Monthly Archives: March 2014

My Dad and the pear tree

Libourne 041_2005 cropLet me tell you a cute story:

When my parents bought what became our family home over 30 years ago, my Dad planted a pear tree in front of the house. Neither he nor my Mum being great gardeners, many plants have withered in their care since – but not the pear tree, which still grows strong outside their living room.

Every season over the years, the tree bore a great many fruit which for some reason were always juiceless, hard and bitter. Still my Dad cherished it and, out of some sense of pride, or perhaps loyalty towards the tree, we kept tasting the pears every year in the hope that they might finally turn out nice.

Last summer a neighbour came for dinner, and as we were enjoying dessert, the conversation turned towards the mysteriously bitter pears. The neighbour, who happens to be a farmer, had a good laugh and said no wonder the pears never tasted very good: they’re not an edible variety. In the old days, they would have been fed to the pigs, hence their common name of “pig pears”.

My father was a little offended, never having heard such a thing; but the simplest explanation often being the likeliest, we had to admit this sounded about right – for the past 30 years we had been placing impossible hopes on those pears to be something they weren’t.

Oh well.

Last Christmas I was staying with my parents again, and my Dad talked to me at length about his nearing retirement. Many of his friends have retired already, and much as he looks forward to slowing down (“you don’t have the same energy for work at 60 as you had at 30”), he sounded a little apprehensive about the passing of time.

“By the way”, he said as we were driving through the garden, “I almost took down the pear tree.”

“The one with the pig pears?”

“Yes, that. It’s never produced an edible pear, and it doesn’t look great anyway, so I thought we might use the space for something new.”

“So the other day”, he said, “I took a shovel and started digging the roots out. But then I thought about it – what has that tree ever done to me? I watered it for 30 years and now I take it down because it’s not productive enough?”

“It made no sense” he said, “so I planted it back in.”

And so I bet the tree will still be there in a few years time, when my parents sell the house to move to a smaller home for their retirement.

 

February: No Imaginary Conversations

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I tend to live in my head a lot (you don’t say!) so in February I picked a challenge that I felt would make a big difference in terms of stress and general wellbeing/sanity: limiting imaginary conversations.

If that sounds crazy, let me clarify that I don’t hear voices or anything – I just daydream lots.

In fact, I go by entire hours paying only remote attention to what is going on around me, because I’m too busy fantasizing about things that have happened, may happen, or I wish would happen, and as I’m not a visual-type person, I get a lot of internal dialogue.

While some are pleasantly entertaining, others are downright toxic.

Remembering a good moment or planning future holidays probably doesn’t do much harm, but unproductive conversations typically include:

  • decision making: arguing my case endlessly about a real life decision
  • doubt: going over past or future situations wondering if I could have done it better
  • venting anger: usually things I would never dare say in real life to whoever annoys me
  • justification: if I feel guilty about something that happened; entirely pointless and usually unnecessary
  • worst case scenarios: need I explain? I bet you get them too

The Buddhist tradition calls our endless train of thought the “monkey mind” – it goes from one thing  to the next without concentrating on anything, being at best distracting, at worst unproductive and frustrating. I tend to think of it as a washing machine, because whatever the idea, it never comes just once – it just goes round and round, over and over again.

The plan:

The rules for February were simple: if I caught myself having an imaginary conversation of any sort, I was to snap out of it immediately and focus on the present moment.
This was never going to be an easy one…

What actually happened:

I mentioned this challenge to my colleague William, who is also bit of a dreamer, and I loved his candid response:

“Why would you ever want to do that? it’d be 90% of my life gone!”

Indeed.

While refocusing on the present wasn’t actually hard in itself (in fact, it was surprisingly easy) I found that the present wasn’t necessarily always as appealing as it sounds. There is nothing glamorous about being stuck in a public transport, or in line at the post, or in a dreary conversation.

What I’ve learnt:

I’ve learnt several things

  1. It is tremendously helpful to be able to stop toxic worrying, panic attacks and guilt trips when you spot them. Not only does it dissolve the nasty thought literally into thin air, but also it helps you realise HOW MUCH unnecessary anger/ guilt/ worry you have in a day – and how much time you could save by avoiding them altogether.
  2. On the other hand, I would agree with my colleague that daydreaming actually DOES improve your life. As any dreamer knows, thinking about something is pretty much tricking your brain into feeling you’re actually there – so between packed public transport and Benedict Cumberbatch…
  3. Lastly, this is something I keep finding over and over again:We all have, as we say in French, “the flaws of our virtues” – what makes us great most of the time is also what makes us not so great in other respects (the way self confident people might sometimes be too proud, or caring people too overbearing). And so I strongly suspect that the time I spend in my head, while allowing for needless worry/ doubt, is also where I get all my creative ideas; in fact, some of my happiest moments when I actually ENJOY life to the full are moment spent thinking and daydreaming. Eventually, like it or not, I might have to accept that I need to spend a lot time up there, even if it makes me a little neurotic. 

