Friday, November 21, 2014

Stormy Weather

Winter is fast approaching, and with it the usual spate of news headlines about storms and flooding. Parts of the UK have suffered flooding in various forms over the past few winters, whether from burst river banks, tidal storm surges, high groundwater levels, or overland flow - whatever the source, storms are guaranteed to cause headlines again this winter.
"In one sense, there is a predictability about storms.."
Are you in the right place?
I've ended up spending a fair chunk of my working life assessing the severity of storms, and advising clients of all shapes and sizes how best they can future-proof their development to take due account of a changing climate.

In one sense, there is a predictability about storms - we have rainfall records going back to 1766 from which we can assess what "size" storm statistically occurs every say, 10 years or 100 years. Based on this we can make sure that new developments have drainage systems which are sized to accommodate a suitable amount of rainfall, allowing for increased rainfall intensity in future due to the predicted effects of climate change over the lifetime of the development.

We have complex river models and flood maps showing the historic and theoretical floodplain, which help developers and planners avoid locating more vulnerable development in high risk areas. We know from experience that winter is often (but not exclusively) the time when the most severe storms are experienced. In areas protected by flood defences, we know that residual risks remain if the defences should fail, and can therefore plan for emergency procedures to protect property and life from harm.
"..but most of the time storms are unpredictable."
So yes, in one sense storms are predictable and there are things we can do in advance to prepare - like residents of Caribbean islands boarding up their houses in advance of a hurricane.

But as we all know, most of the time storms are unpredictable. We don't know exactly when or where they will occur. In our own lives we can get engulfed in unexpected storms at the drop of a hat - a sudden illness, an accident, issues at work, issues at home.

When a storm hits our lives, we usually can't continue with "business as usual". How can we prepare for these? How can we react? I'd like to offer three suggestions of how we can think ahead, borrowing from the flood risk advice I give in my day-job. I don't mean to belittle anyone's difficult circumstances, or suggest that there is a solve-all solution for the numerous storms of life that we go through - big or small. However, I hope that my thoughts will provide a helpful alternative perspective for us to reflect on.
"Are you in the right place?"
Firstly, are you in the right place? Or should I say, have you ended up dwelling (not literally) in a risky place? Whether intentionally or not, we can find ourselves in situations, commitments, or relationships that are the equivalent of the shifting sands than the foolish man built on.

Perhaps it's worth reflecting on the different parts of your life and, if you're able, re-positioning to somewhere safer. If that's not possible, at least think about possible escape routes if the unthinkable happened, such as losing your job suddenly (like the flood defences failing).

I was reminded this week about the story of King Canute, who's flattering advisors (if I remember the story correctly) had claimed he was powerful enough to turn back the waves of the sea - something he was aware he couldn't do, and rebuked them accordingly. On the Canute Hotel in Southampton is an inscription marking this event "Near this spot in AD1028, Canute reproved his courtiers". Like Canute, we can't command the waves to stop - but maybe we can choose where we locate ourselves to stay as dry as we can!

Do you have people around you?
Secondly, do you have the right materials to hand to provide protection? In real life this could be sand bags (actually an inefficient flood barrier, but that's beside the point), but in the context of the storms of life, do you have people around you who can provide support?

Do you know where to turn to for advice? It's good to be part of a community that cares for you - personally I have been amazingly supported over the years through our local church. Who are the human sand bags in your life you could turn to?

Finally, are there ways you can help others through their storms? It's common for redevelopment projects these days to be required to reduce the amount of peak rainfall runoff they discharge compared to the existing situation. This is called "betterment", and the idea is that flood risk is reduced to others as a result. Are there ways that you can reduce "storm damage" for those around you? Perhaps by being a listening ear, providing a meal, giving some good advice - could you be a "sand bag" for someone in need?
"Stormy weather may be on the horizon, but you don't have to face it alone."
Storms can be severe - in the news this week there has been record snow in parts of America. In our lives we can suffer traumatic storms which leave us feeling cut-off, displaced, even lost. We can't prevent storms from happening, but we may be able to reposition ourselves to reduce the risk. We can gather human sand bags around us, to provide support - and most importantly we can be that support for others around us.

Stormy weather may be on the horizon, but you don't have to face it alone.

Hey there, thanks for reading this post! 
If you liked it why not share it with your friends, or leave me a comment below about how you have prepared for or dealt with storms in your own life? 
I've got a Kindle book coming out soon about making space in our lives for our dreams, so please sign up here to hear more about that and I'll keep you up to date. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

World Toilet Day

Please twin your toilet!
I think we take for granted
The humble WC.
And flush, flush, flush away all day
Whenever we've the need.

