On May 1st I’m launching a crowdfunding page via Publishizer, a fabulous funding platform created just for authors.
If you like my book you can pledge to buy a copy. Enough pledges and I can afford to get it edited (It’s already written), laid-out, printed and sent to you - as a patron - before it’s made available to the rest of the world.
The added bonus of Publishizer is, with enough backers, they send my marketing proposal off to publishers. If a publisher sees that a book is selling well before it’s published, they’re likely going to want to pick it up. Which is great, because it means I can use more of what was raised in the campaign towards the editing and marketing bit, instead of it mostly going to the print costs.
So I need support. I need your support. None of this is possible without it.
I’ve got a lot of support from my friends and family, people who have been waiting for me to publish one of my fiction manuscripts for ages - some of them over fifteen years!
And it’s great that they are going to pre-order the book when I launch the page on May 1st (for my birthday!) but they are only a small number of people. Which is why I’m publishing this piece today.
Below is the first (edited! Thanks to Eric, fellow writer and fab editor) chapter of my book: Friends We Haven’t Met.
If you enjoy it and want to read more please subscribe to my newsletter and mark your calendars - May 1st, 2016. My birthday. And please share it with anyone else you think may be interested!
The trilling of a ringing phone fills a tiny apartment, disturbing the neighbour who has just gotten her small child off to sleep. She counts the rings through the too thin walls, cringing with each one as she looks towards the closed bedroom door. It’s nearly eleven at night. Who would ring at that time?
She hardly knows her neighbour. He’s a young man, younger than her but not by much. He has the gangly look of a web developer or Internet geek, pale beyond words with flushed pink cheeks and fair hair the colour of sun-drenched wheat with a hint of strawberries. The sort who never tans because burning happens so fast.
She doesn’t know what he does, although he used to leave the apartment often and was usually gone for long periods of time. She knows the movements of most of her neighbours because she doesn’t have anywhere to go and nothing to distract her during the day. It’s just her and the child—too young to be much company but old enough to be strong-willed and defiant.
It’s all too cliched in her world. He’d gone out to meet some buddies at the pub. He’d be back later, he said. He’d not made eye contact when he’d said it, but not out of shame. He’d been callous, flippant. Standing suddenly to pull on his jacket, as if his ‘friends’ had telepathically invited him. Or, more likely, as if he suddenly realised he had a way out and he could take it.
That was three months ago. Three months of just her and the child. She leaves to get food, only the bare necessities of course, but otherwise she’s in the apartment day and night, listening to the neighbours.
Eleven rings at eleven o’clock. The phone goes silent. Just the hum of the refrigerator now, the ticking of the clock on the wall. Not a sound from the room off to her left. She realises she’s been holding her breath and now she fills her lungs.
The ringing starts again. Her breath catches in her throat. One, two, three. Whoever it is really wants an answer. She tries to think about the last time she’s heard a noise from the flat next door. Was it yesterday? Or the day before that?
Her ears twitch like a mouse, tuned finely to the needs of the child whether she likes it or not. A soft sound, like a questioning sigh. She squeezes her tired eyes shut as the ringing next door begins again and the small child wakes and fills his lungs to scream.
She moves quickly, opening the door and scooping him up before the banging from the apartment to the other side can start. They’ve complained six times already - threatening to take it up with the building management. Well, he’s complained more than she has. He’s a ‘tough piece of work’. That’s what her ex had said.
Ex? Is she thinking of him as that already? It has been three months, after all. She thinks of her parents and their harsh words and angry faces. “No good will come of it!”
“If you go with this man you are no daughter of mine.” Her father in the doorway of her childhood home, surprisingly calm in his declaration. At the time she didn’t understand how any parent could wish not to have their own child. She hates that he was right and the shame of it is what keeps her from going back home.
In his mother’s arms, the child ceases crying almost instantly. He lets his head flop onto her bony shoulder, his arms relax at his sides. Next door, the ringing starts up again. That’s the fourth try. She wonders if she should knock. He mightn’t even be in. She can’t imagine someone ignoring that loud, rattling ring four times.
The child snuffles, pushing his head into her neck. She strokes his hair, soft and dark like hers. As the phone begins ringing for the fifth time, she makes up her mind.
“That’s damn kid is crying again.” He clenches his fist around his beer bottle, as though it were a can and he could crush it.
“He’s a kid. They cry.” Normally she wouldn’t be so bold in her retort but he’s distracted by his football, dozy from his beer. She knows he won’t lumber from his seat unless he feels he must.
“Fuckin’ thing wouldn’t cry if he was mine.” He says it to sound mean but his voice is distracted, his eyes following the tiny men on the big green field as they chase their ball.
