Friday, April 17, 2015

The best things in life...

A montage of ours...
When I was growing up in the 1980s, a tradition my sister started was to create funny family photo
montages. She'd cut up photos and stick them into clip frames to hang on the walls of our parents' house.

Even all these years later these montages are still there to remind us of growing up together, holidays and other memorable or comedy moments.

Mainly when I look at them I think how young and slim I look, but they never fail to make me smile, even if these days they only adorn the walls of the downstairs toilet.

In this digital age it's tempting not to keep hard copies of our photos but, in a similar tradition, my wife and I have created a photo wall upstairs in our house.

Each time we pass we're reminded of happy memories of our children when they were younger, and we also have holiday montages framed in our kitchen. When we were visiting family in Florida the other year we picked up a photo frame with a quote from Cesare Pavese "We don't remember the days, we remember the moments". For us that's what the photos remind us of, shared moments as a family.
"The best things in life aren't things"
Bear Grylls said "The best things in life aren't things" and I'd agree. Not that "things" aren't nice to have, but relationship is what we're wired for, which is I think why we love photo montages  - they remind us of people we love, or experiences we've shared.

A survey was published recently with the 50 top things that make Britons happy. What's striking is that the list isn't about "things" at all but is dominated by "moments" - feeling the sun on your face, doing something for others, a freshly brewed cup of tea, time to yourself. As much we tend to accumulate stuff, it's the moments we remember and which make us happy.

Magic Moments
Memories are important. Not just big holidays but the little everyday things, the daily family moments - like my sister's montages growing up. Lots of the photos are of us in our kitchen, around a table.

Our kitchen was the centre of our household, full of laughter, meals, arguments and everything else. When I recorded my first album in 2002 I called it "Songs for the Kitchen", as the songs were for the centre, the heart, and I imagined my mum playing the CD in the kitchen!

In the excellent book "The Sixty Minute Father" by Rob Parsons he positively encourages creating silly memories in the ordinary - the power of fun - like all sleeping in the lounge one night, or surprising your kids by doing something really silly.

These become family legends, the narrative of relationship: "those" stories that keep coming out at family reunions long into the future. Stories that make you laugh and cry as you remember together.
"Memories are important. Not just big holidays but the little everyday things..."
Of course it's not just stories and photos that have sentimental value. I know that some "things" do too. We've recently hung an old bell in our hall that belonged to my wife's grandfather. It's got a lovely tone, and it's a nice thing, but what makes us cherish it is that it spent 50 years in the house of a loved one and it's chime evokes memories. Sounds and smells can stir us. Like the smell of my dad's workshop, or model steam engines, or creosote, or freshly cut grass.

Our scars also tell events in our story. I have a smallish scar on my left knee, for instance. Sadly it's not from anything exciting but instead from tripping over at a drinks station in the Winchester 10k race one year and cutting it open. It made for a dramatic end to the race with quite a bloody leg!
These are the things that make us “us”. The stories to share. Living memories.

Times we pushed ourselves. Times we conquered and overcame. Or times we didn't – like the time I came 3rd in the senior cross country at school THREE YEARS IN A ROW, being beaten by different people each time! No physical scars associated with this one though!

Part of our photo wall...
It's a cliche that we realise the value of something when it's not there - and we can crave relationship and interaction when we're lonely and isolated, tragically something that affects many elderly people here in the UK. So I was delighted to see a creative response to this in the news this week.

In exchange for spending time with the elderly residents, a nursing home in the Netherlands is offering rent free accommodation to students. I suspect that the students will benefit just as much as the other residents by the inter-generational companionship and friendships formed.

Another cliche is that we can’t take our stuff with us - one day we'll leave it all behind. Recently I heard the charity Open Doors share some of the devastating stories of persecuted Christians in Syria and Iraq who have had to leave their possessions and homes behind to flee from the tyranny of IS jihadists. At times like these, and in the refugee camps they find themselves, the importance of sharing happy memories to displace the recent trauma is even more important.
"We've all been the prodigal at times..."
There's a well known parable about someone who learnt the hard way that the best things in life aren't things. Jesus tells a story of a young man who asked his father for his inheritance, share of his stuff, in advance of his time. Essentially wishing his father dead. Painfully, lovingly, his father assents, only for the young man to blow the lot in decadence far away.

