Saturday, February 22, 2014

The way you do anything is the way you do everything

It's always a busy time in the lead up to a holiday. Busy at work trying to get things finished, and trying to remember all the little details of the projects I'm working on so that I can brief my colleagues sufficiently. Busy at home trying to remember all the little things that we need to take with us on holiday.. And there always seems to be at least one detail that gets missed! 

Details are pretty important really, and as I've been reflecting on this week's blog buddies title whilst driving between US cities (in a haze of travel weariness), it strikes me that 'the way we do anything' speaks about the importance of the little things, those details that accumulate to make up the big picture.

Yesterday at Downtown Disney there was a Lego store with various life size characters including the Incredible Hulk, all made up of thousands of pieces of Lego, which got me thinking about the myriad of small things that make us up (admittedly we're not made up of multicoloured small plastic bricks, I'm not trying to introduce a new foundation to science!).

It's really all the little 'anythings' that we do, the everyday things, that sum up to become the 'everything' of our lives - but sometimes we can get so focused on the big picture that we can spend our lives living only in anticipation for some future event, like we're stuck in Narnia's 'always winter and never Christmas', and missing out on the details that are good to appreciate and enjoy in our daily lives.

As Ian Stackhouse has put it in his excellent book 'The Day is Yours' (not, incidentally, yet another self help book about time management, but instead a great exegesis on the theology of the 'day'), we can only ever live in 'today' and therefore we should do our best to live each of our days well, as this is what in the end will result in us living our lives well - a series of days lived well, the summation of our 'anythings' into our 'everything'.

So lets be faithful in the small things and appreciate the daily Lego that's accumulating to make each of us the masterpiece that we are becoming. Lets embrace those 'days of small things' from the book of Zechariah, or as Robert Brault put it:

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realise they were the big things.”

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Poem: Full Moon

Saturday night. Full February moon.
A starlit walk to clear my head
from a day indoors with a poorly son.

Gales and storms have rinsed the sky,
leaving behind branches on the ground,
a deep black blank canvas above.

Full moon, casting bright milky glow.
Centre stage, stars hidden by light as if by shadow.
Only brave Orion holding back the reflected light.

I walk through urban silence.
Little sound but distant cars and muffled tvs.
Too late for songbirds, too early for owls.

Drawn through the streets to the edges.
Walking until the lighting columns end.
A strategic gap. Darkness of fields between towns.

This unlit road is ancient, they say.
A road back in time.
Across neolithic fields.

Another night I'll cross the calling fields.
Another night, another moon.

Tonight my home calls stronger.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Poem: Lost in a book

Lost in a book.
Insulated from the gentle hubbub around me.
Immune to the chatterers, the munchers,
the cheap headphones leaking driving drumbeats.
Lost in a story, swayed by the rhythmic rocking of my carriage.

Station names from the tannoy float over me like bubbles,
until one pops and like Pavlov's dog I rise.
Book closed, bag grabbed, join the queue.
The trudge of fellow commuters stepping out into fresh air
Snapping out of our journey's reflective reverie.
Finding ourselves at our destination.

My Random Musings

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Finished or perfect?

"It's better for something to be finished than perfect" - discuss!

I don't know about you, but to me this sounds like the title of an A-Level English exam question, something which (ironically) is best to be both finished AND perfect when the invigilator signals for pens to be put down and essays handed in!

And as I've been thinking about this statement, I've questioned whether being finished and being perfect are mutually exclusive. Like the exam example above, there are certain things that we want to be both finished and perfect! But does everything have to be perfect? And what is perfect anyway?

As someone with perfectionist tendencies, I've noticed an unfortunate side effect in myself and in others over the years. Sometimes, maybe even quite often, wanting to make something perfect can mean that same thing never gets finished.. it remains incomplete. This inevitably leads to frustration!

When we moved to the West Midlands a few years ago, we bought a house "in need of some work". In fact it needed an awful lot of work. It had no carpets, no central heating, half a kitchen, single glazing, terrible colours, dodgy electrics, gardens waist high with overgrowth.. and it had been unoccupied for six months. It was so bad that even the estate agent tried to put us off (about the only time ever that an estate agent was anything less than effusive about a property). It was, however, pretty good value for money, and we do like a challenge!