She doesn’t have much fight in her either and knows that this won’t turn into one of their usual rows. She hates those, but at least she knows if they did, it wouldn’t wake up the baby next door.
She’s so envious of their neighbour. Here she is, nearly thirty and no child of her own. She looks at the hefty figure of her boyfriend—she couldn’t bear to call him her ‘partner’—and cringes at the thought of them making a child together.
Every time she sees their softly spoken neighbour she feels a pang. They don’t really talk and to be honest, their encounters have been few and far between. There was that time she was leaving the flat just as they were returning. Happy family. Father looking down at his son, stroking his hair and tickling under his chin. Mother fishing around for keys, glancing up to look at the father of her child.
She’d never heard the neighbours fight. She’d not heard much from next door for a while now. Just the baby crying every so often. That beautiful brown baby. There was a report on the telly that said kids like him were the future. Mixed babies everywhere now that the social taboo of interracial marriage was history. She tried imagining herself with a mixed baby, wondering what sort of man the father would be if his culture was completely different from her own. Maybe she needs an Asian guy. She knew that they were supposed to expect their wives to be doting and submissive but she was good at that anyway. Well, maybe not the submissive bit. The doting bit was more for the sake of appeasement. She gave as good as she got when tempers flew.
She didn’t think he’d watch the football or drink beer. Not an Asian one, anyway. She was pretty sure they didn’t drink. Or some of them didn’t. She’d have to get one of the ones who didn’t drink.
She could even make curry, so that was good. The smell of it permeates the halls sometimes, coming from next door. She makes hers using those jars you can get in Costcutter. Easy as anything. Just cook up the ingredients and dump on the sauce. Serve it with a package of instant rice. She doesn’t make it a lot, though. He’s picky. Odd given that curry and football seemed to go hand in hand.
“I don’t want that foreign muck,” he would snort. Once she pointed out that he had no qualms about drinking their beer. That was a rip roaring row.
At least he doesn’t hit her. Not like the last one. He’s just loud. Loud is okay. Loud doesn’t leave bruises. Loud doesn’t need makeup or trips to the hospital under the guise of having ‘fallen down the stairs’.
But it still makes her flinch sometimes. Makes her remember. That’s probably why she yells back. It’s a wall. A wall of anger behind which she can hide her fear. If he sees her shaking with rage, he won’t see how scared she really is.
The knocking is almost inaudible at first. Like a timid mouse. It’s strangely different after the sharpness of the ringing. The flat is nearly silent, the silence like a cave around him. He has no clock ticking, no whirring computer hard drive or buzzing entertainment system. He’s sure the fridge makes a noise but it’s in the other room, far away.
The knocking grows a bit louder now. He wonders if he should get it, if moving is actually an option or if his muscles have atrophied. He doesn’t think they could in such a short period of time, but you never know. In fact, when he tries to remember, he’s uncertain about how long it’s been since he’s moved. Maybe it’s not been so short after all.
He is surprised to have so many thoughts suddenly flowing through his head. He’s gotten used to not thinking anything. He wonders if that’s what it’s like to be a Buddhist, if they can just turn off their thoughts. He wasn’t sure if that’s how it works.
The noise is out of his mouth before he realises it’s him who’s made it. He thinks he was trying to say hello or some similar greeting, but it comes out as a hoarse gargle. His throat is sore and dry and as he lifts his head, he feels it throbbing.
His flat is dark, the only light coming from the very small slit under the door to the hall. He can see the shadow of the person knocking, blocking the light from coming in.
“Go away.” His voice is cracked. It sounds like a dead thing, a broken thing. He swallows hard and squeezes his eyes shut against the pain in his head. Now that he’s moving, even if its ever so slightly, his muscles begin to cry out.
“I...is everything all right?” asks a woman, her voice small and far-away.
Is everything all right? He smiles. No. No, everything is not all right. No. A person does not lie down on their futon couch and not move if everything is all right. A person doesn’t neglect their basic needs, eating, drinking, going to the toilet, if everything is all right.
He rolls over onto his side and stretches his legs. “Go away.”
This time his voice is softer, not nearly so cracked. He wonders if they heard but knows they must have when, a moment later, the shadowy feet move away from the door. He rolls onto his stomach, hoping the pressure of the futon will silence its calling of hunger. He wants to sleep again, sleep like he has been since he got home. When he’s awake, he thinks too much and if he’s thinking, he remembers.
He doesn’t want to remember. He just wants it all to go away. He wants it to be like it was before. He wants to get his life back.
His mother’s voice comes into his head, soft but firm. “Time heals everything. But you have to be patient.”
Time. But time is relative and if you keep remembering over and over again, it’s like time hasn’t gone anywhere. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe there are some things that time can’t heal. They’re just too big, too incredibly painful.