Soon he's left with nothing except memories and decides to return home and offer himself as a servant to his father, knowing the disrespect he has shown him, and the shame and dishonour he's brought on himself. In one of the most moving passages of scripture, the father sees his son returning, and leaving dignity behind he runs to embrace him and welcome him home. The best things in life aren't things. 

Henri Nouwen's profound book about this story "The Return of The Prodigal Son" is a brilliant unpacking of this simple parable. We've all been the prodigal at times, and many of us can also relate to the jealous older brother. But Nouwen's main point is that we're called to love as the father loves and allow ourself to be loved like the son. 

I was reminded of this as I've been listening to the new album by Josh Garrels, particularly the track "At The Table", which speaks to me of the father's love toward the prodigal, especially the line "There will always, always be a place for you at my table".

It's around the table that many memories are made, especially in our kitchen growing up, like the photos at my parents' house. Maybe you're drowning in things, in which case it might be time to give some of it away. Or maybe this week it's time to get some friends round your table, laugh, tell your stories and enjoy some of the things that really are best in life.
"We're called to love as the father loves and allow ourself to be loved like the son"



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Thanks for taking the time to read The Best Things in Life! If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at stricklandmusings@gmail.com 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!

Friday, April 10, 2015

What makes you strong?

What does the word strength make you think of? Maybe someone who is physically strong, like the giants you see in Strong Man competitions, or a bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime? Perhaps you think about strength in numbers, like all the bricks that make up a house, or the massed ranks of a Roman legion like the opening scene of the film Gladiator. Perhaps you think of someone with an inner strength who has overcome tragedy or illness in some way, shape or form. Whatever it is, I'm sure we all wonder what makes us strong at different times in our lives.
"What does the word strength make you think of?"
I love a good documentary, it's something that feeds my input and learner themes, and a particularly good series I've watched recently is the BBC's Secrets of the Castle. This is all about immersive history, and focuses on the real-life building of a medieval style castle in the Burgundy region of France, using 13th century techniques and tools. It's a 25 year project and they're around 18 years in. I learnt from this documentary that for medieval castle builders, a feature they used to give their castles strength was to make the walls very thick. Particularly in the towers, the walls might be metres deep. This was to withstand assault from rocks thrown by trebuchets and catapults when the castle was under attack.

It's good to have our corners knocked off!
Another trick they used was to build the towers with cylindrical walls - by avoiding corners the wall would be able to distribute the load in all directions from missiles, therefore having less weak points. Like a castle, sometimes we need depth to be strong - deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world around us that can withstand difficult seasons and boulders being thrown at us. Similarly, it can be a benefit to have our corners knocked off and our rough edges smoothed! 

For various reasons I chose to study Civil Engineering at University many years ago, and although in hindsight I think I made the choice lightly, it proved to be a valuable degree to gain, although it didn't come easy. On my course I learnt (or at least was taught) a reasonable amount about structural strength. Whatever you are building the starting point is the material you are going to use.
"Like a castle, sometimes we need depth to be strong"
Clearly different materials have different properties, and the choice of material influences the way you go about your design. Concrete, as a good example, is brilliant in compression - it can take heavy loads - but it's not good in tension, breaking when stretched. However it also very durable. That's why most concrete design these days is reinforced concrete. To help the concrete be better in tension, steel bars are cast inside to provide the tensile strength it's lacking. The resultant composite maintains the inherent positive qualities of concrete, like it's durability and compressive strength, but with added strength where it's needed.

Like concrete I can list lots of things in my life that are weaker than I'd like, areas where I break more easily under stress or tension. But I also believe that in many of those areas we can add metaphorical re-bar, reinforcement to strengthen us. This will look different to all of us, but might include being accountable to a friend, finding others to help us, or consciously adding more positive elements to our lives - more sleep, healthier food, more exercise for example. 

Steel rebar... not adamantium!
Less scientific a metaphor is the story of Wolverine in the Marvel Comics universe. Possessing a superhuman ability to heal himself, he ends up having a metal (adamantium) bonded to his skeleton, giving him extraordinary strength and resilience.

As a metaphor, Wolverine is much more exciting than reinforced concrete, but embodies the same principle that adding something to our core can make us stronger, although I'm not advocating plating your bones with metal!