But (and it's a big but), in order to make it habitable, in order to make it a home, it needed lots of work and quick. For a perfectionist like me (especially in the area of DIY and making things), I needed to take a deep breath and recognise that it was more important to redecorate the house and get it finished (so we could move in) than do everything absolutely perfectly. And so we did.. we got it finished (enough) rather than perfect.

Over the last few years I've been thinking a lot about creativity. After I'd been working at the same company for a decade it dawned on me that I'd put many of my creative passions, ambitions and desires on hold - subconsciously waiting for the perfect time to undertake them.

Of course, we know that there's never a perfect time to do anything - and waiting for this elusive serendipitous moment can lead to a kind of paralysis, a "rabbit in the headlights" effect, just like when we try to make things overly perfect and end up not making anything at all.

With many things in our culture we can become obsessed with "destination" and miss out on the day to day journey. Too often our head can be immersed in what might or might not happen in the future and we can miss out on the importance and engagement with our day to day life.

Perhaps especially in the area of creativity, the sense of honing our craft means that we need to go through creative cycles - and finishing is an important (if not the most important) part of the creative cycle.

Discussing songwriting with a friend many years ago, he confessed that he'd started lots of songs but had never been able to finish one, as effectively it had never been perfect enough for him, which is a real shame. I feel fortunate that as a teenager, a wise musician friend taught me about the discipline of completing songs. I remember sitting in his lounge talking around his piano, as he told me how important it was to come up with a complete song "even if there's only one part of the song you really like". This nugget of advice has been very freeing over the years, although not always easy to apply!

Another unfortunate side effect of being a perfectionist can be impatience - especially with ourselves. We can set ourselves ridiculously high standards and then expect to be perfect at something from the start.

A few months ago I bought myself an accordion from eBay (my learner theme manifesting again.. I do love to learn new instruments!). After the shock had subsided of submitting a far higher bid than I intended (£1100 instead of £11.00), but subsequently having won the auction for a mere £12.50 (thank goodness I was "sniping" and no-one had time to bid me up to my maximum!) I collected my new instrument from the vendor and brought it home.

It needed some repair, a few new keys and key tops for example, which I was happily and successfully able to do myself in my workshop. Having repaired it, I set about playing it. Now this is a "daddy" accordion.. a massive 1930s vintage Hohner 120 bass.. which means it's fully chromatic and can be played in any key. I can play a bit of piano, and I understand chords, so in my (perfectionist) mind I expected myself to be able to pick my accordion up and dazzle straight off! As usual, the reality didn't quite match my aspiration and it's been a bit harder to learn than I hoped - for one thing you can't see your left hand at all, and there are 120 identical buttons to navigate by feel alone!

My point in saying this is that it's easy to get impatient with ourselves when things don't work out perfectly straight away. For creative types it's ok to allow ourselves to create imperfect things - often its more important for us to finish something than for it to be perfect. Knowing you can do things better next time round doesn't mean you're a failure. It's important to aim high, it's really important to do the best we can, but that doesn't mean we should beat ourselves up in the meantime (although we so often do). Some things genuinely take time.. 10,000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell (and if you've never read Malcolm Gladwell please go to the library now and borrow every single book of his they have, especially Outliers and Tipping Point).

My dad is a hero of mine. He is a master craftsman, and we think in very similar ways, especially in our approach to making things. I wish I could make things as well as my dad but I can't - not yet at least! You see he's got many many years more experience than I, and it would be foolish of me to expect to be as brilliant as he is without going through all the hard work, mistakes and sheer elbow grease he's put in to his craft. Of course I can learn from him, but I have to allow myself to be "imperfect" in the meantime. So I have to force myself to finish my many making projects in the workshop EVEN THOUGH THEY'RE NOT PERFECT, because I need to learn the art of finishing them off, varnishing etc. And every time I am improving, learning from mistakes and getting better.

There's an old adage that many of us will be familiar with, that you can't turn a stationary ship - you need it to be moving. And of course some ships have larger turning circles than others.. so too in our lives some things take longer than others. And maybe creativity is something that has a large turning circle.

One of the important things I'm continuing to learn is that it's healthier for me to enjoy the creative journey I'm on than to be overly focussed on the destination of being "perfect" at it. Accepting that I can make things better, but that the imperfect things I have made are the foundations on which the perfect things will be built.