His eyes are stinging, thick with sleep, but he closes them anyway. He closes them because when he does, time goes back and he’s happy again. He’s in love and he’s being loved and all that’s fucked up and wrong with the world hasn’t touched him yet.
The morning dawns bright and beautiful. She loves that her window faces South East. Even if she couldn’t go out in it, at least she could still enjoy the weather when it was pleasant like this.
She’s been up since five and watched the sun rise. The days are getting shorter, but not noticeably so yet. Her heart aches as she thinks about her boy leaving her again. She’s proud of him, she is. She just wishes he’d wanted to go to school a little nearer.
She’s a creature of habit. She supposes it comes naturally with old age. Her grandmother and mother had been the same way when they’d reached her age, or near enough anyway. She’s outlived them both now. Her ma died at seventy-three, her nan at seventy. She’ll be seventy-nine next month.
“Good innings,” her doctor would say.
“Good innings,” she mutters to herself. She reaches for one cane and then the other, hooking her elbows in and heaving her short but stocky frame out of her chair. Her boy wants to get her one of those fancy electric chairs that lifts a person up out of them but she’s told him to save his money for school.
“I’ll come up with a cure for you, mum. I’ll do it.” He’d kissed the top of her head and patted the hair down. Silvery hair now, kept short as she can’t put it in cornrows like she had when she was young. Her fingers are curled with arthritis, useless for tasks that involve any amount of detail or precision. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him a cure for old-age isn’t possible.
Still, he’s a good boy to have offered and a good boy to trust that she’ll still be around when he’s a fully qualified surgeon.
She shuffles over to the kitchen counter, an obstacle-free path for her stiff figure. She likes to line tea bags up on the counter so she doesn’t have to work too hard to get them out of the box. Her boy was sweet, having gone through them to separate the pairs.
“You should get PG-Tips, Mum—they’re not stuck together like this. They’d be easier for you to pick up, too.”
But she likes her Yorkshire builder’s tea. PG-Tips is weak. She needs to use twice as many bags to get a cup the way she likes it. She takes her tea strong, a dash of milk and a spoonful of sugar.
The kettle’s already full, her mug sitting on the counter where her boy had left it. He really is a good boy. She wishes he knew how proud she is of him, no matter what.
He looks at the back of the Estate Agent’s head as they drive along. She’s talking - he can tell that much, even if he can’t make out the words. Her head bobbles around and her hands move quite a bit, although they stay close to the steering wheel. He grunts responses. The woman’s tiresome and he just wants to be home - his home - but that simply isn’t going to happen.
Next to him the care-worker smiles, a look of pity on her face. Always pity. He’s tired of it. It’s like being an infant but with an understanding that everyone thinks you’re utterly helpless. At least an infant actually is helpless. It’s not like he’s in diapers.
He’s actually quite proud of his health. Until his hearing started to go, he’d been fit as a fiddle. As it is, that’s the only thing that’s bothering him and most of the time it doesn’t.
The care worker doesn’t know. He’s careful not to let on. He looks away, smiling and nodding to the front seat.
The Estate Agent continues talking, not really bothered as to whether or not anyone’s listening. He suspects she’s Italian. She uses her hands, has that passion not unlike his wife. It was a shame she was an Estate Agent then and not a good wife to a good Italian man. Of course, it isn’t like the old days. Women now, they want independence. They want the husband to stay at home with the child - if they want a child at all!
He knows how it is, knows what sort of grief his own daughter has put him through. Is still putting him through. His son, he had been a good boy. Would have been a good man.
The car swings around a roundabout and turns down a side street. The Estate Agent stops abruptly in front of a block of new build apartments. “Here we are!”
He hears that all right, her face turned, her tone perky. He smiles. The Care Worker pats his knee. “Right then. Shall we go take a look?”
The apartment is tiny. The kitchen and sitting room are one, with no room for the large oak table currently sitting in his dining room at home. There’s a bathroom, a bedroom and a small second room which he can’t imagine acting as more than a large closet. Besides that, he saw the woman in the flat across leaving with a baby in a stroller.
“The baby will keep me awake. And I smelled curry.”
The Care Worker gives him a look he’s seen often. He doesn’t understand why she looks at him like that. As though he is a child who has spoken out of turn. He wonders why all these women have so much power over his life. Strangers, all of them.
The Estate Agent doesn’t seem to notice his protests. “It’s really delightful. And it faces Southeast so this apartment gets a lot of sun. It will be just like being back in Italy!”
“I hate the sun,” he says. She turns away, saying something else, and once again his ears fail him. He shrugs, turning back to the Care Worker, but she has wandered into the bedroom.