Often, an attribute of strength is a degree of flexibility. Iron is an inherently strong material, but cast iron is relatively brittle, lacking flexibility.
"...adding something to our core can make us stronger"
Steel is more flexible and less brittle, and is formed by removing impurities in pure iron and iron ores and adding alloying elements. I think that in our lives we can become less iron and more steel as we're refined through our life experience - particularly through tough times and heartache. We can become less brittle and more durable as a result, if we submit ourself to the process. As the psalmist said:

"For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.
You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance" (Psalm 66:10-12, NIV)

I've always loved watching the Worlds' Strongest Man competitions on TV, ever since I was a beanpole twelve year old with body building ambitions far in excess of my frame! In a physical sense, we build muscle through repeated action - like a bodybuilder repeatedly lifting weights - or a sportsman going through their specific motions. As well as pushing yourself up to and beyond your limits, to grow muscle you need good nutrition and importantly rest - it's often in the rest times that the muscle is able to rebuild stronger.
"in our lives we can become less iron and more steel as we're refined through our life experience"
It's possible to overtrain, and many athletes find it hard to rest, always wanting to drive themselves faster, higher and stronger (citius, altius, fortius as the Olympic motto goes). For us to be strong and productive we also need to allow ourselves time to rest. I find this particularly at work. The more I'm able to switch off from work mode in an evening and particularly over a weekend, the better I'm able to give myself the next morning. In terms of endurance, pacing yourself is essential, whether running a marathon, writing a book or working for others. 

We need strong roots.
Trees are another example of flexibility for durability. For as much of the tree as we see above ground in the form of branches, much of its strength comes from the extensive root system beneath, providing anchor and stability to resist strong winds. The most resilient trees are able to bend but not break in the wind. Each year the tree puts on growth, adding another annual ring. 

Like the roots of a tree, strong foundations also provide stability and durability, something I also learnt during my degree. If you want to build up, you need to dig down. Interestingly, in places like -London, it is becoming more frequent to re-use existing piled foundations from previous structures for new buildings, for me a picture of the need to learn from others and build our platforms on the shoulders and in the debt of those that have gone before us. Along these lines, I love this quote from David Brinkley:

"A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him" 

So what makes us strong? And are there things you can shore up in your own life? Perhaps you just need to keep doing what you're doing, allowing strength to develop through repeated action and deliberate practice at a skill you're trying to master. Maybe you're still a little rough around the edges, too many corners - perhaps you're finding this at work, or in your relationships. Often it's hard for us to see our own rough edges, so a way to become stronger is to find people that you trust and ask them to gently point these out to you. I had a manager at work who did a 360 degree review with various other colleagues, asking them to point out his strengths but also his weaknesses or growth areas. This was a painful and humbling process, but he emerged out of the other side more aware of his corners and therefore able to do something about it, and he's a better leader for it. Perhaps you can do something similar. 
"The most resilient trees are able to bend but not break in the wind"
Passing through fire...
Sometimes strength comes when we go through the fire, when we experience loss, difficultly, illness and pain.

This isn't something to seek out, but a characteristic of our human condition is that we will encounter difficulty throughout our life.

Like the process of turning iron into steel, strength can come through these experiences, making us more able to encounter them in the future and also enabling us to help and identify with others going through similar things. 

It's often at our core where we need strength the most. A reflective exercise for you this week might be to consider your weakest areas and creatively think how and what reinforcement might look like.

I want to finish with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. As much as I've been talking about strength and getting stronger in this post, it's not always something we can do on our own, and I often take comfort from these words from God to his people:

"Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the Everlasting God,
 the creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, 
and his understanding no-one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary 
and increases the power of the weak.
Even young men stumble and fall, 
but those who hope in the Lord 
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint." (Isa 40:28-31)

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Thanks for taking the time to read What Makes You Strong! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at stricklandmusings@gmail.com 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!


Friday, April 03, 2015

Musings on.. making things

My dad started me young...
I've been wondering what my fascination is with making things. I love being creative in lots of different ways - writing, song-writing, poetry, brewing, making music, podcasting, growing things on out allotment and making items in my workshop.

It definitely runs in our family - my dad is extremely practical and very capable at making things, and his dad was as well. 


"I love being creative in lots of different ways "
I have many fond memories of my dad in his workshop, and am the proud owner of numerous items he's made for me over the years - often beautiful and practical wooden tools (RUP's - really useful presents - a saying we have in our family!).

