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!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Alarm Bells

Monkeys have different warnings for snakes
As regular readers and listeners may know, I'm a big fan of connecting with the natural world around us, and since we've been raising our Guide Dog puppy Viking I've found myself happily spending much more time in the fields and woodland near our house.

Even over the winter there are always birds around the fields: magpies, crows, wood pigeons, and collared doves. In the hedges of the field margins are songbirds of all shapes and sizes, and in the skies or in the trees are my favourite birds of all, our local buzzards.

The other morning on our walk, Viking and I had once again spotted one of the buzzards atop a telegraph pole staking out moles in the fallow field below. I always feel happy when we spot one of the buzzards, and after only a short linger to watch him, we carried on our way. A few minutes later I turned back to see the buzzard gliding over the field towards the woods. At his approach, diverse alarm calls from other birds rang out, and pigeons burst from the trees in all directions to get out of the way. The buzzard lazily flapped a couple of times before gliding off into the distance, shortly followed by his mate from another direction, both seeking out air thermals on which to soar.
"Alarms often warn us of danger, like the birds at the approach of the buzzard"
Alarms often warn us of danger, like the birds' calls at the approach of the buzzard. Some animals have different alarm calls for different predators, like vervet monkeys which have distinct calls for leopards, snakes and eagles. Warning alarms tell you when it's dangerous to stay where you are, like on a railway crossing, or behind a large reversing vehicle.

In a previous house, our smoke alarms were programmed to beep when the battery needed testing or changing, emitting individual high pitched "pips" every couple of minutes until action was taken. Invariably the battery seemed to run out in the middle of the night and I'd be dragged from deep sleep into bleary wakefulness to stumble downstairs in search of a screwdriver and 9v battery.
"Warning alarms tell you when it's dangerous to stay where you are"
Our most recent car seat for our young son came with an extra feature, a feature which in hindsight we'd have happily done without - it emits a helpful beep, in the same high pitched note of a smoke alarm, when the seatbelt isn't strapped in. I can honestly say that we've never forgotten to strap our son in when he's been in the car - so this special feature only ever goes off when the car seat is empty, and usually when you least expect it. Sadly it's not obvious how to remove the battery without irreparably damaging the clasp, probably designed to make it baby proof - however we never plan to get a car seat with this special feature again!

I'm not a pilot, but I've watched enough films to know that many planes have systems which alert pilots if they're flying too low and therefore in danger of hitting an obstacle or the ground. If that kind of alarm goes off then the action you need to take is to gain altitude - fly higher.
"We sometimes need an alarm bell to wake us up, tell us the day has begun, to remind us we need to act."
Is your alarm going off?
I'm pleased to say that our kids sleep pretty well these days, and I'm grateful for the extra hours' sleep rather than too many broken nights. We're also grateful that our neighbourhood is pretty peaceful, so peaceful in fact that occasionally we can hear our next door neighbours' early morning alarm clock going off.

I'm not a person that generally needs alarms to wake up, but usually our neighbours' alarm goes off around the time I need to get up anyway, so it's not entirely unwelcome. We sometimes need an alarm bell to wake us up, tell us the day has begun, to remind us we need to act.

The thing is, alarms are only effective if we are attentive to them. So many of our alarms require us to be able to hear - for people who aren't able to hear they are less effective or not effective at all. That's why another important type of assistance dog is a hearing dog, who will alert their owner to take necessary action to sounds they're unable to hear.

Are there any alarms going off in your life that you need to become aware of again? Perhaps a regular beep telling you that your batteries are low? Has anything in your environment changed that you need to be aware of and take action? Is it safe to stay where you are or do you need to move? Perhaps you're flying too low in terms of what you're capable of, and you're called to higher altitude. Maybe you simply need to wake up, to take action of some kind.
"Are there any alarms going off in your life that you need to become aware of again?"
One beep I've had to pay attention to over the last few months is the beep of busyness, and I've needed to take evasive action to avoid a crash, and adjust the pace of some of my commitments, scale back in a few areas. What do you need to be reminded of? What beeping do you need to hear?

Are you still listening?
If you've ever watched the film The Polar Express (and it gets watched dozens of times in our household in the run up to Christmas) then you'll know that the sleigh bell given to the main character can only be heard ringing by those who believe in Father Christmas. Maybe there's something in your life that you've stopped believing in, a bell, an alarm that's been muted for whatever reason?