“It comes with a fridge, washer/dryer, and even a dishwasher which, for this size of apartment, is quite a nice bonus. Especially for someone such as yourself.” the Estate Agent looks at him as she speaks. He nods, accepting he is not going to be listened to anymore than he can hear.
She stretches and rolls over, coming quickly to the edge of her single mattress. Reaching out from her warm duvet, she grabs her phone to check the time. It isn’t yet nine.
Rolling onto her back, she yawns, stretching her arms up over her head and pushing them against the wall. She points her toes, flexing each ankle. She’s actually feeling pretty good.
She pushes the covers down so they bunch around her waist, exposing her bare skin to the cool air of her room. Cool because she’d left her window cracked open. Normally the flat would be excruciating this time of the morning, especially with the sun as bright as it is. A chill wind had blown in last night, a sign of the changing seasons and the fast approaching school year.
In some ways she’s eager to start back. An idle summer, with a brief weekend city break to Berlin, has left her feeling more listless than ever. She sometimes wonders what, exactly, she’s doing here in this larger-than-life city.
The pleasant smell of coffee drifts in under the crack where her door doesn’t quite meet the floor. That would be one of the roommates. Hard to tell which one. Either he nagged her into making it or he resigned to getting it himself. Either way, she knows that there will be one cup left over once the two of them had had theirs. There always is.
It’s like their way of thanking her for doing all the cooking. They both have to work—needing the extra cash to pay for expenses student loans don’t cover. Between study and work they have little time and during the summer they’ve filled their days with extra shifts, squirrelling cash away for the leaner school months.
She is grateful for the reliable income from her parents—monthly deposits into an account and the substantial savings of her college fund that allowed her the opportunity to study abroad. It means she is able to lie in, stay out late, and enjoy the summer without financial worries looming.
She doesn’t mind that all the household chores fall to her when the school year begins, the other two too tired to contribute much. She’s not lazy. She also fully appreciates how fortunate she is to have so much provided to her. She can see it on the faces of her flatmates, the stress involved in paying your own way, having student loans, and being faced with a very harsh reality of ten to fifteen years debt, if they’re lucky.
One, the boy, is studying design. He’s quite talented and quite anal. He’s neat, organised, and detail orientated. The girl is slovenly, forgetful, and rather lazy about everything outside of her school work. She’s studying fine art. Both are at Chelsea but on different campuses.
There’s a sudden tap at her door. She pulls the blanket up around her, propping herself up on one elbow. “Come in.”
The boy pops his head around the edge of the door, a small smile on his lips. “Hiya. Coffee?”
“Yes please!” She sits up further, allowing him to bring the steaming mug to her. He blushes slightly, able to see her bare shoulders. She thinks it’s cute. He’s a bashful boy, very sweet and thoughtful, practically like a girl. He slips out, pulling her door to as he goes.
He’s her type, actually, when boys are her interest. But she has no intention of going there as she knows too well the mess that would cause. It was such a of mess that had landed her in London. No, she thinks as she sips her coffee, her romantic escapades are over. She’s simply not going to allow her heart to be broken ever again and the surest way to do that is to never fall for anyone.
I’m enjoying these ‘How to pieces’. Writing them comes easily because they are questions I ask myself every day. I want to be kinder, more generous, and uncompromisingly compassionate towards all sentient beings. A lofty goal with no end to it, but one that has thus far made my life worthwhile and fulfilling.
So, how do we go about being an Awesome Human Being?
Find a role model:
To determine how we want to live in the world, it helps to have someone we see doing this already. I don’t consider such a person someone to ‘look up to’ so much as someone to aspire to emulate.
The reason I say we shouldn’t consider them someone to look up to is because this puts us at risk of forgetting their humanity. Seeing them as some flawless example we should follow is dangerous for a few reasons.
1. It could lead us to believe we can’t achieve what they have. We see them as naturally talented, rather than skilful. Skills can be learned and developed whereas talent is seen as inherent. Very few people are inherently talented at anything. Even Mozart was merely trained well enough from an early age that his skill was superb when he was very young.
2. When we disallow someone’s humanity we become hyper critical of mistakes. If we find someone that models the sort of enlightened behaviour we would like to emulate, we could get all starry-eyed about them to our detriment. As soon as they show their humanity by making a mistake or acting carelessly, we could then judge them by that mistake, giving it more weight than any virtuous or kind things they have done.
I see this a lot and it’s very sad to me, how we seem to consider missteps and harmful acts to be more significant or weighty than virtues or positive contributions.
I would like to call on Pema Chodron as a beautiful example of someone who found a teacher to aspire to emulate, whilst also being critical of their behaviour. Ani Pema is probably Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s most well known student. She trained with him for many years until his death in the eighties.