Some of my most precious things are the pieces of furniture we've made together such as a fine set of freestanding oak bookshelves we made between Christmas and New Year one time. The oak itself that we used had a unique history too - back in 1987 after the great storm in that October my dad got a licence from the local council to saw up some of the oak trees in nearby Esher Woods that had blown over in the winds. 

With the largest non-commercial chainsaw you can buy (I think it had a 6ft sawing blade), he painstakingly sawed them into planks and then seasoned the wood in long woodstacks at the end of our garden (and a few other people's gardens as well!). It takes over seven years for oak to season, but the long and the short of it is that we have a large stock of 'family' wood for furniture making, the outputs of which proudly fill the homes of my siblings and I.
"...as a western society we seem so obsessed and reliant on technology..."
In my own workshop...
So, on one level my need and desire to make things and be practical is I'm sure partly to honour my dad, and an attempt to live up to his legacy. In another sense, as a western society we seem so obsessed and reliant on technology, things seem so disposable and we want everything now now now. 

In this context, the art of making things by hand and taking the time and patience to even learn the skills to be able to do this is a reaction against this cult of the instantaneous, a form of practical defiance against the 'I want it now', click of a button culture we experience all around us. 

Taking the time to make things, often quite a slow process when being fitted around other commitments, is a deliberate defiance of this particular underlying Zeitgeist. 

If you believe the doom-mongers around, then I suppose it's also a form of insurance should the worst ever happen, technology fails, and we all have to live life without many of the things we've become reliant on. In the event of financial and geopolitical meltdown, having practical skills (and tools) becomes much more important!

Scrap-wood biplane..
I take great satisfaction in being able to say 'I made that!', and it's nice to be able to make lasting items and gifts for my family and friends. For the thrifty person inside me, making things - for instance Christmas presents - seems like a better investment. 

Usually the raw materials are cheaper than buying unwanted, disposable, shop bought items, but also the time and energy I expend over Autumn and Winter evenings is a conscious choice. 

"I take great satisfaction in being able to say 'I made that!'"
It's a statement of how much my family mean to me that I'm willing to spend that time for them. In a culture where time is money, deliberately choosing to devote time to something gives that something a high value.

At the moment my favourite material is wood. I like that its a renewable, natural material. I like the smell and the way it handles. I always have a number of projects on the go - in fact I generally have far more ideas for things to make than time to make them all! 



A guitar neck in progress...
My most complex and long term project is an acoustic guitar that I'm building. It's taking me some time, as it's an incredibly precise item to build, and I'm learning the skills I need as I go along. 

I consider myself still only a very passable carpenter, let along a decent joiner or master luthier! But I am very much enjoying the process, and happily permit myself to be distracted by other interesting woodworking projects and gifts, as these are all developing my woodworking skills, as well as my patience and portfolio.

"I generally have far more ideas for things to make than time to make them all!"
After I finished my civil engineering degree (something which sounds like it should make you practical, but was in fact very theoretical), I spent some time travelling before I started work. In Canada I met a friend of a friend who was a luthier in his spare time. I was inspired by his workshop and off the back of this I bought the "bible" of guitar making he recommended.. which ended up sitting and mocking me on my oak bookshelves while time passed and I hadn't started making a guitar.

Building a house in South Africa
As I approached my tenth "work" anniversary, I had an epiphany of sorts. I realised that life was slipping by and that I needed to start a number of things which had been on my long-term "to-do" list without expecting conditions to be perfect. 

I also had to let go my perfectionist leanings and embrace the mistakes and my amateurishness. In short, I had to get over myself and make some space to make things. 

Making space in our busy lives is a huge other subject which I cover in my book Life Space, but to cut a long story short over the last few years I have literally made a space to make things - a small, chilly but wonderful workshop (a pale shadow compared to my dad's, but you have to start somewhere!), and have rejoiced in making all number of things.. some more successful than others, but each one an act and expression of creativity, patience and an opportunity to hone my meagre woodworking skills further. 