Your loo might be a place to read,
Or maybe think or pray!
Perhaps it's nothing of the sort
Just a passing place each day.

But celebrate our loos we should,
And praise this great invention!
Be grateful for our drains and pipes
Which go without a mention.

Our drainage systems beat disease,
They help us all stay healthy.
For many folk they're but a dream,
And only for the wealthy.

So next time you pay a visit
Please take a reverent pause,
And celebrate the humble loo..

..Two billion people round the world
Would be grateful for one too.

We've twinned our loo through and I'd encourage you to as well, to help the 2.5 billion people who don't have somewhere safe, clean and hygienic to go to the loo - please would you consider it? 

To read about my recent trip to South Africa with the charity Ten Thousand Homes click here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The me I wish I was..

What's your epitaph?
Have you ever done that exercise where you have to write an epitaph for your own funeral? Perhaps it was in a slightly awkward team-building scenario you found yourself in. The idea is to get you to think about how you'd like to be remembered, and then working backwards to think about whether you need to make any changes to your life to work towards it.

I've done it once or twice, and in principle it's a really healthy thing to do although if I'm honest it probably felt a bit cringeworthy at the time. What do you want to be remembered for?

People often seem to share articles about common regrets people have on their deathbed. A friend shared one this week that I found interesting and which got me thinking. Among the themes that come up in these kinds of articles are:

  • Taking more risks, 
  • Having more baths (about giving yourself time to think), 
  • Not getting stuck on the work treadmill, 
  • Giving more time to your family, and 
  • Expressing your feelings more honestly. 

All things that I'm sure many of us would like to devote more time to. I certainly would.

It's easy to get stuck in a rut..
I don't want to be one of those people who is full of regrets on my deathbed, I'm sure you don't either, but there can be a tension between having a vision of who we aspire to be, and growing into that person! Life has this habit of creating ruts for us to get stuck in. Or we fall prey to that trick that we'll do something tomorrow, or when a slower day comes. Rob Parsons points this out in his excellent book "The 60 Minute Father". We kid ourselves into thinking a slower day is coming - but it's an illusion, it never comes.

One regret people had in the article above was about having the courage to live life true to ourselves, not the life others expect of us. This really does take daily courage - perhaps to leave the office on time, when the dominant culture is to stay late (arguably people work more effectively with a shorter working week anyway, like this company in Argentina found). It can be tough to challenge the status quo and face the "tuts" of your colleagues - although they're probably secretly wishing they were brave enough to leave on time too.
"What do you want to be remembered for?"
Maybe it's about saying no to voluntary commitments, at your sports club, church, scout pack or whatever your Third Place might be. I find it hard to say no sometimes to things people ask of me, especially when it's something I enjoy doing - but it's important to set up appropriate boundaries, to give ourselves space to be true to ourselves rather than being the person other people expect us to be. I don't mean this as an excuse not to contribute to our wider communities, just to make a point that we need to find a good balance at times. It's healthy to say no sometimes, and it can give others an opportunity to fill the space - none of us are indispensable, although we'd love to think we are!

Has your self image become distorted?
It's not just on our deathbeds that we face regrets. There are times when our view of ourselves can become distorted, like the mirrors at a funfair - memories of mistakes we've made or situations we didn't handle well can loom larger than life and warp our sense of who we are. If we're always looking backward, consumed by regrets or events in our past, then it's going to be hard for us to see where we're going. Conversely we can get too carried away with future plans that we miss the "now".

As the saying goes, in our competitive world the only person we need to be better than is the person we were yesterday. It's ok to make mistakes, in fact as my mum would say, failure is just another way of learning. Likewise loss, trauma, grief can really affect our view of ourselves, and can take time to heal.
"Let's take courageous action to use our gifts and talents well.."
It's easy to put on masks, to hide who we really are. And it's also easier to wish for a future that never comes, that we always put off taking steps towards. I believe we've all been made for a purpose by a loving God, and that embracing his plans for us is the best thing we can ever do - and the best place to start is with the things that we're passionate about and the things we're good at. We've all been given unique talents and gifts, and the challenge is to use them not bury them! As I wrote earlier this week, it's ok to start small and be a buzzard before we grow into an eagle!

So let's not be people full of deathbed regrets, pining for "the me I wish I was". Let's take more risks, have more baths, get off the treadmill, give more time to the ones we love and express ourselves more openly. I promise that life will be more of an adventure if we do!