I've not been visited by an angel myself that I'm aware of, but from the stories of angelic visitation I read in the Bible, it's quite an alarming experience, hence their usual opening line "do not be afraid". Sometimes we're deafened by our fears, or distractions which drown out the things that are calling us to action, to fly higher, to wake up.
"Maybe there's something in your life that you've stopped believing in, a bell, an alarm that's been muted for whatever reason"
I heard a great quote this week from Steve Maraboli, he said this: "Think of what makes you smile, makes you happy... and do more of that stuff".

The things we're passionate about, the things that make us happy, the things that make us feel truly alive are a function of how we're wired by a loving creator God. For Eric Liddell, the hero of the true story behind Chariots of Fire it was running. Even though he felt called to become a missionary to China, he expressed his passion well when we said "when I run I feel his pleasure".

So who or what is trying to get your attention? Are you receptive to your divine calling? There's a line in the Psalms that's always stood out to me, and it's this: "Today if you hear his voice don't harden your hearts".

Perhaps today's the day to act, to believe, to hear, to move rather than block your ears or harden your heart. The starter gun's fired and it's time to run your race.
"Who or what is trying to get your attention? Are you receptive to your divine calling?"
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Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on alarm bells! 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.

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!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Joining the dots

What picture do your dots make up?
Back in 1987 there was a momentous moment in our family. 

Only a few years after we'd got our first video player (and I remember walking to the video store that day with my mum and choosing a Spiderman video to watch), we entered the space age with a giant beige Amstrad home computer. 

Running MS-DOS, armed with twin 5.25inch floppy disc drives, we were at the cutting edge of technology, with a speedy 8086 Intel processor. 

I remember my Uncle coming over with a computer expert friend of his to help us set it up, and I remember the drawing program that came preloaded with an image of a tiger (I could never draw anything remotely that good). We also splashed out on a dot matrix printer, which took an age to print and was really noisy - everything it printed was made up of dots (hence the name) and it gradually built up the picture or the text it was printing line by line, dot by dot.

"We need to live in the tension of focusing on the steps whilst being aware of the bigger picture."
The computer and printer lasted us a good few years until we upgraded to a Viglen at some point in the 90s (at which point I could play games with at least basic graphics!). To be honest I have pretty fond memories of the old Amstrad and the Citizen dot matrix printer we had, and as an inquisitive seven year old I remember finding my way round the DOS operating system by trial and error... although I have a vague recollection of accidentally deleting *.* and wiping my dad's entire work database. I may have slightly blanked that out and I think I was sent on a long walk after the unfortunate incident.

My kids don't get much opportunity to use MS DOS, but they are getting to the age where they can enjoy dot-to-dot puzzles. These require the ability to count and recognise numbers, a steady-ish hand, and recognition of simple pictures. Once you grasp the idea and know to start at the first dot all you have to do it look for the next dot and link up to it. Even if you don't know what the picture is to begin with, you can still start the puzzle just by following the numbers. The arrangement may be bewildering, but with a little determination the bigger picture becomes obvious.


It's possible to break tasks down into dots.
I think sometimes we face giants, mountains, obstacles that seem insurmountable. A bewildering, confusing mass and it's hard to even know where to start. I remember that after Kate said "yes" to my proposal, it seemed a really daunting thing to plan our wedding. Likewise moving house, or some other complex task. 

This past few weeks I've been setting up my podcast, something that felt completely bewildering to begin with, but that I've found has been more like a child's dot-to-dot puzzle than I realised - yes it's complicated, but it's also possible to break it down into a series of linked dots.. do this, do that, then do that, go here and you're done. Our wedding planning was like that too, a long list of small things to do, and much more achievable a dot at a time.

Working in an Engineering Consultancy it's fair to say that I'm surrounded by a lot of very clever and very technical people. People who are great at working on dots. In my experience there's a tension between being focused on the small dots, the immediate, technical tasks, and remembering the big picture. We're often guilty of diving straight into the detail - the how - because we're adept problem solvers who get energy from solving complex engineering or environmental problems, and sometimes we can lose sight of the big picture - the why. We need to live in the tension of focusing on the steps whilst being aware of the bigger picture.

