.

I was tidying up Christmas decorations in my grandparents house when I reached into a large plastic box, the sort my grandparents store baubles in eleven months of the year, up in the roof. And ouch. My finger hurt. Sharp pricks in my skin. A brush with something sharp.

I peered inside the box for a better look, and discovered, to my astonishment, a cactus.

Round, pale green and spiky, I carefully picked it up and showed it to the Grandmother

She wasn’t at all surprised. She knew there was a cactus in the box. She had already stuck her hand in and pricked herself that morning. And then she’d done nothing about it. She was mildly amused that the cactus had survived what she assumed was a full twelve months in the box, but otherwise unperturbed by the situation.

Personally I think she should have been more bothered, bothered enough not to leave it in the box with the baubles waiting for the next poor soul to reach inside.

“Put it in the bin,” the Grandmother said.

So, as a dutiful granddaughter, I placed the cactus by the compost bin.

A short while later I heard a commotion in the kitchen as the Grandfather discovered the cactus and decided to investigate. It was, he claimed, very much alive. Just in need of replanting.

The Grandmother insisted that the cactus be binned.

A short while later the Grandfather was seen trying to find a home on one of the overcrowded windowsills in the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house, a room filled with more plastic boxes, bags, cardboard and evidence of Christmas. The Grandmother, well, she was heard to be rather disparaging about his efforts.

Tensions were rising.

Which is when, as the dutiful granddaughter, I stepped in and volunteered to rehome the cactus. Now obviously, you can’t take a cactus in your hand luggage to Spain… so I wonder how it’s going to appreciate the care of its new warden… the Mother.

Belief sits at the heart of language learning (but fear is what rules)

Posted on 4 min read
Street art in a neighbouring village to the one I teach in. Fear is ever present in language learning.

It’s not the most welcoming environment. Even when there’s a blue sky outside, the corridor remains cold. The child opposite me wears a coat. I say child. He’s fourteen, when I was fourteen I didn’t feel child-like at all.

 He tells me he hates history. I nod, I’ve heard this story before. It’s a symptom of one of the Spanish government’s ‘wonderful ideas’, as if Spain didn’t already have enough confusion about its own history already. This is a trilingual school so history here is taught in French.

How, the boy implores, is he supposed to write a page answering a history question in French? He can’t string together five French sentences. There is anger lining his voice, but also defeat. He thinks it is impossible. He believes he will fail history

The thing is… I don’t believe him

I listen and at no point say, ‘you’re wrong’. For him, this is a serious and painful topic, so I avoid smiling, despite finding it delightful how as he rants about French his English begins to flow.

I sympathise with his teachers

I doubt that they’re going to fail him in history. He’s bright. If he’s going to fail, then half the class is doomed. And the teachers don’t like to fail half the class, it looks bad on them.

Imagine though, training to be a history teacher, and then the job market changes. The best positions are going to those who can teach in a foreign language. You’re raising a family, working full time and add language classes in the evenings. You pass your exams, but when you’re teaching you feel the difficulty of expressing yourself. You can’t tell stories anymore. Humour doesn’t work. The classes struggle and get lost.

It’s not an easy role to take on.

But my focus is on the student in front of me

I don’t believe that he can’t write a page in French. He’s been studying that language for at least eight years. That’s seven years and seven months longer than I’ve been studying Spanish and if push came to shove, I could write a page on a historical topic in Spanish. If you gave me a few weeks I might be able to do it in French too.

I admit, I would need some verb tables if it was going to be in the correct tense, but I could write a page. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would exist. I could do it. A handwritten page is only a few hundred words.

The boy however believes he can’t and that’s a problem

Without belief he’s going to sit, uncomfortably, on the splintering green chair in his classroom. He’ll stare at a white piece of paper, pen in hand, and write as little as possible. Tension will squeeze his stomach. A metallic taste in his mouth. He’ll grip his pen tight.

If grows up to be like the twenty-something-year-old Spanish young men I know, then this fear will follow him into the future. When faced with a live, fast-speaking, slang-using French person, he’ll panic. His fight, flight or freeze response will wipe out his French language skills. His brain will scream ‘abort’.