Let's take courageous action to use our gifts and talents well, to be our true selves, and to live lives worthy of that epitaph.

Hey there, thanks for reading this post! 
If you liked it why not share it with your friends, or leave me a comment below? 
I've got a Kindle book coming out soon about making space in our lives for our dreams, so please sign up here to hear more about that and I'll keep you up to date. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Embrace your inner buzzard!

The "common" buzzard
When I take a walk across the nearby fields with my kids, our Guide Dog puppy or all together, it's rare for us not to spot a buzzard or two.

We see plenty of crows in gangs, sitting broodily up in the trees, cawing to each other. We see magpies, starlings, the occasional glimpse of a jay. There are lots of small birds (ones I find hard to identify) chirruping and flitting around the hedges, but my favourite birds to see are our local buzzards.
"I think buzzards are under-appreciated"
Sometimes from the kitchen window I can see them circling on air thermals. Other times when we're walking the field margins one will alight from its hidden perch and glide over the fields - it's distinctive white markings flashing beneath it's brown wings - all elegance and menace. Occasionally I'll hear their plaintive "mew", but more often they're silent.

Once when we emerged into a recently planted field from a small wooded copse we saw one proudly standing nearby, perhaps at a kill. My favourite recent encounter was on an early morning Sunday run, finding (perhaps the same bird) standing on some grass only 10ft from the pavement and watching me warily as I ran past.

I think buzzards are under-appreciated. The clue's in the name - the common buzzard - and they don't elicit the same awe and reverence as other more powerful birds of pray, like the golden eagle. Within the last century, in much of the UK, their populations were decimated by gamekeepers who perceived them to be a threat to game birds (they weren't). Happily they've gradually been afforded more protection since the end of the second world war and are now fully protected by law. Their populations are thriving by comparison and their conservation status is no longer a concern.
"..really we all want to be eagles"

Aspire to be eagles..
This is a success story, and one not to take for granted. Buzzards are our most common bird of prey here in the UK, and much as I respect crows and magpies for their intelligence, I'm a sucker for the grace and beauty of raptors. The fact that they live alongside us makes them all the more remarkable in my mind.

The thing is, really we all want to be eagles. Eagles have an almost sacred position in many of our cultures. Hitler's mountaintop fortress was the Eagle's Nest, not the Buzzard's Burrow. When I read the Bible, eagles keep getting mentioned. Film titles include them: "Where Eagles Dare". They even save the day in the Lord of the Rings. Common buzzards don't have the same status, they're nowhere near the same league. Much further down the pecking order.

Yes, larger and rarer birds of prey are majestic and beautiful, all the more so for being found in remote habitats. But I like that buzzards deign to share our more "normal" environments, to live alongside us.

We can enjoy their company and grace in the everyday, rather than relying on nature documentaries to reveal mountaintop eyries. In fact, to some, buzzards are known as the "tourist's eagle", being apparently often mistaken for eagles (although they are much smaller).

I think that buzzards can teach us a lesson about our own lives. I wonder if we write off our
Embrace your inner buzzard
abilities, skills, talents or dreams sometimes because they seem too common, too everyday.
"..better to start soaring as a buzzard than grounding our dreams"
Are we comparing ourselves to Golden Eagles - people with seemingly grander or more developed abilities than our own? Sometimes comparison can cause us to feel sorry for ourselves or even give up. But there is a beauty in embracing the everyday.

Golden Eagles are rare, and whilst we shouldn't limit our aspirations, it's ok if our skills, achievements or daily realities are distinctly buzzard-like, at least to begin with. Maybe, over time we can grow from buzzards into eagles (metaphorically), but better to start soaring as a buzzard than grounding our dreams, clipping our own wings, until we reach the mountaintops.

You've got to start somewhere, so maybe it's time for you to embrace your inner buzzard!

Hey there, thanks for reading this post! 
If you liked it why not share it with your friends, or leave me a comment below? 
I've got a Kindle book coming out soon about making space in our lives for our dreams, so please sign up here to hear more about that and I'll keep you up to date. 

Friday, November 07, 2014

Dancing Leaves

Leaf drifts
It's the end of autumn (or fall) and the streets and open spaces around our house are filled with fallen leaves. It's been a mild autumn and the trees have stubbornly held on to their leaves longer than usual and then dropped them all in one go. There are leaf drifts everywhere, and the wind has been making the leaves dance across the streets in swirls and whirls - I wrote a short piece of prose inspired by this earlier this week.