In Stephen Covey's influential "7 Habits of Highly Effective People", the last habit is to "sharpen the saw".. to go through to process again, but better. This is one of the reasons why the art of finishing is so important, as it gives us the opportunity to start afresh and to apply the learning we gained on the last creation to the next one.

In New Caledonia there is a particularly bright species of crow. We know that all corvids (crows, rooks, ravens, magpies etc) are extremely clever, but this particular sub-species displays a remarkable characteristic previously only observed in humans. You see, they make simple tools - but more astoundingly, each generation has managed to communicate this knowledge to the next who have not only applied it, they have refined it! This is called the ratchet effect, and it's another fascinating perspective on the art of honing our creative skills - the more we go through the cycle, the more we can refine our tools, and the better we become. This is one of the reasons I'm blogging to the same title as my blog buddies each week - to sharpen the saw and improve my writing.

So is it better for something to be finished than perfect? Well yes and no, but the art of finishing is an important skill for us all to develop on our path to perfecting our craft.

(This post was written as part of the Blog Buddies group, to see what the other group members had to say on the same title have a read of  Nicola's post. If you want to join our blog buddies group contact

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Poem: Brain Wind

Wind whistling outside,
blowing hard over the hills all day.
Blowing clouds and cobwebs away.

I'm sitting down to write, mid-evening,
with decaf tea beside me.
My reflection in the window for company.

Outside the world is dark,
though sodium lights twinkle rhythmically in the rain.
A fluorescent daisy chain
beside the distant motorway.

Wind gusting in bursts,
blowing raindrops on the window pane
and blowing creative sparks in my brain.
Fanning embers back to flames.

Blow hard brain wind.
You've been still too long.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Fair is not everyone getting the same, but everyone getting what theyneed.

Justice is a big and controversial topic that dominates our news channels and makes headlines. Whether it's justice against an individual for a crime they've committed, or the injustice of human suffering, justice - what's fair - has been big news since Cain and Abel.

On November 21st 1974, not far from where I now work, two bombs exploded in two pubs 50 yards apart in Birmingham city centre. The explosions were so powerful they wrecked a passing bus and blew a number of victims through a brick wall. A third bomb was placed outside a nearby bank but failed to detonate.

Twenty one people were killed and one hundred and eighty two people were injured. The bombs were believed to have been planted by the IRA, and six Irishmen were arrested that day and subsequently jailed for this act, amidst calls for the reintroduction of hanging. 

Justice had been served - or had it? Sixteen years later their convictions were quashed due to the unreliability of the evidence and the fact that their "confessions" had been extorted through violence. Just last year, the brother and sister of one of those murdered petitioned for the case to be reopened and the perpetrators brought to justice. 

My only connection to this story is the squat stone memorial I pass every day on my way to work, the side inscribed with the names of all those who tragically lost their lives that day. There are flowers laid by this monument all year round. Even after all this time, the unfairness of this act is fresh in many people's minds, and the sense of injustice remains.

As I was discussing the bombings with one of my colleagues in the office this week, I learnt that in the anti-Irish reprisals following the event his young Irish parents had been forced to close their newly opened butchers shop having had bricks through the windows and deliberate lack of custom. They'd come to England to escape the troubles back in Ireland, and the shop was going to be their big break, but circumstances and anti-Irish feeling ruined them. Hardly seems fair either does it? 

As I continue to watch my kids develop (with great joy on the whole) it seems to me that a sense of justice seems to be hard-wired into us from a very young age - or at the very least a strong awareness of when things are unfair. Arguing over toys, over who gets into the bath first, over who gets to sit on my lap.. seemingly trivial situations often rapidly degenerate into an argument about what's fair and what's not. (Usually that 'it's not fair'!).

But what is fair? Is it always about equal portions? Dividing things up exactly? Everyone getting the same? When I was growing up and we were treated to tinned peach slices for pudding (or goldfish as we often pretended they were), each of us kids had an equal number of slices publicly counted into our bowl, to at least minimise the chances of an argument (if not eliminate completely).

But we all know that life tends not to be as clear cut as the number of peach slices you have in your bowl. My wife's family had a great saying when they were growing up, that 'life's equally unfair', which I think does a good job capturing the general injustice we face in the world around us, especially when growing up with numerous siblings!

