Write like no one is reading

It had been a bit of a wonder to me, really, why I gave up blogging about a year ago.

I didn’t really stop straight away then, but definitely by this time last year, my heart already wasn’t in it. It had felt like I spent too little time doing what I loved – writing – and too much of what were blog “chores”, like posting links to Facebook and looking at site analytics (I’m a marketing person by trade… so yes if you are wondering, Big Brother is definitely watching you. Google knows how much time you spend reading each page, where you click next, and most probably whether you are picking your nose right now. Just in case, I wouldn’t.).

Anyhow, fiddling with my WordPress password yesterday I came across a different blog I’d written in 2012/13 before I started this one. I’d forgotten all about it, I only got there by chance by entering the wrong WordPress email/password combination. I read it quite curiously, not really remembering any of those entries, so it was like reading someone else. What hit me is that although it was pretty clumsy, there was something fresh about it, and a few entries were downright funny.

See, when I started Greater Than You Know, I was depressed, and I think somehow that’s why it’s ended up with a pretty serious feel, when anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not very serious in real life. The old blog hadn’t started to take itself too seriously yet, which is what was good about it.

But also, at this time last year I’d been hanging out too long with the “online entrepreneur” brigade, guys like Marie Forleo or Leonie Dawson and whatnot, who sell you the fail-proof formula for creating a thriving 6-figure business from a humble blog. And don’t get me wrong, they’re awesome, if you want to run a 6-figure business. But if I look in the mirror long enough to be truly honest with myself, I want an online business like I want a hole in my head.

I didn’t ditch the blogging for no reason. It was time to move on.

Going through my old posts what came across was that I’m a marginally good writer, but mostly I’m a bit neurotic and self-obsessed, either super-motivated or mildly depressed, and often funny in a self-deprecating way.

I recognised that tone of writing very well, because it’s the one I’ve been using every morning as I wake up, before I have breakfast and before work, in my “morning pages” diary. (Today’s a particularly early one, I got up at 5.30 after Camille’s alarm blasted at the wrong time, or whatever else happened because he’d fallen asleep with his head on his tablet). It’s the tone I have when I know nobody else will read it.

So, I’ve decided for the time being to leave Facebook alone and not monitor how many people will read this (you’re off the hook if you want to scratch your bum); rather I will use the time to get on with my day, away from the computer.

I wish you a good day, and if you’re curious and/ or bored, you can catch my old blog on goingfreerange.wordpress.com. Enjoy.

A cute birthday tale

IMG_0107 LROkay, let me tell you a cute story:

One of my Mum’s best mates turned 60 recently.

Like most people who turn 60 (or me when I turned 30), she didn’t like the idea one bit. She refused to have a big party, and her husband had booked a table for two at their local restaurant.

When the actual day arrived, she felt pretty gloomy. (Which reminds me of the day my Mum turned 60 – although she’s usually the most upbeat person I know, she was pretty low. She half-joked she would go down to the market to “see if they sell some magic powder to make you look and feel younger”. I still laugh to imagine what powders she might have been offered…)

Anyway.

As every woman knows, just because you say “I don’t want any presents” doesn’t mean you actually meant it. For all the wanting not to make a fuss, my Mum’s friend felt a bit deflated and lonely. Especially as her husband had some business to attend that day, and my Mum had things to sort out in town, so no one was around for company; her only plan was to lunch with her elderly mother.

The dreaded day was turning out to be just another day.

I’m not sure if she felt a bit wronged by the entire universe, but she sure felt wronged by her husband. Self-pity can make the best of us a little bitchy sometimes, so she phoned my Mum to complain about him – had he cared a little more, he’d have arranged to make her day more special that going to the stupid local for dinner!

Meanwhile, said husband spent his day “away” smuggling food and drinks into my parents’ kitchen down the road, in order to cook a big party meal unnoticed.

He planned the whole stealth operation so well that she didn’t suspect any of it.

So when the evening came and she was ready for dinner at the local (coat, scarf, had and gloves, checking her watch as they were going to be late), she grew increasingly annoyed that he wasn’t ready yet. What too him so bloody long? “What shirt shall I wear? Does it go with this tie?” he asked, as if he usually even noticed.

Of course she didn’t know he was just playing for time, because the guests had been delayed.

It wasn’t until they were finally ready to lock the front door – by now in full grumpy mode – that she heard someone call out greetings from the garden.

She turned round to see familiar faces, a handful of loved ones inexplicably smiling to her, bearing bottles of wine and dishes in casseroles… including her children who looked like they had just dropped by for dinner, even though they live hours away.

 

 

I’m back (with no vengeance)

downloadI’ve been away from this blog for a while, partly due to medical reasons.