On a related note I've been thinking about another type of leaf recently - the leaves of a book. Regular readers may know that I'm planning to release a book on Amazon Kindle this side of Christmas, and whilst this e-book won't have actual paper leaves, it helps me to visualise it by pretending it does.

November is national novel writing month (NaNoWriMo), a fact I only learned a few weeks ago. Whilst I'm not writing a novel this year, and I've finished writing my current (non fiction) book, I'm still following the action through social media. A characteristic of NaNoWriMo is the sense of community and accountability for those participating, a bit like weight-watchers for authors!

For so many people, dreams like writing a novel are something that get put off and put back, continually shelved by the urgency of daily life. NaNoWriMo helps writers to start, persevere and finish a novel - the target is 50000 words, and some writing communities encourage participants to post daily word count totals, the equivalent of weight-loss weigh ins. 

Helpful advice and motivation is available from established authors through Twitter and other social media channels. Even physical space - places to write - are made available. I was pleased to see that our local libraries service were supporting NaNoWriMo too and encouraging writers to write in the libraries. 

On the train this week I spotted a lady typing furiously away on her laptop, which was emblazoned with numerous NaNoWriMo stickers! I *almost* went up and asked if I could take a photo for this blog post, but she was plugged into earphones, the train was just arriving at my stop, and frankly I thought it might weird her out, so I refrained.

As the eminently quotable Mark Twain said, 'the secret of getting ahead is getting started'. Starting out is crucial, but there's also something important in persevering in our dreams, and learning to complete the process. It's often more important how we finish than how we start.

How we give space to our dreams, deal with disappointment and help them grow is the subject of my book, just to whet your appetite! Please sign up here to get the latest news on my writing.

Even solo tasks like writing a novel are often better done in community - motivation and encouragement from others are like the wind which makes our dreams dance, like the autumn leaves we started with.

Have you shelved your dreams?
Maybe you're not planning to write a novel. But maybe there is a dream you've been putting off, gathering dust on a shelf, or stuck in a proverbial leaf drift. Finding an encouraging community could be the wind you need to get you started, keep going and then finish off! 

Perhaps this week you can seek out people and groups who will help you - and where you can also offer help and encouragement. It's a biblical principle that you reap what you sow, so while you're waiting for your dreams to dance, why not encourage others around you in theirs? Perhaps you could commit to pray for someone for their next step?

I'd love to hear from you - what dreams have you been putting off? Let me know in the comments below and I promise to offer some encouragement!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Dawn Calm

(Since restarting this blog earlier this year, one of the things that has surprised me is the amount of poetry I've written. This weekend I surprised myself even more with some prose instead! Maybe I'll include this in a novel one day - when I get around to writing another 39,768 words or so.. anyway, I hope you enjoy it.)
"The wind picked up that afternoon as the weather front moved in. Blue skies gradually turned grey and the brightness was replaced by a diffuse, cloud-filtered opalescent sunlight. Driving home, drifts of fallen leaves filled pavements and gutters. A spectrum of yellows to browns, now and then the leaves were picked up and asked to dance by the wind, spinning waltzes across the road in front of us, as if to put on a show.

As darkness fell, so the rain began to fall. Gently at first, then more violently, tipitty-tapping on the windows with an urgency to make it's presence known.

Waking in the night from troubled dreams and looking out of our bedroom window, the wind and rain were in full assault on the neighbourhood. Beneath the sodium street lights raindrops were being driven in horizontal streaks over parked cars and through swaying horse chestnuts. I drifted back into my slumber to the whistle of the wind over the house. A much needed lullaby.

Early next morning, I stood on the back door step with the dog and watched as the rain continued to fall, weighty raindrops bouncing off roofs and fences and patios. Then as suddenly as the autumn dawn appeared, the wind dropped and the rain stopped - as if their shift had ended and it was time to clock off. The new day emerged in a dripping stillness. 

Dawn calm after a stormy night."

Friday, October 31, 2014

Time travel

Where would you go if you could travel through time? Would you go backward or forward, and how far? Perhaps you'd be an observer at a famous moment in history, or maybe stop yourself making a specific mistake. Maybe you'd travel to the future to pick up next week's winning lottery numbers or horse racing results?
"Where would you go if you could travel through time?"
If you're a fan of the 1980s Back To The Future films, you'll know that in the second film Marty and Doc travel forward to 2015 - a year fast approaching! I've seen screenshots from the film doing the rounds on social media recently with what they imagined we'd all be wearing: lots of silver, and global hyper-colour type baseball caps. Maybe the futuristic fashion they imagined was a little off the mark, but not everything imagined in the film is unrealistic - recent news shows that hoverboards are closer than we think.
Chasing after a light beam?