I'm ok that my creations are sometimes a bit wonky, yes I know my dad could make them a hundred times better, but that's ok - for me, for now, the journey is more important than the destination.
"I had to get over myself and make some space to make things"
I'd like to do more metalwork. I think that will come in time. I'd like my children to catch the making bug. I'd like them to spend time with me in my workshop, and with my dad in his workshop. There are lots of things (some would say too many) that I'd like to make, however perfect or imperfect. A day will come when I've even finished making my guitar! But I think the fascination with making things is bigger than the finished article, much more about the process, and no small part of what makes me "me".


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Thanks for taking the time to read my Musings on Making Things! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at stricklandmusings@gmail.com 


If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Looking Up

What makes you look up? I like observing the world around me and when I'm commuting I notice that many people are absorbed in their mobile device screens, looking down the whole journey. But what makes us look up?

Over the last couple of years, I've accidentally read lots of books about birds. This has led to a change in my behaviour as 
wherever I now go I find myself looking up at birds in the sky and perched in trees. I'm not an expert bird watcher by any means, but I appreciate the birds I've read about - particularly the crow family, corvids, who are the intelligentsia of the bird world.
"What makes you look up?"
A tawny owl...
I also love birds of prey, and the most common type I see in our area are buzzards. Walking the field margins near our house I've become almost obsessed with spotting 'my' buzzards. Over the winter they've done less soaring as there have been less air thermals around, and I've seen them more in trees, on telegraph poles and on the ground. 

I spend most of my walks looking up, although I do need to occasionally look down so I don't trip. I've also seen kestrels near us, on the hover before diving to ground to strike their prey.

A few weeks ago we were walking with our kids and guide dog puppy Viking around some woods near us. We were walking slowly - toddler pace - as is often the case, and I was pointing interesting things out to my kids to keep them engaged. 

As we approached a particular tree I could see a small nest in one of the branches, and when I looked up at this it dawned on me that there was something more interesting sitting on the branch below. 
"A sleeping Tawny Owl, expertly camouflaged and sitting perfectly still.."
A sleeping Tawny Owl, expertly camouflaged and sitting perfectly still - not something you see every day. After we'd watched it for a few minutes (my kids were underwhelmed to be honest), it opened it's eyes, hunched it's shoulders and launched into a slow glide away from us in search of peace and quiet. It's amazing what you notice around you when you slow down and look up.

Clouds make me look up...
More recently I've been reading a book about clouds, which is giving me a new appreciation of the skies above too. I find myself looking out of our office window and saying to my colleagues 'that looks like a cumulus congestus to me' or some other obscure cloud type. 

Soon I might even be able to hold my own in a cloud conversation with my dad, who's quite an expert in the area from his background as a gliding instructor.

So what is it that you're looking up for? 

Looking up stops us from being self absorbed - not just on our mobile device but in our own dreams and plans and projects. It's a way of reorienting, of being inspired, being connected with those around us and the natural world we inhabit. 

"It's amazing what you notice around you when you slow down and look up."
Jim Rohn asserted that "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with". I wonder who you spend the most time with, and are they people that encourage you to look up, to dream big and be the best expression of who you're made to be? Are you spending time with people to look up to, people who stretch you, challenge you, inspire you? 

Songs of ascent
Perhaps a way of combining both these things is to spend time with others in the natural environment, or on a journey together. In the book of Psalms in the Bible, there are a fifteen psalms which are grouped together as "Songs of Ascent". 

It's thought that pilgrims would sing these psalms together as they shared their journey to Jerusalem, finding shared spiritual inspiration in the natural world on their way. 

In one of these Songs of Ascent, Psalm 121 the psalmist writes:

"I look up to the hills - does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!"

The most fulfilling journeys are shared ones where we take the time to look up and enjoy the scenery along the way. It might not be birds, or clouds, or a sleeping owl, but maybe this week it's time to look up again, look around, and find some fresh inspiration from the people and places around us.
"The most fulfilling journeys are shared ones where we take the time to look up and enjoy the scenery along the way. "
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Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on Looking Up! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

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If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Day of Small Things

Red letter days are important...
Last weekend it was Mother's Day here in the UK. My kids diligently made cards and gave gifts to my wife to mark the day, and I even managed to get a card in the post to my own mum on time, which hasn't always happened if I'm honest. I had a conversation with my five year old daughter about it in the car a few days before, and she was asking when Daddy's Day was, and why wasn't there a kids day. Father's Day is usually in June, but I had to look up about kids day, and it turns out there are actually two internationally recognised days! One is 1st June and the other is the 20th November.