Back in November I had open surgery at my local hospital to remove a huge fibroid. (apologies if this is TMI but for the sake of women who haven’t heard: uterine fibroids are a bummer, and they affect 40% of the female population. Get yourselves checked, just sayin’).

I was scheduled to spend three days in hospital followed by a month off, which ended up turning into ten days and two months off. I spent those two months at home, largely unable to go out (we live on a 3rd floor with no lift) just sleeping, eating and resting.

Looking back, it was kind of nice.

I feel quite bad saying this, with regards to my family and friends who worried (specially while I was in hospital), my boyfriend who had to play housewife (he discovered some things don’t auto-clean) and my co-workers, who did all my work (to the intern who did it for free: you have my eternal gratitude).

But it’s true, once I was released from the hospital and out of harm’s way, the forced rest felt good. I had nothing to do but relax – doctor’s orders.

Before the operation I’d had the misguided idea that recovery would be some sort of holiday (like women who save big projects for maternity leave) – I would finally read, write, tidy our shit around the flat.

But in all this time, I did almost nothing. When I wasn’t high on painkillers, I was just plain exhausted. And let’s face it, no matter how much time I have on my hands, I just hate tidying.

I discovered something rather precious though. It’s something every nonagenarian probably knows: if you only have two hours in the day when you’re not too tired to contemplate doing anything, you save your energy for what matters.

When life slows down to snail pace, you soon figure out what your priorities are.

For me, I found resting mattered, rushing didn’t. Phoning relatives mattered, keeping up with Facebook didn’t. Watering plants mattered, reading the news didn’t.

I drank herbal tea and watched enough Netflix for a lifetime (or so I thought then, until they released the new Good Wife season). I didn’t write or read. I sometimes picked up crayons and sketched daily life, just for fun.

I don’t think I’d felt such calm and contentment since childhood. 

Needless to say, it was only good while it lasted because I knew it wouldn’t.

In due course normal life resumed. I felt a little more energetic every day, so after spending Christmas in France I went back to work. I hooked up with friends again, I finished a few books that had been gathering (metaphorical) dust in my kindle.

Eventually, I even felt like writing again.

So, here I am. It’s good to be back.

Books that will change your life: “Why do people get ill ?”

Why do people get ill
I’ve long been fascinated by the body-mind relationship, and a few years ago this book awakened my curiosity.  Written by two scientists (psychoanalyst Darian Leader and biologist & science philosopher David Corfield), it draws from the latest science as well as forgotten finds from medical history, to explore the way our minds influence our health.

The book

Do you remember the last time you went to see your doctor, and he/she really spent the time to examine you in detail, had a lengthy conversation about your life and what big events might happened before the onset of your symptoms? … yeah, me neither.

According to the authors, over the last few centuries, Western medicine has evolved to understand a great deal about the body in a scientific way; which has allowed it to develop consistent treatments for many known maladies.

But there is a downside: as science views the body as separate from the mind, the more we explore the body as a “mechanical” system, the less we seem to see the person a whole. We have lost sight of the mind-body connection – despite overwhelming evidence that our thoughts have the greatest influence on our health.

The big idea

I certainly wouldn’t blame doctors who mostly do a fine job (I should know, my Dad is one- hello Dad!); but it seems clear that the combined influence of national health systems and pharmaceutical companies have put pressure on doctors to show demonstrable, quick results.

A patient’s illness has to be identified as quickly as possible as a specific “syndrome” or “disease”, for the appropriate medication to be prescribed promptly (and for it to be counted into statistics).

However in some cases, treating the disease rather than the whole person doesn’t work. By involving different consultants at different stages of the process, we can sometimes miss the forest for the tree – hence the growing number of people who turn to alternative medicine for illnesses that can’t be resolved by their GP because their collection of symptoms doesn’t tick the tight boxes, or because they just don’t feel listened to.

The scope of the book is wide, but here are just a few examples that illustrate how our minds might affect our overall health:

  • The timing of illness: a not insignificant number of people die on dates that are significantly relevant to their personal history: the anniversary of the death of a parent or spouse is a common one. Interestingly, 3 of the first 5 American presidents died on 4th July; and Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen”, died on the day of the Annunciation of Mary.
  • Sudden or “voodoo” death (the sudden and unexplained death in a previously healthy person) : accounts for 25% of death in America. There are numerous cases of people who believed they were under a curse, and died precisely at the date predicted (usually of cardiac arrest).
  • Different cultures have different illnesses: different maladies come up in different countries according to what we envision our body (this is true for both physical and mental illnesses – there are fascinating books on ‘ethnopsychiatry’, which isn’t mentioned here).
  • Loneliness has more impact on life expectancy than obesity or smoking put together (why do we never hear about this?)
  • The placebo effect: we’ve all heard of people who get better by taking pills that contain no actual medicine. Turns out it works for surgery too, in cases where the surgeon just make a cut but didn’t actually operate.