Other science fiction futures have come and gone. Arthur C Clarke's future vision in the award winning film 2001 is an obvious one. We may not have had a manned mission to Jupiter yet, as he imagined we would have done by 2001, but many of the details in the various futures he imagined in his writing have come to pass - electronic newspapers for example, and GPS. He was called by some "The Prophet of the Space Age". 

I don't mind confessing that I'm a fan of science fiction. Although I've not read so much in recent years,  I enjoy imagining different futures - whether aeons into the future or closer to home. Actually I also enjoy historical novels and fantasy too, so I'm a bit of a time traveller when it comes to fiction (although don't mention The Time Traveller's Wife - I have never cried so much at the end of a book - gosh). 

One of my top five themes from the Strengths Finder assessment is "Futuristic" - I think this explains my attraction to sci-fi, as it appeals to that futuristic streak in me: "People strong in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They inspire others with their visions of the future".

What vision or future do you imagine for yourself? 

It can be hard to think and dream ahead when we get so wrapped up with the demands of the "now". With young kids, broken nights' sleep and a demanding day job I've sometimes found the days and weeks begin to blur and those yearly landmarks of holidays, birthdays and seasons seem to come around quicker and quicker. 

How can we carve out time to look ahead and not just dream a future, but take actions to step into it? Can we imagine ourselves into our dreams?

"What vision or future do you imagine for yourself?"
Watching a Brian Cox documentary about the Universe this week it struck me that whilst astrophysics is undoubtedly a complex and intricate science, some of the greatest theories and breakthroughs came from an almost childlike imagination - stories of Einstein imaging chasing after a beam of light for example. 

I wonder if we can overcomplicate the futures we imagine for ourselves and somehow keep them out of reach. Instead would it be better to be more childlike and simple in some of our dreams, to bring them closer to our "now"?

This isn't to say that we shouldn't dream big or imagine fantastic futures, but that without action to propel us in that direction - without a vector - they may remain unreal, like the clothes imagined in 2015 by Back to the Future. 

Maybe we should think of our dreams like hoverboards - a future vision which became a self fulfilling prophecy. A dream which inspired someone to turn into reality. The thing about vectors, in a mathematical sense, is that they have both size and direction - they're moving. 

It's all very well to have a big dream, but without a direction towards it then it's not going to go anywhere. Conversely, in the blur of the daily grind we can have too much movement and not enough vision. When this happens we're in danger of ending up somewhere we don't want to be. Trapped by the busyness of the everyday. As Socrates said "Beware the barrenness of a busy life"

From a perspective of faith, it's important that we catch onto the vision for our life that God has - usually a much broader, fulfilling and more exciting vision than our own. To do this takes time to listen to God but a good starting point is the things we're gifted with and passionate about.

Setting our vector in the direction God sets may require bravery, but it will ultimately lead to a richer and deeper place. It's important to pray round the dreams and gifts God gives you, and I'd highly recommend Mark Batterson's The Circle Maker on this topic.
"Maybe we should think of our dreams like hoverboards.."
What are the hoverboards in your life that you're imagining in the future? And on what vector are you going to travel through time to get there? We may not have time machines (yet), but we can dream, pray and take steps towards our future vision. For some practical thoughts about carving out time to create a future you don't want to escape from, check out these thoughts from Jonathan Milligan.

It may not work out exactly as we expect, but better to stay child-like and enjoy the journey, than travel at warp speed through the blur of the "now" and fill our future with regrets. 

What are you dreaming of in the future?
I hope you've enjoyed reading this post. Why not leave me a comment about your dreams and how you might take a step closer to them? I'd love to hear from you.

Look out for my book "Life Space: Give Your Dreams Room to Grow", due out on Kindle before Christmas (if all goes to plan).

An ode to pumpkin beer..

'Would you like some pigeon muck?' he asked,
Four stone monster gourds!

As I planted pumpkins on our plot.
'It'll help 'em grow' he added,
So I duly took the lot.

Black Country pigeon poo,
Fragrant and matured,
Turned our pumpkins into giants!
Four stone monster gourds!

The recipe for pumpkin beer
Needed just a meagre kilo.
But what a kilo and what a brew!
And all from bags of pigeon poo!