I've been reading the Psalms again recently and a phrase leapt out at me when re-reading  a familiar one the other day: 

"Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it." (Psalm 139:14 NLT)

I love the thought that we've been made to be wonderfully complex. As someone with a tendency to overthink things, I found this really liberating. And it's this wonderful complexity that makes fairness less about things needing to bethe same for everyone and more about recognising the fact that we each need something different.

We're uneven, each of us with multi-dimensional needs - and it's the variation and the texture between us that makes our relationships so rich. We don't all need the same things - consider someone with a visual impairment who reads braille through the textures their fingers encounter. To this person, fairness wouldn't be to give them a print version of the daily paper to read just the same as everyone else - in fact our sense of justice tells us this would be discriminatory! 

Now then, dear reader, you may be thinking to yourself that it's all very well to recognise that our needs are different, but how on earth do we do something about it? It can be hard enough to know what we really want or need ourselves, let alone others around us! 

One book I've found very helpful on this topic over the years is Gary Chapman's 'The Five Love Languages'. This is a very readable exploration of the different 'languages' we use to communicate, not in terms of French, German and Spanish, but about how we emotionally communicate love to those around us. 

He talks about five primary love languages: Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. Each of us needs all of these in different forms, but we'll often have one which is the main way in which we give and receive love.

Recognising one another's love languages can help us to relate to each other better. For me, one of my main love languages is Acts of Service, which is one of the reasons I make so much tea for my colleagues in the office! I appreciate it when people do things for me, it makes me feel loved - and isn't the need to be loved that the deepest need we all have?

On this earth we'll never fully be able to make sure everyone's needs are completely met. Life will always be 'equally unfair'. Terrible acts of injustice will continue to occur. But to do our lives justice let's embrace each other's wonderful complexity and look for individual and personal ways to meet the needs of those around us... Fair is not everyone getting the same, but everyone getting what they need.

(This post was written as part of the Blog Buddies group, to see what the other group members had to say on the same title have a read of Phil's, Nicola's and Wendy's posts. If you want to join our blog buddies group contact

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A mid-afternoon office haiku

(This haiku inspired by office tea-politics..)

Another cuppa
Please Ray will you make me one?
It's your round I think?

(..and yes.. Ray did make some tea)

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Poem: A daily pilgrimage

Here's a poem I crafted this week about my journey to work, enjoy!

Monday morning commuter train, 
Black Country to Birmingham. 
Twenty five minutes of heavy sighs and bleary eyes 
before we pour out of green carriages like treacle.

Broken footfalls echo beneath artificial lights 
as we ascend from sunken platforms, 
emerging into the pre-dawn city.

From shrouded buildings drills like Tibetan horns 
blare a booming call to prayer, 
summoning workers to their daily desk worship.

Over rippled granite slabs, 
chewing gum like candle wax 
dropped from a thousand silent pilgrims 
passing beneath an avenue of bare plane trees, 
their branches lifted in praise.

Up steps and through glass doors, 
into open plan floors, 
the pilgrimage-commute complete. 
Ready enough for another working week.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Musings on... why I sing

I love to sing!
Why do I sing? This is something I've been reflecting on recently. What is it about singing that brings me so much pleasure? It's definitely something that I feel wells up from deep inside of me, something hard-wired right at my core. The older I get (and when you find yourself saying things like that, you know you're reaching a certain point), the more I think that singing is something, maybe, that helps me express my "me"-ness - a core expression of who I am.

Music has always profoundly affected me. My mum says I used to happily sing hymns in my pushchair as a toddler. And there are times, certain pieces of music, I can't quite put my finger on quite which ones and when, but times still when the deep emotion expressed in music stops me dead in my tracks, and the tears well up from that place in me that's lost in music. 
"Music has always profoundly affected me"
I feel lots of things deeply. My wife will confirm that I cry at most films I watch - but it's music that is often what stirs those deep emotional waters. Most recently it was the film of Les Mis - the powerful music, the rich redemptive story, that primal emotion - that churned me up. How I'd love to sing a part of that story!

I was a choirboy at school, not the best treble in the choir (I never got the main solo in Once in Royal David's City), but passable, and I certainly enjoyed singing. I distinctly remember the first time I sang with the senior choir, in four part harmony, with the tenors and basses joining us - I was filled with wonderment, not quite believing that we were making this amazing sound. I'm almost certain we were singing Christmas carols, and even now I love those rich harmonies in the traditional arrangements I grew up with.