Why it will change your life

Whether you are well or have concerns, this book will have you think twice before popping pills. Not to say pills don’t work – they do – but asking yourself what factors in your personal history might have created your illness might also empower you and help quicken your recovery.

 

 

Don’t be afraid of being a wanker

P1060733 low res

Swearing like a trooper is one of my guilty pleasures, and since it’s now scientifically proven that people who swear are more honest than average, I can see no reason to stop.

You might think that swearing is a lack of manners but what I like about it (ok, apart that it’s funny) is that it allows you to cut the crap when you need to get an important point across, and be heard in a way you might not otherwise. A little rudeness can go a long way.

That’s why you come across sensible people who run F*ck It retreats (best-selling author John C Parkin and his wife), or write articles about the Elegant Art of Not Giving a Shit (David Cain on Raptitude).

So it should be no surprise that a great piece of advice I received recently includes rude content. I was talking to someone obviously wiser about work, and voicing concern about the impossibility of being a full-time writer:

“Your problem she said, it that you’re afraid of being a wanker.”

By which she meant: “You’re so worried that calling yourself a writer might turn you into a pretentious twat, that you’re not even trying. Instead you pretend you don’t really want it, to make sure no one ever calls you that (because let’s face it, it’s not nice).”

The problem is that by playing it nice and safe all the time, you can manage to fool people that you’re not even there. (With time you might even fool yourself).

Which isn’t good. You can’t succeed at anything by being invisible.

If you’ve ever fallen prey to thinking “Ooh I could do this, but… who am I to try? why should anyone be interested? people will think this or that…” then you’re probably afraid of being a wanker too (great by the way, there is no reason why it should just be me!).

You shouldn’t worry too much – wankers are so busy being great, talking down at others and believing their own spin, that they’re unlikely to care what other people think.

So you being worried about being a wanker almost definitely means you’re not.

I’ll also let you in on a little secret: one of the people I respect most professionally is on occasions a bit of a wanker. It’s not pretty to look at (and not nice for those around), but there can be a thin line between having enough self-belief to not compromise your vision, and coming across as an idiot.

On the plus side: some might call you an idiot, but you have enough self-belief to see your vision through.

So go on, do your thing! You have the world’s blessing to do whatever makes you heart sing, and tell us about it until the cows come home.

Because hey, you matter.

Looking for God at the School of Life

schooloflife

Last month I finally did something I had meant to do for a while: I attended a talk at the intriguingly named “School of Life” – the bookshop/events-space founded by best selling author/philosopher Alain de Botton.

The school’s objective is what it says on the tin: teach us the bits of philosophy you never learnt at school (assuming you were taught philosophy at school). Scrap the abstract debates, such as whether the outside world would exist if no one was there to look at it (who knows), students will be shown teach students how to improve their lives using philosophy’s practical answers to everyday questions. So you can expect self-help advice from top notch thinkers ranging from say Plato to Arianna Huffington… You could do worse.

If you’ve ever wondered how to find fulfilling work, how to be confident, how to realise your potential or why we need relationships, the School of Life might have your answer – most probably in the form of a book, and a 3-hour “class” at prices from £35.

I’m not sure whether they appeal most to the curious, the intellectual, or the neurotic (perhaps all three, if you look at me), but the talks sell like hotcakes: in the week I visited, there were only two available: “How to worry less about money” or “How to fill the God-shaped hole”. Because I don’t worry that much about money (and also, considering that any worry I might have could potentially be solved by taking on a better-paid job), on I went to the God lecture.

Although I wasn’t sure what to expect on arrival, I was pleasantly surprised – the place feels fresh and trendy. In a attractive shop window, philosophy books are artfully displayed in a minimalist manner, like in a designer shop. This bode well. What bode even better was being greeted upon arrival with tasty nibbles and a glass of wine until all the participants arrived.

At the set time, I, and a dozen or so budding philosophers, were then invited to proceed to the classroom. Everyone was slightly nervous like on a first day at school, but we needn’t have beenteacher Mark Vernon (who I must admit I’d never heard of but turned out to be amazing), made everyone comfortable from the start with a series of group exercises:

Rather than having to present ourselves in front of a room of strangers, which is always a bit daunting, we were asked to stand up as a group, and place ourselves along an imaginary line according to what we felt about words such as “religion”, “God”, “Christianity”, “Buddha” or “Stephen Hawking” (towards the wall: bad, towards the window: good).

This got us in the mood, and was also a bit of a giggle, especially when everyone tried to stand onto the same spot, so that a few minutes in all participants were in good cheer and happily discussing their personal religious beliefs – thing that aren’t usually discussed much in public, or in my case, at all.