Our old dot matrix printer was great at focusing on the dots. Line by line it noisily laid down dots on the paper in the order commanded by our Amstrad computer. It was rarely obvious to begin with (unless you knew what was coming) what was being printed out, and we usually needed to go downstairs and put the kettle on for some tea before it would be finished and it would become obvious what was being printed out. 

Sometimes I think life can feel a bit like that - we can struggle to see any pattern in the dots of our circumstances, relationships and experience. If we're stuck on the dots then maybe we need to stand back and let the image become clearer - like my kids figuring out half way round that they're drawing a frog or a cat. Funnily enough, what started out as straight lines and sharp angles becomes smoother and more lifelike as they finish - but they still need to join up all the dots to complete the picture. If you're finding it hard to see where the next dot is, take a step back and look for the bigger picture.
"If you're finding it hard to see where the next dot is, take a step back and look for the bigger picture."
Here in the West Midlands its been a dreary and rainy start to the month, but the other night the rain had finished falling and the wind had blown the clouds clear, allowing the stars in the February sky to gleam as though freshly polished. They were truly sparkling. Each pinprick of light we see is a distant star or one of our neighbouring planets, and I love looking for the patterns in the sky that we recognise as constellations.

At this time of year Orion is easy to spot, as well as Ursa Major - the plough or big dipper. Although we rely on our sat-navs more for wayfinding these days, you can use Ursa Major to find Polaris, the North Star by following the line of the two front stars of the plough. Early navigators were used to reading the dots in the night sky to find their way.


"When I look at the night sky.."
The other year my brother gave me a fantastic book on Star Maps. This presented many early star maps from various cultures, and not surprisingly different cultures saw very different things in the patterns of stars and planets in the night sky. 

We find our own patterns, our own images in the dots of our circumstances, relationships and experience, but it can also be helpful to find out what others see.

Systems theorists might see dot to dot puzzles very differently than my kids. Instead of dots they might see nodes, and instead of lines they might see links. Instead of a simple picture, they might see a visual representation of a complex system. 

I watched a fascinating TED talk by Tom Wujec recently which was all about systems thinking, it's well worth a watch, and one of his conclusions was that we can make better meaning out of the systems that surround us when we view them together. If you're facing a complicated problem, or you're struggling to find a pattern, then trying to visualise it somehow, breaking it down into nodes and then trying to link those up may help.

Looking back at the most meaningful nodes in our lives and seeking to find the pattern in those can help us make better choices for our future - if you find that there's a cluster of dots in a certain area then this might signify an area you're passionate about, or the type of event that brings you fulfilment. From a career perspective, the classic book What Colour is Your Parachute? has numerous exercises to help you do this. More recently, the new book by Jeff Goins, The Art of Work, is also about seeing all your dots in a different way. No dots are wasted in the making of your masterpiece, it's just that our lives are a gentle unfolding, a slow printing like our 80s dot matrix printer.

So how are you feeling about the dots in your life? How do you see them? Are you stuck on a detail and need to look for the bigger picture? Or maybe you're overwhelmed by something and instead you need to break it down into a series of dot to dots. There's always a tension between the nitty gritty, the dots, and the bigger picture of our lives, and that's ok.
"No dots are wasted in the making of your masterpiece, it's just that our lives are a gentle unfolding, a slow printing like our 80s dot matrix printer."
Wherever you're at, taking some regular time to re-orient yourself is a really positive habit to get in to. Why not seek out someone to help you see our own constellations from a different perspective, like a pastor, life coach or close friend?

One final thought, from King David in Psalm 8:

"When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers - 
the moon and the stars you set in place - 
what are mere mortals that you should think of them,
human beings that you should care for them?" (Ps 8:3-4, NLT)

I take great comfort that in the dot to dot of my life, I'm not figuring it out alone, and nor are you.




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Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on joining the dots! 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.

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

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Consistency and Heartbeats - Potting Shed Podcast



Consistency and heartbeats..