When she speaks of him she is quite aware of his questionable behaviour and conduct. She does not dismiss it as not important, but she also doesn’t let it get in the way of the value his teachings gave her. The most profound thing she noted about him was his ability to be kind to everyone he met. She never saw him write anyone off. It was his consistency in this regard that she admired and has spent her life training to emulate.
Make friends with yourself:
A lot of the stuff we say we ‘feel’ about ourselves are actually judgemental thoughts. I started doing a practice to understand this better and I’ve been stunned to realise how damn judgey I am of myself. This is a revelation because I’ve had an eight year practice of making friends with myself and I’m still not able to do it much of the time.
That is not a judgement.
So what’s the different? That’s me acknowledging where I still have skillful means to develop, humbly, because I see that attempting to ‘make myself a better person’ by being super aggressive towards myself just doesn’t work. We can’t transform our mind by using the same state of mind that got us where we are.
We have to learn how to extend kindness to ourselves, to see ourselves as works in progress and worthy of our own kindness and consideration.
Remember, no one does anything because they want to feel worse:
When we examine our own motivations we begin to see that everything we do we do because we want to be happy and comfortable and have an easy life. No one wants to feel frustrated, irritated, annoyed, bereft, downtrodden, anxious, angry, hurt, sad, lonely, picked-on etc. etc. etc.
Remembering this, we can have compassion for the biggest asshole we know.
It’s not about making an excuse for poor behaviour but acknowledging that everyone experiences suffering on some level and no one wants to.
It’s important, however, not to fall into the trap of pity. Pity comes from thinking we’re some how better than someone else, rather than equally as confused about what helps and what hurts. We might not be confused in the same particular way as someone else, but to think we aren’t just as human - just as flawed and challenged by the inconsistencies of life - would be arrogant.
The idea is to see that we’re all in this together. So no, we don’t keep someone in our life if they are causing us harm, but in cutting them out we are doing it from a place motivated by compassion rather than hatred or anger or righteousness.
These are three things I've found beneficial and crucial for my sanity and effectiveness in the world: find examples of the sort of person I want to be, be kind to myself, be kind to others. Seemingly simple and perhaps also obvious, but if it was everyone would be doing it.
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
- John Watson
Kindness is underrated. We seem to think that protecting ourselves and getting what we want and not getting what we don’t want is the way to be happy but I can tell you, if you want to be happy, being kind is a great place to start.
And I’m not talking about being nice to people we like and doing a bit of volunteer work to make ourselves feel good. I’m talking about open-hearted generosity of spirit towards other human beings and animals.
Kindness is stopping to help someone move their car with a flat tire out of the busy road in the middle of rush hour even though it means you’ll be late for work. Kindness is taking our headphones out of our ears and our phone from our pocket to help a lost tourist figure out where they are going. Kindness is getting off your bicycle to help an elderly gentleman in a push wheelchair get across the street before the light changes.
Kindness is giving our time, energy and effort to the comfort and ease of another person because we recognise that life is hard enough without people being assholes or sarcastic or just downright indifferent.
This is not about pity but recognition. Kindness comes of recognising that every single person we share the planet with just wants to be happy, to feel loved and live full lives. That we are no different and no more or less entitled to that than anyone else and we are all capable of contributing to other people’s wellbeing by being kind.
“Helping others is a question of being genuine and projecting that genuineness to others. This way of being doesn’t have to have a title or a name particularly. It is just being ultimately decent.”
- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
In one of her talks Pema Chodron describes being genuine as not pretending or thinking you’re any better or any worse than you actually are. In order to do this we must be willing to look at ourselves, fully, and see everything. It’s about being honest with ourselves but also incredibly compassionate, because we are going to see things we don’t like.
It’s difficult to look at and accept that we cause harm to ourselves and others, no matter how unintentional. But if we pretend we don’t then we have no chance of ever addressing our harmful thoughts and actions.
Maintaining a balance in this is essential. This isn’t about telling ourselves we’re the worst human being ever as more and more of the negative detritus we tried to bury comes to the surface. It’s about recognising and accepting our humanness. To be human is to be capable of both good, beneficial acts and bad, harmful ones.
When we can be genuine and see ourselves this way we are then able to see that the same is true of everyone around us. This understanding of our shared humanity is what makes us capable of infinite compassion.
Work with your mind
“Unruly beings are as unlimited as space;
They cannot possibly all be overcome,
But if I overcome thoughts of anger alone
This will be equivalent to vanquishing all foes.
Likewise it is not possible for me
To restrain the external course of things;
But should I restrain this mind of mine
What would be the need to restrain all else?”
- Shantideva, the Bodhicharyavatara
We cannot change our external circumstances, we can only change our state of mind. This is the best news you will ever hear. It means every single situation, every single moment is entirely workable. Things only feel unworkable when we rely on situations or people to change in order to regulate our emotional state.