I fell out of the choir when my voice broke, but it wasn't long before I was back in the choir after a road-to-Damascus moment one summer day led me to abruptly change my GCSE choices to include music.. and the deal was that those (few) of us studying music had to sing. 

Singing in South Africa... in an empty pool!
This time I was an enthusiastic bass (!), relishing this time the bass parts of those beloved carols, even belting them out on my bike as I cycled home from school on dark winter evenings after choir practice. 

With my studies I also joined a barbershop quartet with Mr Knights and fellow music students - painfully learning the value and necessity of attentively listening to my fellow singers.. even if we were only singing "Toot, toot, tootsie" and other barbershop classics!

It's funny how there are certain accidental nodes, compass points around which our lives turn - waypoints that we observe upon looking back over time. One sticks in my mind, when as a self-conscious fourteen year old I was embarrassed to sing too loudly in our seats at church. 

I can't remember whether it was in the car on the way home, and I'm certain that it was just a well meaning but essentially trivial comment, when my mum said to me something along the lines that there was a lovely voice inside me waiting to get out. I think this was probably the Speech Therapist in her saying something reassuring to a teenager suffering the trauma of his voice breaking (not that mine broke all that dramatically anyway, just suddenly went down a few octaves!) and the general awkwardness the teenage years bring. 
"It's funny how there are certain accidental nodes, compass points around which our lives turn..."
Regardless of the intention, the words lodged in my heart and released in me a new found confidence to sing, which led to me singing more.. which has, in time, released that inner voice, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I'm glad and grateful for that offhand comment - and it shows what simple words of encouragement can lead to.

My big sister is an exceptionally talented artist, and with a strong sense of compassion (she also feels things very deeply). When I was a gaunt university student and she could see how much singing meant to me, out of her meagre teacher's salary she generously paid for me to have singing lessons. 

My singing teacher, Angela, wasn't your run of the mill, sing scales at a piano type teacher. She was all about the mechanics of the voice ("I want to give you your instrument"), and her lessons were unconventional - singing while bouncing on physiotherapy balls, singing crawling like a cat, singing while stretching giant rubber bands, singing with a toothbrush in your mouth - but the more I look back the more I realise this period was one of the most significant events in my life because she really did teach me how to use my voice as an instrument. Studying Engineering (in a pretty loose sense for my first couple of years at Uni) I really "got" her approach to the mechanics of the voice.

Singing with my daughter...
I'll never forget the first time I went to see her. I sang her a song I knew and she just walked around me looking and listening. After I finished she sat down, looked me in the eye and asked me how many teeth I'd had out (lots.. apparently it was obvious because my tongue was slumped in the bottom of my mouth!). After that she challenged me on my posture, how I walked, how I breathed.. all kinds of seemingly minor things. 

To be honest, I think at some point in their life everyone needs someone neutral with a critical eye to point out bad habits, slouches, feet dragging, missing teeth! 

And for Angela's direction I am also profoundly grateful. As a by product I've also worked hard since then not to have any more teeth out (it significantly affects vocal tone)... enduring hours of uncomfortable dentistry over the years as a result!

It's been well over a decade since then, and in that time I feel I have grown into my voice as it's matured. My range has extended, my tone has improved, my power increased. In a real way, my singing lessons connected up my voice with my body, but also helped my voice express my "me"-ness. When I sing, all of me comes out. The tone and timbre of my voice is an expression of all I've ever been through, an extension of my heart. That's what I hope anyway. I sing with joy, pain, anger, frustration, peace.. the whole spectrum of human emotion is there in some proportion.
"When I sing, all of me comes out"
When I was four I started to learn the piano. When I was fourteen I picked up the guitar. I play a number of instruments (it's my learner theme), but these days when people ask me what my main instrument is there's no hesitation. It's my voice. I'm a singer. It's me. I can't seem to help it, but it's deeply, profoundly, fundamentally an expression of who I am.

I hope I can sing long into old age. It's been over a decade since my first album, but I hope I can sing more songs from my own heart. I hope I can sing more with my children, and their children, maybe even their children's children. More than that, I hope, somehow, that my singing encourages others to reach inside themselves and draw out those things that are uniquely them.. those precious talents and gifts bestowed on us by a loving God. Those are things we're made for.

So when I sing, I sing out the song inside me, the song of all I have been, all I am, and all I'm made to be. 

And that, for me, is why I sing.


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