I know this feeling

I spent years learning French at school. Yet the only thing I can ever think of to say is ‘Je ratisse avec un râteau’ which I learnt working on a French farm. I can’t pronounce the phrase because I have never mastered the damn ‘r’. The sentence means ‘I rake with a rake’, and is, more or less, useless.

I’ve seen this same mind blasting fear make sweat drip from the foreheads of wide-shouldered, swaggering teenage boys. I’ve witnessed it time and time again. I’ve felt it myself time and time again.

The opposite of fear is belief

Shortcuts don’t work.

Yes, a few shots of tequila or a bottle of wine can help. I know some women who go from being unable to construct the present simple to being comfortable with future conditional after a drink. Men, typically, need a glass or two of beer, and for all the women to scarper. But these children I teach aren’t looking to only be able to speak whilst intoxicated. They need language skills for job interviews.

They need to belief in themselves

  • The child needs to believe he can speak French.
  • The teacher needs to believe they can teach in French.
  • Because without belief, everything becomes dredged in a thick gloopy fear.

Which would be sad, because this bright, articulate young man could do with a decent history education.

So, the next question is, where can you get belief from? (Or why is my Italian and Spanish better than my French)

Mid-winter blue skies (and dealing with disorientation like a grown-up)

Posted on 3 min read
Rooftops. December 2018.

I’ve been in England a week and I remain somewhat disorientated.

Writing this, I sit at my desk. It’s an old-fashioned, green-leather topped desk with drawers (some of which lock) and the scars of a life spent existing full of things. It has history. I acquired it from a junk shop in the middle of a public carpark in some small unpronounceable Welsh town. It’s lived in four different houses under my ownership alone. And, whilst I admit that it’s not the ideal shape for perfect ergonomics, it makes up for it by being psychologically wonderful. It feels like a desk where one writes. It’s a comforting presence. Something sturdy and reliable. Homely.

A week ago, I was sweating as I dragged my tiny suitcase into the Spanish airport

I wore coat and a scarf over the layers I imagined would be necessary in such a cold country as England. The sky outside was bright blue. Straight from the tube bright blue.

But, when I arrived, three hours later in Yorkshire, I appreciated the layers. I pulled my gloves out of my pockets and tugged them onto my hands. The chap at passport control hoped I’d had a lovely holiday, I laughed and told him the holiday was yet to come.

Disorientating.

We went to my sister’s house for Christmas

Yes, the Midget (and the Blacksmith) own a house. That’s my baby sister. It’s got walls and ceilings and multiple toilets. They had just (and I mean just) had an oven installed. My baby sister owns half an oven.

I curled up on the corner of her sofa and started working through the Blacksmith’s library. In the past my very small baby sister would have asked me questions about the cooking or would have wanted me to give some sort of guidance, but other than a brief explanation of how Grandmére (that’s the French grandmother I once lived with) made soup, I found myself off the hook.

Afterall, if we’re being entirely honest, nowadays the Midget is the better cook. She (and the Blacksmith) made the Christmas dinner appear (other than the parsnips) on the table in a manner you might otherwise only believe was possible in photoshopped recipe books. Wise elder sister advice is unrequired. I know nothing of such grown-up activities as house ownership.

Once upon a time I would have got all hung up on the concept of home

I would have felt the disorientation and instantly felt a need to reaffirm my identity. I would have felt my role of bigger sister changing and compensated with bossiness. But sometimes the best seat is the corner of the sofa, and the best response to disorientation is to smile, with pride.

Now I’m back in my bedroom at my own desk. Well, the bedroom that sometimes I sleep in when I’m here. I have my records spinning, the music floats out of my speakers filling the room in a fashion I daren’t try in the ‘habitación’ I rent back in Spain. There are Spanish verbs on the walls and a piece of masking tape labelling the small cupboard inherited from my Nonna as ‘la mesa de noche’. It feels a long time ago that I read those words.

For the first time in a week, the sky looks somewhat blue. Not out of the tube blue, something somewhat mellower. A wintery, Yorkshire blue.

Mar Menor and the calamity of Maggie

Posted on 5 min read
A sponge or a pinecone… what do you think?

The week before last, at breakfast, one of my colleagues told me it wouldn’t rain again until September. I couldn’t quite keep the disbelief out of my voice as I expressed my surprise at such a statement. It had, after all managed to rain almost every day for the previous fortnight, and the sky still looked cold and grey. I said it would rain tomorrow, which got me a surprised look back as a response.