The mind is an incredibly powerful tool and contrary to popular belief, it does belong to us and not to itself. We are capable of expanding and changing it in the same way we are capable of developing muscles, controlling our weight or improving our stamina.
It requires discipline, of course, but consider it the way you would your regular daily hygiene. We brush our teeth every day to maintain them, to ensure they do not rot and we are free of expensive dental bills. Meditation and mind training are mental floss.
“There is not fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.”
- The Buddha
You are going to die.
I am going to die.
Everyone you know is going to die.
We cannot take the people and animals we love with us, nor our phones, computers, netflix accounts, videogames, photographs, music, designer jeans, $200 shoes or flash car. We can have all these things in our life. We can enjoy them thoroughly while we are alive, and be humbly appreciative of the circumstances that enabled us to have so much in life.
But they aren’t coming with us.
So don’t hold on too tight to anything. It’s all fleeting and the only thing you get to take with you is your state of mind.
“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”
- Pema Chodron
In the West and the ‘developed’ world we have become a very spoiled culture. We stamp our feet when a text message, which has to go all the way to SPACE, takes more than five seconds to go through. We complain about widely available public transport. We get stroppy when the supermarket, which carries an unnecessary abundance of out of season, internationally sourced food-stuffs, doesn’t have the particular brand of soy milk we prefer.
We think that things we see every day are boring, despite the fact that we have such advances as glasses and contacts with which we are able to see them. We think our life is hard when we don’t get exactly what we want when we want it. And when life really is hard, when someone we love dies or we lose our job or our partner leaves us, we think that it’s unfair.
We need only look back 100 years to see the incredibly fortunate and glorious time we live in, and in doing so we can cultivate a sense of wonder.
We have computers small enough to fit in a pocket. We have the ability to communicate with people on the other side of the planet in real time via video FOR FREE. We have such advanced medical treatments and improved over-all health that our biggest growing killer is dementia because we’re living longer and longer. We can start the path to learning anything we want by typing a sentence into a search engine.
There is so much to appreciate when we look beyond what we think we are entitled to and see the incredible benefit of being alive in this day and age. And never mind the day and age. Just look at the incredible benefit of being alive. You get to live - to experience love and grief and joy and pain and discovery and connection and loss.
So learn how to appreciate by learning to see how much you have to appreciate.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. In fact, I invite you to share your thoughts. What are things you’ve learned (and are still learning) that help you win at life?
My current practice is to challenge the language I choose to use when describing my experience. Specifically, I am looking at my use of the phrase ‘I feel like…’
When we use this as an opening we almost always follow it, not with a feeling at all, but with a judgement.
I feel like I accomplished very little today.
Feeling are limited, and when I say ‘feelings’ I am talking about the range of emotions a human being experiences, not sensations in the body. Although this does include specific sensations affiliated with the emotion. For example: a cold sweat of fear, a hot blooded moment of anger, a numbing sadness.
We can experience an overlap of emotions that may seem conflicting: We can be happy about our friend going on a new adventure but sad to see them leave. But even the overlap does not expand the emotional universe.
Emotions are few: happiness, sadness, fear and anger. And within these there are varying degrees: Joy or elation, depression or grief, anxiety or terror, rage or hatred etc.
So ‘accomplishing very little’ is not a feeling, but a thought, and therefore should be presented that way.
I think I accomplished very little today.
A thought can be accompanied with an abundance of feelings, but the thought itself is not a feeling. This is brilliant news because it’s much easier to challenge what we think than it is to challenge how we feel.
It’s like an emotional math equation. First we convert a ‘feeling’ statement into a judgement statement so we can see it for what it is: A thought. Then we challenge the thought on the basis that thoughts are not real.
I think I accomplished very little today.
Is this true? Can we know, with definitive certainty, that we didn’t accomplish very much? What are the facts?
I made a list of what I did accomplish and it was actually quite long. So then I asked myself: Why the judgement? Is it because I didn’t accomplish something specific? As much as I wanted? Do I have an unreasonable expectation of what I am capable of doing in a day? How can I adjust that expectation to be more reasonable?
Regardless of the judgements we make, when we see them as judgements and don’t confuse them with the emotions that accompany them, we are more able to examine and challenge them.
I was directed to your open letter through an open letter written in response to it. I have to admit, Jim’s letter made me laugh. It really did. But it also made me feel bad about laughing.
Just like your letter broke my heart a little.
Because the thing is, I believe you’re a nice person. I trust that you have family and friends who really appreciate and love you for various reasons. You’re someone’s favourite person, no doubt, because you’ve been there for them in a way no one else ever has. I bet you think of yourself as decent and not at all as selfish, entitled or lacking in compassion for your fellow human being.