What makes your heart beat?
There was a funny news story I heard recently about a commuter train, the 7.29 service from Brighton to London Victoria which hadn't once been on time during 2014. For various reasons it had consistently been late every single day. As it happens, this week I've been set the topic of consistency, which builds on my post last month about routines, rhythms and habits

Have you ever been in hospital and hooked up to a machine which monitors your heart rate? You see them lots in films or TV dramas after people have had accidents of some kind. What's healthy is the regular beep and signature heart rate pattern. The last thing you want to hear is a steady tone and a flat line across the screen.
"It's important to have a consistent heart beat - this is a sign that we are alive"
My wife and I have been watching 24 again recently and there have been scenes in which characters end up "flat-lining" - losing their vital signs of life. In medical terms, it's important to have a consistent heart beat - this is a sign that we are alive.

If you've never read Daniel Coyle's book "The Talent Code" then it's a great book on the topic of excellence and the importance of consistently and diligently developing your skills through practice - this causes something called myelin to reinforce neural pathways in our brains and enable us to improve. As Aristotle famously said "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." 

Sometimes I think we can get so focused on the things we repeatedly do wrong or wish we didn't do, that we forget to pay attention to the things we do well. Or more often we're simply inconsistent with the things we really want to do. Perhaps we have bursts of commitment to something, like healthy eating, exercise, or learning an instrument, but then end up binging our way out of it with poor food choices, laziness or apathy. I think we can all agree that self discipline is hard since it requires us to be whole hearted when so often its easier to be half hearted. 

Like a heart beat, if we want to develop in whatever area, we need to be regular and consistent in our commitment. Making space for it in a regular pattern, maybe "little and often" to begin with, to help us get into good habits. That's something Daniel Coyle observed in his book - it was better to practice for five minutes every day than for a few hours once a week. Our brains are wired to reward consistency, and when we're growing up it's important to have consistent boundaries to enable us to grow - as any parent of toddlers or puppies knows, consistency is a key element of good parenting (although knowing that doesn't make it any easier).
"Like a heart beat, if we want to develop in whatever area, we need to be regular and consistent in our commitment."
I listened to a brilliant talk from Leon Evans the other week about making wise choices, and want to share a couple of his points as they relate to this:
  • There is a cumulative value in investing small amounts of time in certain activities over a long period. For example exercise, family time, devotional time, date nights.
  • There are rarely any immediate consequences for neglecting single instalments of elements in your life.
  • Neglect has a cumulative effect. Look at your garden! 
  • There is no cumulative value to the things we allow to interfere with the important things. 
  • In the critical areas of your life you cannot make up for lost time. 
Do you need to change your switch?
Perhaps the opposite of consistency is neglect. Are you starving your dreams and passions to feed other less important demands on your life? 

So often I think we can take a binary approach, either we're all this or all that. Either it's my family or my dreams, or my work, or volunteering - the switch is either on of off. 

I don't subscribe to this, I think our lives can be more like a dimmer switch or a mixer tap. Maybe this year you can ask yourself how can you combine both somehow - maybe invite your dreams and passions to dinner, so to speak!
"I think our lives can be more like a dimmer switch or a mixer tap"
So what does your heart beat pattern look like? Are you allowing your true heart to beat, or are you in danger of flatlining? Perhaps your "little and often" way to consistently integrate these things into your everyday is about accepting the pattern of your heart trace - allowing yourself to have regular times devoted to your passion, even if it's not as often as you'd like or as long as you like. Our lives have seasons when the demands of our families or work crowd other things out, slow our creative heart rate down but no matter what season you're in, it's important to keep it beating. 

Conversely, there may be times where you have the opportunity to increase your creative heart rate, but the important thing at any time is that you're consistently allowing your creative heart to beat on a regular basis, not flatlining. This might mean setting aside one evening a week for a particular activity, or a weekend a month. Maybe you could explore changing your working patterns to make space for this, even a sabbatical of some kind. And if you're struggling with self-discipline, feeling half hearted, then find a tribe to help you. I've found this useful myself. Being part of a blogging group which I'm accountable to gives me the motivation to stay consistent with my own writing in a way I'd struggle to do on my own. Who could you ask to share your journey? We can often go further with others.

Don't consistently put off the most important things in your life, instead, allow your live to thrive by consistently allowing your creative heart to beat. And if you feel like you're flatlining, check out my book Life Space on Amazon, perhaps it can be the virtual defibrillator you need to kickstart your dreams to life again.
"Don't consistently put off the most important things in your life, instead, allow your live to thrive by consistently allowing your creative heart to beat."

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Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on consistency! If you've enjoyed it why not share it with your friends on social media?

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!