A look at most calendars and Almanacs illustrates that many days of the year mark something special or significant. Attending a Catholic school growing up, we used to have a special service on St Joseph's day (and mini mars bars at the primary school) since the order of priests who ran the school were Josephites. St Patrick's Day, marked this week, is also popular around the world. Other significant days include national holidays, historical events (like Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night on the 5th November), or anniversaries and birthdays. Even in my mid thirties my birthday feels like a special day, despite the fact that I'm usually at work (a sure sign of being a grown up).
"I think it's really important to celebrate the big and meaningful stuff in our lives..."
In the ancient world, through the middle ages and even in modern liturgical books, significant days were marked in red ink, hence the well known phrase "red letter days" to signify important occasions. I think it's really important to celebrate the big and meaningful stuff in our lives. It's great to have a day to lavish cards, chocolate and flowers to mothers on mothers day. Celebrating wedding anniversaries and major birthdays are milestones worthy of note. It's equally important to have rites of passage marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, although this seems to be something we've lost to a a degree in the West. I'm all for special days.

"Do not despise the day of small things"
One downside of big days is that the in-between days, the normal days can seem bland and colourless by comparison. We often are much less aware of the incremental changes that occur over a period of days. Like when you're growing up and you receive an occasional visit from a great-aunt, who pinches your cheek and remarks how much you've grown. I observe this reaction from wider family when they see my own kids after weeks or months - the change is less obvious to me as it's been a gradual unfolding before my eyes as they've grown.

Celebrating the ordinary is possibly more important than celebrating the extra-ordinary. Cultivating a sense of purpose, awareness and even enjoyment in the daily ordinariness is essential if we are to live fulfilling, rich lives.

Otherwise the danger is that we simply exist in between weekends, holidays and special occasions - instead we're called to truly live each day well.

Regular readers will know I'm a fan of fairly obscure Biblical quotes, and this week is no exception. In the book of Zechariah, the prophet is given a number of visions from God about the restoration of his people, who had been exiled to Babylon. In one vision, he is commanded "Do not despise the day of small things, men will rejoice when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel" (Zech 4:10).
"Celebrating the ordinary is possibly more important than celebrating the extra-ordinary..."
Ever since I was a teenager this phrase has stuck with me, and another translation calls it "the day of small beginnings". Sometimes we don't know what out landmark moments, our pivot points are - they just seem like small things, insignificant in the context of a normal day. But like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings and ultimately causing a hurricane, these small things have a habit of growing into bigger things - like a snowball rolling down a mountain, or a mustard seed, to quote the parable.

Who knows what butterfly effect may occur?
Maybe your week has been distinctly normal. Maybe you've just taken a small step towards or away from something. Maybe something's grown in you in a way you can't even notice. That's ok. 

If you're like me you might have huge dreams and high expectations of yourself, which can make things hard in the interim, when your skill or creativity doesn't match your desire. When you dream of being a tiger but you're just a kitten - or you have eagle sized ambition but distinctly buzzard sized wings. 

Whilst it's important that we dream big, it's ok for dreams to take time to grow, and to celebrate the days of little beginnings and small things in between the red letter occasions. Like tree planting ceremonies rather than grand ribbon-cutting building-opening moments.

What are you celebrating this week? Celebrate others, and cherish them, but celebrate those little things you've also brought to birth. Every day is full of little beginnings to be marked.
"Whilst it's important that we dream big, it's ok for dreams to take time to grow, and to celebrate the days of little beginnings and small things in between the red letter occasions"

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Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on the Day of Small Things! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at stricklandmusings@gmail.com 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Leaving our mark

Cave art... not at Lascaux though
One family holiday when I was a child we went to the Dordogne region of France. I don't actually remember too much from our trip apart from getting a big tub of Playmobil from one of the French hypermarkets, but one part I do remember is visiting the Lascaux caves complex.

The Lascaux caves are home to a dramatic series of paleolithic paintings, considered to be some of the best preserved upper paleolithic paintings in the world. 

Among many things they show horses, cattle, bison and people as well as geometric and abstract images. The paintings are estimated to be over 17000 years old.