I believe this because I believe it of everyone. I don’t think anyone does anything because they want to feel worse. Which is why I felt bad about laughing at Jim’s response to you and why what you wrote broke my heart.
I work with my mind to be able to see the world free from the limitations of dualism. It IS work. Really hard work. And I know this, with all the tools and skills and my strong daily intention to not limit everyone and everything into such small categories as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. But most people don’t do this. So Jim gets to be the ‘good’ guy while you are the ‘bad’ guy and the Internet has a hey-day reigning shame down on your for not knowing what you didn’t know.
If you’d known better you wouldn’t have written what you did, so I’m not angry or upset about it. You are not the problem. There is a much bigger societal issue at play, a criminalisation of poverty, which was established and perpetuated since long before either you or I (Or Jim) were born.
It’s complicated. Something as complex and multi-faceted as economics, personal, societal and global, aren’t created over-night from a single point. And so addressing it cannot be looked at simplistically either.
No, you are not the reason for the disparity we are seeing. You are not solely responsible for it and attacking you will not alleviate or change that. But you are part of it.
And so am I.
And so is Jim.
Which is why I wanted to write you this letter - and I know, the whole blow-up is ancient history in the fast-pace of the Internet, but I felt like due consideration was needed before I composed this.
I want to extend an invitation to you. Because, Justin, I know I could just as easily written a similar letter to you if not for the opportunities I’ve had to see life outside of the bubble of my middle-class, white, English speaking upbringing. I have been fortunate enough to know and befriend people from marginalised groups. To work along-side youth in care, to be invited to understand how a person experiences addiction, discrimination and lack of opportunity.
Just as your lack of understanding led you to write your open letter, a lack of resources, information or seeing anything different is what feeds and perpetuates the homelessness you are so upset by.
So I invite you to withdraw your letter and take up the gauntlet yourself. Justin, if you truly want to see a solution to the problem of poverty in the place you choose to make your home, step into the fray. Do not pass the responsibility onto others. You are resourceful, you are intelligent, you have built yourself a career. Go to the streets, get involved with those who are helping their fellow human beings. The best way to solve a problem is to understand it thoroughly. The only way we can do that is to really study and know it, to live it even.
I have faith in you. I’m certain, if you take the time to insert yourself, to see that you are not a bystander to the suffering of your fellow human being, but in fact a potential resource and opportunity to them, you can contribute to a lasting, viable solution.
Kaitlyn S. C. Hatch
In January I published a piece on how to make someone else’s life easier. In it I touched on the great skill of listening. To really listen means to be present for a person. But saying ‘be present’ doesn’t actually explain what that means or how to go about it.
This is a follow-up to that piece, with instructions on how to be there for someone, genuinely, in three easy steps.
Think back to some painful point in your life, something that caused you heartbreak or grief, that felt insurmountable, no matter how often people spouted terrible cliches like ‘Everything happens for a reason’ or ‘Time heals all wounds.’
Now think, was there anyone in those times who simply listened? Who sat with you and let you feel how you felt without conveying any sense of needing to ‘fix’ you or the situation? Anyone who was just there, to hold your hand or give you a hug, or not touch you at all but let you get whatever was in your head out? Or perhaps you didn’t want to talk and they were the one person who didn’t expect you to. They were someone who you knew had no expectations of how you should behave or what you should say, and you could sit with them in comfortable silence.
Whether you’ve met this sort of person or not, wouldn’t it be amazing to be them?
Well here’s how.
Step one: Check your intention.
What’s your motivation behind being there for someone? Is it because you want to be their saviour? To ‘fix’ them by saying just the right thing? To swoop in and ‘save the day’ with words of wisdom? Or is it to give this person the space, the platform they need, so they feel heard and seen? If we want to truly be there for someone our intention has to be just that.
Our intention must not to be to put how we think or feel on that person. Our intention must be to give them space for how they feel, for what’s going on in their life, for their experience and how they are in that moment, regardless of our expectations, wishes or desires.
Step two: Let go of your ego, or at least tell it to be quiet for a bit.
We might not understand exactly where a person is coming from. We might think they’re a mess or they’re a lost cause or that their pain is too much for us. We might be confused by how they react to a situation, because it’s not how we would react. That’s fine. We’re allowed to think and feel whatever we want.
This isn’t about being right, getting praise or having answers. When we want to truly be there for someone, when that is our intention, it means we also have to put any sense of ‘me’ to one side. Being there for someone is not about you.
Step three: Be present.