Now, it did rain the following day, for about three and a half minutes early in the morning, but it hasn’t since. The clouds have cleared revealing a bright blue sky. After work on Thursday I sat in the park and basked in the sunshine, soaking up the warmth.

On the final day of November my parents and I decided to head out to the beach. This was not to sunbathe, although there was one couple on the sand in their swimwear, but for a walk in the sunshine. The sun felt gorgeous on my skin. The beach was almost deserted. In the sea we spotted a couple of divers, emerging in their black wetsuits, unhooking their flippers from their feet.

The beach we chose faces the sea, but behind it stand the salt fields at the north tip of the lagoon known as the Mar Menor. This name translates in English to the ‘smaller sea’ which is wat the Mar Menor is. It’s Spain’s largest lagoon. The area we ventured to was a national park, with soft sand, which piles up in dunes, a haven for birds. Although pollution is having a serious, and unignorable, toll.

That is one large heap of salt. The Father worried about what would happen if it rained, but since it’s not going to rain until September…

From the beach we headed to the port, and in the sunshine, facing out towards rows and rows of sailing vessels, we found a small restaurant. It was, according to Maggie, the cheery woman who played hostess, new. The chef was French. I asked what the best food was, and said yes to it. Wine was brought out.

Now the word of that last paragraph that you should most definitely have noticed was the word ‘played’.

As the afternoon progressed, in a sedate Spanish, sun-saturated pace, it became clear that Maggie was having a delightful game. In her high-heeled boots she sprang from one table of customers to another. Her confident, bright English ignited smiles on the customers faces. Every now and again she’d head back to a table occupied by her handbag and drink another glass of wine.

Abandoned building by the beach.

The first mishap was that Maggie, in all her excitement, forgot that she actually had to pass the food order to the kitchen. I sipped my rather large glass of wine, took some pictures of the reflections in it, and discussed fancy-dress costumes with the Mother. As other tables received their food, I began to feel hungry.

Then, seeing my perplexed face, Maggie tottered towards us, exclaiming that we needed to kill her, and asked us what we’d ordered. This time, thank goodness, the order did make its way back into the kitchen.

The wind however was getting up. Maggie appeared, tottering back towards us. In her hands was a board laden with bread, cheese and potatoes, accompanied by lettuce. The lettuce made a break for freedom. Maggie, who has never worked as a waitress in her life, squealed.

Playing with the camera. Wine at Mar Menor.

Despite the lack of lettuce, and the breeze, we were grateful for food. It was like heaven to tuck into the sweet roasted potatoes and dipped the crusty bread into the gooey baked camembert. The chef knows how to cook. The fish that followed, some time later, was also stunning. By this time Maggie was trying to persuade me that I needed more wine. She was on her fourth glass and couldn’t quite understand how one glass of wine in the afternoon might be quite enough for me.

She didn’t fall over, as she cleared away two of the boards that had come out with the fish. I thought she might. The pavement was uneven. But not actually being a waitress, or a person who works in any role in a restaurant, she’d decided to limit herself to carrying two boards at once.

My parents looked stuffed, so I asked what deserts were available. Maggie didn’t know, so she headed inside to investigate. The answer came back that it was a surprise. I said that sounded excellent. Some time later, a huge board arrived. It was laden with custard tarts, tiramisu and little cream cake things. These were like tiny cheesecakes, with an intense, fruit jelly top layer: lime, mandarin and raspberry. As we feasted on these deserts, coffees appeared. I understood that the coffee came with the desert as we hadn’t ordered coffee.

We had decided to go to lunch before two, and by now it was getting close to five. I asked for the bill, but told my parents that I suspected that the restaurant staff would not be able to recall what it was that we had eaten. This was the case. A French man, speaking to us in a mixture of Spanish and French, brought out a piece of paper and a pen. He took note as I explained what we’d consumed. The coffee, was, as assumed, included, however, it came with the fish, not with the desert. I sat and stared and blinked in confusion as I took in the word pescado again and again before accepting that it made no sense.

I didn’t care. The father paid. The total amount being more than reasonable for the quality and volume of the food. And with the winter sun low in the sky, bathing the orchards, lettuces and arid uncultivated fields of dust in a warm, golden glow, we drove back home.