There is speculation over the purpose of the images, maybe they were star charts, maybe they were religious in nature. Maybe they were for story telling or even just for fun. Whatever they were for, it's amazing that the marks made by previous generations so long ago are still there for us to see.
"What we love about the pictures isn't their quality, although that's improving, but it's the process and expression behind it"

Not so far removed from cave painting are the drawings and paintings my kids make. In the last couple of weeks our three year old son has developed a passion for colouring-in, not something he'd been all that bothered about to this point. The walls of our house are strewn with our kids' artwork, although not the kitchen as we've learnt it's far too tempting there for our Guide Dog puppy Viking! 

Our kids' artwork on our walls
By most standards, the felt tip, crayon and water-based paint pictures around our house aren't world class. They're not something you'd go to an art gallery to see. The colouring is outside the lines, the figures and animals aren't in proportion, the colours are sometimes garish. What we love about the pictures isn't their quality, although that's improving, but it's the process and expression behind it. 

We want to give our kids as much space as possible to express themselves in all kinds of different ways. To practice the process in all kinds or areas. Something we're very conscious of is praising the process - so rather than saying 'you're a great artist', which can actually put pressure on them and can stifle creativity in the long run, we say things like 'look what you did when you worked hard' or something along those lines. 

Ironically when I was at primary school I remember our art teacher telling the class off for not working hard enough, then picking me out as a good example of someone who tried hard - although I remember feeling sad about this because the gist of what she'd said was that I wasn't very good but tried hard anyway! I gave up art at school a few years later. 

The question that occurred to me on this topic is: what's worse than doing a bad painting - making bad art? And the answer is making no art at all. And when I use the word art here I don't just mean cave paintings, or felt tip or crayon, but whatever is in your heart to express. Whatever you've been created to create. 
"The thing that makes you different may turn out to be the thing that gives you life."

The worst thing is not to express it, for whatever reason - rejection by others, comparison with other people's gifts and skills, modesty or fear. We're all a unique blend of our experiences, environments and talents and we all have something to contribute to those around us.

The fable of the tortoise and the ducks
Over tea the other afternoon I was reading my kids one of Aesop's fables. This one was a fable I'd not heard before, the tortoise and the ducks. I knew about the tortoise and the hare, but not about the ducks.

I won't duplicate it here, but the essence is that the tortoise spends most of the story comparing itself to other animals and focusing on what it doesn't have, when in the end the thing that makes it different, it's shell, turns out to be a lifesaver.

The moral at the end of the story is this: "Never disregard that which may prove to be the most valuable". The thing that makes you different may turn out to be the thing that gives you life. 

Although I don't need to do it so often these days, my signature is a meaningful mark. At work, when I put my signature to a report or a letter I am taking ownership and responsibility for the quality and content of that document. It's ok for draft documents to go out unsigned, but for the real thing I need to take responsibility and leave my mark. For a work of art, the absence of a great master's signature can be the difference between pricelessness and obscurity. 
"When do we begin to take ourselves so seriously that our creative well seems to dry up?"

What we often choose to forget when we're comparing our cave or crayon creations with the works of great masters is that even they had to refine and refine their process. My kids' artwork is playful and inquisitive, and long may that continue. When do we begin to take ourselves so seriously that our creative well seems to dry up? 

In my book Life Space I talk about the Japanese artist Hokusai, a master of the woodblock technique, although commentators consider his best work to have been done in his 80s. Picasso spent years painting in a realistic manner before experimenting with different forms of artistic expression such as cubism. So often we compare all our practice with other people's highlights. 
"Whether you feel your offering is stone age cave art or cubism, be confident to leave your mark"

John Henry Newman, writing in 1848 expressed our unique design this way:

"I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught."


Maybe you're hesitant to leave your mark. Maybe you're facing a blank canvas and don't know where to start. Wherever you are, whether you feel your offering is stone age cave art or cubism, be confident to leave your mark. Like the tortoise, you have something unique about you, and that's worth sharing - even if it might not be appreciated for over 17000 years like the Lascaux cave paintings!


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Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on leaving our mark! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at stricklandmusings@gmail.com 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!

Friday, March 06, 2015

Making the connection

That "lightbulb" moment...
I love learning things, and sometimes that means taking things apart - although occasionally this can get me into trouble. When I was eleven or twelve I was curious about what was inside a plug, so I decided to unscrew the top and look inside.