This is easier said than done. Your mind is going to wander. You are going to have all sorts of thoughts coming up, which is normal. You may think their pain is too overwhelming. You may think they got themselves into the mess they’re in. You may think what they are going through isn’t actually that big of a deal or you may think it’s too big for you to handle. That’s fine.
Thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky. In meditation we are taught to label them ‘thinking’ and let them go. But I have a specific trick for how to work with these thoughts when my intention is to be there for someone. Whenever a thought arises I tell myself: ‘Be present’.
You are holding space. Part of that involves creating space. We create space by being in the moment. The present moment is infinite and vast. Train in being there and you can be there for anyone, including yourself.
Being there for someone isn’t easy. Our intentions become clouded, our ego is loud and boisterous and we are hardly ever present. But being there for someone is one of the most powerful, kind, and generous things we can do.
If you were to offer my my dream job right now, this very instant, I could tell you in a heartbeat that I would love nothing more than to be able to make my livelihood through my writing. It is the single thing I have had unwavering confidence in and drive for since some of my earliest memories. And it’s not a whimsical ‘wouldn’t it be nice to write a book one day’ sort of longing.
I have written six books. Unpublished manuscripts which have travelled from floppy disc to harddrive to cloud. They have seen the transition from Word to Pages to Scrivener. Six completed manuscripts and three others near completion. Not to mention the dozen or so false-starts or germinating ideas ranging from a few paragraphs to several pages.
I am unquestionably driven to write and yet, I have only published on book and that wasn’t even a proper novel. It was a therapeutic project and a study in using InDesign. What better way to learn how to layout a book than laying out a book and publishing it?
So why am I writing this?
Life is what you make it. I don’t believe that anything happens for a reason. I believe that life has the meaning we give it and we can see opportunities anywhere we look, if we know how.
Yesterday I attended #AllAboutWomen at the Sydney Opera House. I went to a talk by Miranda July. My wife is a fan but for me, other than being familiar with the title of one of her films, she was a new entity.
My first instinct, as she began to share the story of her career, was jealousy. This, to me, is a great indicator to sit up and really pay attention. If I’m jealous it’s because they are emulating something I wish I had or could see in myself, so I focused on her talk with sharp intensity.
These are the key take-aways I found:
1. Learn to value our achievements more. Yes, it’s good to be motivated and to want to accomplish great things and complacency will prevent that from happening, but just because we want to do more doesn’t mean we should devalue what we’ve already done. In fact, by looking at what we’ve accomplished with a sense of pride and confidence, we fuel what we're doing right now.
2. Find what drives you. There have been many articles published on the problematic issue of telling people to ‘do what they love’, as if pursuing the things we love will magically make everything else fall into place.
Drive is different than loving something. For example, I love making things work. I love organising things, putting systems in place and establishing consistency. It’s what’s employed me in various project management roles for my entire adult life thus far. But I’m not driven by it. It’s not the sort of thing where I wake up every morning and think: What will I organise today?
When I wake up I wonder what I’ll write. I watch a TED talk and wonder about doing an article on it. I have a strange/upsetting/new/exciting/fun experience and I have to journal it. I attend a feminist event and plan to blog about it.
I am driven to write by my desire to engage people in their own curiosity. I love learning and I love to encourage others to explore the world around them.
When we are driven to something it’s harder to get in our own way.
3. Get really good at surviving failure. I don’t even think this one needs expanding on, it’s so self-explanatory, but I will say this: the quicker we accept a mistake the sooner we can learn from it and the better the next thing will be.
Not doing something because we’re afraid it won’t be great, or even at least sort of okay, is failure. So make terrible art and write something awful and come off as amateurish, because even the greatest professionals were once amateurs and no one gets it right all the time. Sometimes it will take several goes, but as long as you’re always going it doesn’t matter because that’s how we improve.
All of this is incredibly meaningful for me right now. On May 1st I’m launching a campaign through Publishizer to publish my first fiction novel. It’s 51,000 unedited words that need editing, publishing and marketing. My aim is to have it available in time for Christmas and I have no excuse not to work on it. This IS my livelihood even if it’s not earning me an income just yet. But I have confidence it will. Even if it’s not a best-seller (I’m not nearly so naive to hope for that) I have written something I am driven to share with the world - and share it I will.
I have all the time I am willing to make to put it out there and at this point not a single person who has read the first chapter has told me they wouldn’t pre-order. In fact, several people have told me they’ve been waiting for this since they met me - over fifteen years in some cases.
So, thank you Miranda. We haven’t met but I found your talk encouraging. Your career appears to be based on how to motivate people to perform. I happily credit you with this latest burst of energy and commitment for my current project.
When not writing, making art or recording podcasts,
Kaitlyn can be found in trees, listening to Dharma talks on her iPod, Boon.
Thusly named because
Brian Froud = Awesome.