    Perhaps it’s just about training my monkey to behave.

Top tip for those who might give it a go:

Go for it – you may not be able to stop over thinking, but you’re guaranteed to learn a lot about yourself. Good luck & let me know how you get on!

 

Adventures in Outer Space

P1060521 low resAgainst my better judgement, I’ve become addicted to the sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica.

I say “against my better judgement”, because I don’t normally watch much TV – much less sci-fi (I still think StarTrek = idiots in pyjamas), so this took me rather by surprise.

The show’s premise is this: sometime in a distant future (no pyjamas), humans are at war with robots they created. The robots look convincingly human, so nobody knows who is who.  In episode 1, all human planets are destroyed in a nuclear holocaust; the only survivors are 50,000 poor sods who were travelling in outer space while it happened. These 50,000 become responsible for the survival of the entire human civilisation (no pressure) on a dozen spaceships. Unbeknownst to anybody, there are human-looking robots onboard the human fleet.

So far, so sci-fi.

What makes it compelling of course, are the stories of the people we follow – the fighter pilots who go out everyday to protect others, the admiral who keep things together when everyone else is freaking out, the civilians who have lost all they had with no hope of return, and the robots who, despite being robots, fall desperately in love with humans (and reciprocally).

Kudos to the cast and writing team, some of these stories are among the most deeply touching you can imagine – stories of courage and impossible love, of loss, hope, faith, and finding soul where there is only chaos. Beyond the sci-fi flick, it’s a story about being human – what makes us human, what makes our individual destinies, and what legacy we may have as a species.

It’s also a story about heroes, and how we are all, in our small everyday ways, appealed to be heroes.

I’ve learnt a great deal from observing life onboard Galactica for 80-odd episodes:

  • Nothing is for ever and nothing can be taken for granted. Just like the humans in the story have lost their old homes and families, life as we know it may come to an end at any time, through no fault of our own. The people and things we love one day may be no more, and life will go on regardless. And that’s okay.
  • Humans will do stupid things. You’d think with only a few survivors in the universe people would try to get on. Of course not – they still hurt each other out of fear or greed, of cowardice or pride. In the face of difficult choices, even those who love each other often don’t realise or act on it until it’s too late. As a viewer you want to shout at them “go on, life’s too short for this!”. A bit like real life then.
  • We all have a role to play. Destiny is one of the series’ strong themes. The main characters (humans and robots alike) all have a strong sense of a mission they need to accomplish, although they usually don’t know how or why. As the story develops, all their separate missions come together for Humanity to be saved – salvation is only possible because each single person played their role, as pointless or insignificant as it might have seemed at the time.
  • Our calling may take us by surprise.  Human-looking robots don’t usually know they’re robots. They go about living a normal human life, until one day a programme is activated in their brain that will reveal their true nature. Did this ever happen to you in real life, suddenly feel the urge to do something out of character, learn a new skill, meet new people, visit a new country? Following those hunches might just lead you to your true nature too.
  • We may need to go a little mad. In the process of following our callings, others might call us mad. As we starting seeing or doing things differently, we might even wonder about our own sanity. When the Battlestar’s best fighter pilot disappears in mission and reappears 2 months later with no recollection of what happened to her, the others assume she’s a robot, and she starts doubting herself – she’s no longer sure who or what she is. But out of this confusion emerges a new, clearer sense of purpose. A nice metaphor of how we sometimes need to let go of our old lives to find meaning.
  • We should allow ourselves to be driven by love. Even the most level-headed, rational characters will risk everything for their one true love – trecking alone through the entire universe to rescue a parent or a lover. That’s because even though it makes no rational sense, they know life wouldn’t be worth living if they lost those they love most. That’s pretty cool.
  • We can choose everyday to do good or bad. We all have a part to play and it’s up to us to honour or ignore it. The things that are worth doing are often pretty damn scary, and we can choose to go for our dreams or to do nothing and keep going. Every small choice adds up to what we do with our lives. It’s all up to us, really.
  • Heroes never give up. For the one day of glory when they will save Humanity, the heroes have had a thousand so-so days when things didn’t go to plan. They had to turn up to work everyday (even if “work” was flying a fighter jet); their bosses got on their nerves, they were bored out of their minds, or hungover from the night before. They were sometimes betrayed by the people who should have had their backs; often the mission seemed impossible. They had plenty of opportunity to doubt themselves and give up. But they didn’t. And that’s what made them heroes.

And that, my friends, is what I learnt from my stay in outer space. As well as having a jolly good time.

Highly recommended.