The top came off easily enough, and I was having a good nose around when I touched the live wire and came into connection with 240V - I was taking apart a plug that was still connected to the mains, which isn't a great thing to do. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

I recall involuntarily emitting a wobbly noise - not a scream but more of a "whooooooah". Fortunately I wasn't connected very long and I subsequently went downstairs a little shaky to confess what had just happened.

I learnt a lesson that day about the power of a connection to the electricity mains, and the power it takes to turn on a lightbulb.
"When I was eleven or twelve I was curious about what was inside a plug.."
Sometimes we need to push out into the current...
I don't know about you, but I've found that to really learn something I need to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I remembered this week about learning to row at school. Before we were allowed anywhere near a real rowing boat we visited a rowing "tank" at a nearby leisure centre.

This had real oars, real water, and real sliding seats, except that we were most definitely still on dry land. We could learn a little about handling the oars, keeping rhythm together as a crew and sliding up and down the seats during each stroke.

However for all that, after the experience, none of us had really learned to row - we'd only been going through the motions. And unlike the graceful unison of a top crew we were more like an epileptic spider, thrashing and flailing its limbs.

To properly learn we needed to sit in a real boat, be pushed off the landing stage and into the centre of the river and THEN start taking real strokes. It was only when out in the current that we could learn the balance and rhythm we needed to row properly.

Sometimes you've got to push out into the current to work through your wobbles and get your balance in a way that you can't when you're still firmly connected to the ground.
"Sometimes you've got to push out into the current to work through your wobbles."
After a few sessions in the boat, there was a moment when all the motions and balance suddenly came together, the lightbulb went on and I was able to row. The metaphor of a bulb lighting up when we finally "get it", when we have that eureka moment, harks back to Thomas Edison. Edison was a serial inventor, and when he turned his attention to coming up with a commercially practicable lightbulb, much of the time was initially spent working through different materials to see which one would give the right results and actually light up the bulb. In the end it was carbon filaments which proved the breakthrough. One of Edison's more famous quotes was "I have not failed, I've just found 10000 ways that don't work." I take heart from this,  since what we perceive as failures in our lives are often instead just ways that didn't work, material we're left with which just didn't make that particular connection at the time.

What makes your chain?
We live in a part of the UK's West Midlands called the Black Country, a region that was at the heart of the industrial revolution and so named for the air pollution from the proliferation of coal mines, iron foundries, and steel mills at that time. In the particular corner of the Black Country we live the cottage industry for many years was nailmaking, from the 1600s until the industrial revolution itself.

Sadly, the invention of machines to mass produce nails was a nail in the coffin to the individual nailmakers of the area, but what sprung up instead was chainmaking. Instead of breaking the billets of iron or steel down into nails, the former nailers joined the billets themselves up into chains - indeed the anchor chain of the Titanic was made within a couple of miles of our house. Sometimes, like the Black Country nailers, we can feel like our skills or resources are no longer needed, when in fact all we need to do is reshape our raw material into something else.

I'm a huge fan of re-purposing and upcycling raw or waste materials, and my daughter and I recently converted two old shelves into birdboxes for our garden - one of which is already gaining the attention of a pair of local bluetits - a much better purpose than remaining a piece of scrap wood.
"Sometimes... we can feel like our skills or resources are no longer needed, when in fact all we need to do is reshape our raw material into something else."

So what's the next link in your chain? Or what resources and experiences can you re-shape into something different?

It was as nail making reached it's peak that the process became obsolete through mechanisation, and a similar thing occurred with telecommunications in the twentieth century. In the book "The Idea Factory", Jon Gernter tells the story of Bell Labs and their innovations in telephony and electronics.

Just as they were perfecting the art of laying submarine telephone cable across the Atlantic to optimise transatlantic communication, some of their brightest minds were inventing the prototype telecommunications satellite. With the launch of Telstar 1 in 1962, the era of satellite communications began, swiftly rendering the network of submarine cables relatively obsolete.

Sometimes, the next link in our chain isn't to improve the process we've always done, but instead to undergo a radical shift. Moving from nails to chains, from cables to satellites.

Maybe the lightbulb moment you need right now is about recognising what new shape your raw materials can make.

Maybe you've been going through the motions on dry land and need to push out into the river current. Whatever it is, take heart and seek out the connection, the next link in your chain... just don't go taking apart plugs connected to the mains...

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Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on making the connection! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media? Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at stricklandmusings@gmail.com 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon!