Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Some days..

Some days I don't feel like slaying dragons.
Some days there's just no need.
Some days I don't need to be the hero,
Some days I just need to be me.

On days I'm woken up early.
There's days my train leaves before me.
On days my task list seems daunting,
And days when I'm just plain weary.

But these days I'm more me than ever,
More alive than I've ever been! 
And I know that each day, with its ups and it's downs,
You're closer and closer to me.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Poem: Summer Storm

Thunder through the early hours;
an artillery alarm clock.
The sky releasing tension after a searing summer's day.

Rain battering buildings,
washing the Black Country clean.
Soaking our sunburnt soils,
and feeding plants and streams.

I really love the rain. 
Lightning storms bring a smile to my face
and a twinkle to my eye.

They quieten down the world outside
but stir me up inside. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Keep calm and..?

My own "keep calm" mug...
Over the last few years the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' wartime motto has exploded into a plague of 'Keep Calm' merchandise covering every possible theme you can think of... and then some!

The weirdest one I've seen is 'Keep Calm and love Guinea Pigs' which is, quite frankly, bizarre. My favourite variant is 'Get Excited and Make Things', which emblazons a mug my sister gave my dad the other Christmas.

We may not be under wartime conditions, but staying calm under pressure can be hard can't it? Stress can be hard to deal with, whatever form it manifests itself in our lives. So what makes us stressed and how can we deal with it? 
"We may not be under wartime conditions, but staying calm under pressure can be hard can't it?"
I'm a fan of the TV series Black Books, and in the first episode Manny (an extremely stressed accountant) accidentally swallows The Little Book of a Calm, resulting in a miraculous personality change to become an extremely calm and laid back person. Sadly swallowing books isn't likely to make us less stressed, although maybe more of us could do with following the advice from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 'Don't Panic'.

For many of us, our work is the main area in which we experience stress, maybe due to the amount of time we spend doing our jobs. In my own 9-5 existence, my team provides consultancy to both internal and external clients. All our clients want a gold-plated service, as cheaply as possible, and immediately! It's the classic cost-time-quality triangle, and realistically two out of three ain't bad - although managing client expectations can be stressful all round and inevitably people feel disappointed at some stage no matter how hard you try.

Balancing the daily demands of our many clients can be stressful at times. A characteristic of working in the construction industry is that things can occur which require an immediate response, so one of the ways we deal with this particular stress is to Keep Calm and Prioritise. A tool we often use is the Eisenhower method - a diagrammatic means to prioritise tasks into urgent/not urgent, important /not important (although in our team we have a variant which is just more/less important, on the basis that everything is urgent!).
"Balancing the daily demands of our many clients can be really stressful at times."
Keep calm and prioritise!
The 'nowness' of 21st century mass communication means that many of us are now held hostage to our  email inboxes, and it's easy to get diverted away from our tasks by the next email that arrives, and then the next etc.

So after we've prioritised, the way to deal with the stress of our overflowing inboxes is to Keep Calm and Focus on the Task in Hand

Another angle on the cult of 'now' is that we can get so caught up in the daily demands of our lives that there's no time for the future.

So perhaps an antidote to the stress of daily business is to Keep Calm and Take Time to Think. It's good to take time out from time to time and give ourselves time to dream, plan and make adjustments to our course. 

Finally, when we've prioritised, focused on the task in hand and taken time to think: Keep Calm and Be Brave. It can take courage to act in a big way, likewise it can take bravery to face the same battleground each day when we have to stick at situations we need to see through. As Churchill famously said: 'When you're going through hell, keep going'

I know that many of us may be facing stresses in our lives that we can't immediately escape from. Many of you may be going through hell, and I don't want to spout trite cliches that will magically make things better. But maybe there are day-to-day stresses that these musings may help with, and I offer them in this spirit.  
"It's good to take time out from time to time and give ourselves time to dream, plan and make adjustments to our course. "
As a closing thought about dealing with stress, a quote from Paul's letter to the Philippians I read this week, which speaks for itself:

'Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.' (Phil 4:6-7 NIV)

In what area do you need to Keep Calm this week? Maybe you need to:

  • Keep Calm and Prioritise
  • Keep Calm and Focus on the Task in Hand
  • Keep Calm and Take Time to Think
  • or Keep Calm and Be Brave?


Thanks for taking the time to read Keep Calm and..? If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here). Please nominate my podcast for an award during July 2015 - press the big red button here.

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Saturday, July 05, 2014

Sabbath Saturday

Sleepy Saturday morning.
Rain calming restless streets.
Clouds shrouding the hills outside my windows.
Coffee brewing, puppy chewing,
collared doves cooing outside.
Memories of mountains in my head, 
and dreams of things that may come.
A day to rest with family.
A Sabbath Saturday.

Friday, July 04, 2014

What inspires you?

