Friday, November 28, 2014

Silly Season

Silly season..
‘Tis the season to be jolly..’ or it nearly is. It feels like the marketing hype around Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year. In our shops Halloween was a big retail event, and no sooner was the glut of orange and black merchandise off the shelves than it was replaced with tinsel, Santa and a lurid glut of Christmas merchandise instead: silly season has begun!

As if to prove the point that our biggest calendar events have been hijacked by retail sales, the eruption of fighting in supermarkets on Black Friday was all over the news this week, as people fought over HD TVs and other high-end goods. Our first world obsession with “stuff” is a whole other topic! 

"The feeling that life’s accelerating can be disorientating and stressful"
Silly Season isn't about taking ourselves less seriously, although for the record I do think we should be more playful in our approach to life (see my recent post on this here). Instead, the phrase has become an apt description of the acceleration we can feel in many parts of our lives in the lead up to Christmas and the New Year.

In my day job, December is always full of deadlines – so many of our clients want reports and designs completed by Christmas, often for no particular reason than it’s a convenient date! This year the rush and unreasonable deadlines began early!

The definition from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable..
Silly Season can place demands on us in our home lives too, the pressure to buy the perfect gifts for our loved ones, perhaps a heightened tension between our shopping habits and our bank balance.

Maybe during silly season we’re tempted make decisions we wouldn't make at other times of the year? With so much going on, the “fear of missing out” can become a powerful motivator to buy, consume, party and rush.

The feeling that life’s accelerating can be disorientating and stressful, and Christmas can be a time when we feel the loss of loved ones more poignantly or we can be full of regrets for the things that have or haven’t happened over the year. Silly season can put pressure on our families leading to arguments and even break up. I've heard it’s the busiest time of the year for helplines such as the Samaritans.

As much as Silly Season conveys a sense of haste, in journalistic terms Silly Season can refer to a period of slow news – leading to "all sorts of silly stuff" according to my trusty copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. (Weirdly, according to the entirely reliable Wikipedia, many countries call Silly Season “Cucumber Time”.. go figure).
"Whether you’re facing feast or famine... it’s important to keep a level head"
Perhaps instead of too much going on you feel like there’s not enough going on in your life – you’re waiting for something to happen. Maybe you've been waiting all year or longer.

In the Christian tradition, the period in the lead up to Christmas is called Advent. It’s a time of anticipation, of positive waiting, celebrating that the Saviour has come and anticipating his return.

If you’re anything like me, waiting for something can be a difficult and impatient thing! Often we can be negative about waiting, bemoaning the fact, when instead Advent reminds us of the value of positive waiting, a pregnant pause.
Advent - anticipatory waiting
Pregnancy is a good example of positive, anticipatory waiting – it’s important to wait until full term to give the baby time to grow. Babies born prematurely can have a difficult start to life if they’re not sufficiently developed when they arrive.

Whether you’re facing feast or famine, whether Silly Season is a time where life is too fast or too slow, it’s important to keep a level head. I’m reminded of lines from Kipling’s famous poem “If”: 

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs… 
...if you can wait and not be tired by waiting..”

Perhaps it’s time to trade your Silly Season for Advent. To trade activity or impatient waiting for positive anticipation, if you’re able to, in the midst of the business of this time of year. If you're looking for help to do this, try checking out Occupy Advent on Facebook or Twitter, or Pray as you Go for some daily audio reflections.

"Perhaps it’s time to trade your Silly Season for Advent"

Hey there, thanks for reading this post! 
If you liked it why not share it with your friends, or leave me a comment below? 
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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 - like the record snow experienced in parts of America in 2014. 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.


Thanks for taking the time to read Stormy Weather. If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher for expanded musings 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 

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.
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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.


Thanks for taking the time to read The Me I Wish I Was. If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher for expanded musings 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 

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.
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My Random Musings

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."