'Some years ago, a good friend and former housemate of mine gave me a copy of Bear Grylls's book 'Facing Up'. He wrote me a nice note on an inside page, and it was only later that we both discovered that it was a copy signed by Bear himself! The book is the story of Bear's ascent of Mount Everest, and it's an inspiring read if you like that kind of book (as I do). One thing I particularly remember is that after a parachute accident which left him bed bound with a broken back, it was the poster of Everest on his bedroom wall which provided daily inspiration for him not only to recover but to start his journey to the highest point on the planet. I like this detail because as a teenager I had a poster of K2 (the second highest mountain in the world) on the wall at the end of my bed. As it happens, my poster didn't inspire me to climb the actual mountain, but it was a nice picture, and my parents no doubt preferred it to the Robocop poster I had for a while, or the Alien poster I put on my door which mysteriously disappeared rather quickly.

This week my blog buddies and I have been collectively wondering what inspires us. Inspiration can be a funny old thing - the root of the word is linked to breathing, and therefore life. So perhaps another way of approaching the question is to ask yourself what gives you life? 

When I took up swimming more seriously in my mid-twenties, having been inspired to take up triathlon after spending time with some triathlete friends during the Three Peaks Challenge, I very quickly learnt what it was to become very out of breath. Recently I was reminded of this when competing in a team triathlon. Neither of my team mates particularly wanted to do the swim, so I gallantly took the plunge (excuse the pun), despite not having swum properly for about three years. All was going well until about halfway in, when I realised with some alarm that I'd gone off far too fast and wasn't able to suck enough air into my lungs in the short side-breaths every other stroke and was on the verge of hyperventilating! Typically this was mid-length, and I had to pull up rather self consciously, gulp some air down and wait for my heart rate to slow before resuming at a less ambitious race pace (I may have pretended I'd just swallowed some water).

Breathing's really important, but if I recall correctly from Biology at school, most of the time we only use a smallish proportion of the air in our lungs, only deep breathing occasionally or during exercise. The air we breathe matters too, as well as the degree to which we really breathe it in (but the way, I bet many of you have just taken a deep breath - I have as I've been writing this!). Athletes know the benefits of training at altitude, where the pressure of the oxygen is lower, causing the body to overproduce red blood cells, the body's system for transporting oxygen around the body. When back at lower altitudes the athletes get the benefit of having more red blood cells to transport oxygen around, giving them the ability to perform harder for longer. In a similar way, if you're at hospital you may be put on oxygen to help your body to recover from some trauma and heal faster. 

Perhaps in a similar fashion, finding things that inspire our souls is akin to deep breathing, or training at altitude, or enjoying the benefits of an oxygen mask. It helps us be more healthy, more energised, to perform better, and maybe to heal us as well - emotionally and spiritually.

There are lots of things that I take inspiration from, and I feel that in the last few years I've been more consciously seeking inspiration in different places. I'm a voracious reader, I love learning new things and I love facts and ideas, so books on interesting topics inspire me, as do stories of people who've done amazing things, or travelled to interesting places. We have a section of these adventure type books on our bookshelves in our lounge, including people who've cycled home from Siberia, run around the world, run ultramathathons, climbed mountains, taken up fell running, or run marathons with cancer (we like books about running clearly!). One thing I really appreciate about these stories is that they're real people and therefore the achievements are somehow more in reach for mere mortals like me. I often take inspiration from Rosie Swale-Pope's world run when I'm plodding up the steep hill home from the station with a heavy rucksack in bad weather - if she can run around the world I can jolly well make it home! 

I find music very inspiring. I feel it very deeply, as I've written about before, and perhaps the most lingering musical inspiration I've had has been the TV programme the Transatlantic Sessions, which features top folk and country artists from the British Isles and North America. As a gawky fifteen year old, six months into playing guitar, stumbling across this music show on BBC2 one evening was dynamite, and the aftershocks remain with me still. Happily the show has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last few years, and I even saw them on tour here in Birmingham a few years ago. To date I've been inspired by these phenomenal musicians in my songwriting, my singing, my guitar playing, mandolin, banjo and accordion as a consequence of the inspiration I received as a teenager from the show. As an aside, the other week I had the delight of playing in the most Transatlantic Sessions-esque band at my church, which was a dream come true! People commented that 'even the banjo' sounded good, so it can't have been all bad! 

There are certain people who are inspiring to be around, and one of my hopes is that I become an inspiring person for others to be around - my family, colleagues and friends. A bit like in a nuclear reactor, when we bounce ideas and dreams off inspiring people this leads to a release of energy, so it's good to find those people in your life who give you the energy and encouragement you need to dream big and step out. 

I can't write about inspiration without mentioning how grateful I am to my parents for inspiring me to be the person I am today, and providing an excellent example for my siblings and I to follow. And without meaning to be super spiritual, my relationship with God is the deepest and most foundational inspiration I have to become the best expression of who I'm made to be. It's God's Holy Spirit that breathes life in to me on a daily basis - whether in the good times, the mundane times or the tough. For me, everything else flows from this source, and all the other things that inspire me are subject to the immense gravitational pull of God.

"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely and admirable. Think about these things that are excellent and worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8, NLT)

So what inspires you? Are you getting enough inspiration? Do you need to spend more time with people that draw the best out of you? What are you listening to and reading - is this building you up or dragging you down? Maybe, like that poster of Everest, you need a daily reminder of a big dream - perhaps a post it note on the fridge, or a quote on your mirror. Whatever it is, whatever builds you up, maybe this week you could carve out some time to breathe in some inspiration - you may feel more alive as a result.