In this open-minded, non-judgemental environment, it made for interesting debate. The topic of the evening being the “God-shaped hole”, we were guided to consider what atheists (which it turned out, only a couple of us were) might miss by not belonging to a religion or church community, and how they could find fulfillment (a sense of wonder, deeper meaning, community, charity, etc) in other places outside religion.

The group was a relatively mixed crowd – some of us really into the issue, others having just come, like me, out of curiosity. In pairs or all together, we were invited to share our own experience as part of the conversation.

Thus I ended up talking to a fiercely anti-religious young Australian couple; a philosophy student who was driven nuts by not knowing whether God existed; a young Mum who wasn’t sure what she believed in, but wanted to figure it out before her children started asking; a lady in her fifties who wanted very much to believe in God, but not that of her strict Catholic upbringing. The teacher himself was a former Anglican priest, who, after a period of atheism, now best described himself as a Christian Buddhist.

By far the most entertaining encounter was with a father and son (who else!) from New York who, in a bid to understand religion, had started attending a different service every week, alternating between Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Scientologist, Sufi, you name it- including some seriously New Age traditions. So far their favourite was Thich Nhat Han’s community.

Over the course of the evening I realised I don’t really have any problems with God, although I may not have a very traditional view of Him/ Her/ It. I guess mine is more of a “church-shaped” hole. But in a way I was happy (or should I say relieved) to find everyone else seemed fairly confused too, and as the debate continued I became increasingly fascinated with the topic. We kept on talking intensely even during the canapes break. This was the most fun my brain had had in a long time.

Someone mentioned the inspiration behind the School was to recreate an Epicurean Garden- a community of friends living together to talk philosophy and share a simple life. A dubious claim for this London affair, since participants are hardly a community. Plus the places feels less monastic, more middle class (but since when do I to complain about that?).

Still, I found everyone to be pretty genuine, and as far as sharing ideas in a friendly environment, I had a great evening.

I shall certainly attend again.

To give it a try for yourself, visit the School of Life You Tube channel, or your local branch in London, Paris or Melbourne.

 

 

The little things that make us who we are

DSCN0772 little british ice-creamMy friend Diane, who some of you might know, is currently in the middle of an epic “Little British Things” tour of Britain to celebrate the essence of Britishness, and raise £10,000 for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in the process.

Talk about an adventure! From Cornwall to Scotland this 80-day tour of the coastline will see her travelling to iconic locations, tasting favourite foods, interviewing locals and meeting strangers, taking pictures and reporting it all back via email postcards, so we can all be there with her… including people like me who’d never dream of going on such a journey, and of course people like you, who would be most welcome to join the tour crew: you can sign up here to receive postcards.

The reason I love this project – aside from the cheer boldness and originality of the idea – is that it invites us to reflect on the little everyday things that make us who we are; these small habits and objects that may seem insignificant but give us a sense of our own roots and identity.

“Little things” are the first you notice when you travel to a new country or region – the different foods, clothing, houses, the odd way people speak or behave. Some of those things might puzzle you – what is considered normal here might seem weird in your country, and reciprocally.

After a while, if you look carefully, those unassuming everyday things begin to give you clues as to the culture that created them. You catch a glimpse, as if looking through a keyhole, into the way other people live.

If you travel frequently, or spend enough time at your destination, many little things that seemed weird at first start to make sense in their context. What you regarded as “right” or “wrong” or “silly” or “appropriate” slowly begins to shift as you soak in our new environment.
(There are things that I found surprising, even annoying, when I first moved to London, that have now become very much part of my own make-up, and that I miss whenever I travel elsewhere).

The more you dig below the surface of “little things”, the more you realise that people are the same everywhere – the very things that appear to set us apart are so many expressions of the same universal needs, like food or shelter.

You end up seeing different cultures on a continuum and related to each other, rather than in isolation. “Little things” talk to and echo each other from one culture to the next. They travel and evolve as they cross borders and time. We aren’t so different to our neighbours after all – sure, some countries might prefer tea and others coffee, but pretty much everywhere offering someone a hot drink means a warm welcome.

Rather than rendering those “little things” insignificant, being able to compare or place them in a wider universal context makes them even more precious. First of all, wouldn’t it be awful if we traveled half-way across the globe only to find things exactly the same as at home?

Plus, isn’t it awesome that even though we humans are one same species, we came up with such a multitude of answers to just about every aspect of our daily lives? The array of languages, dishes, craft or art available is dizzying.

As for Little British Things, some of them I never got used to in 12 years of living in London (such as beer drinking or dressing lightly in cold weather) and some of them I’ve made my own with delight (like constant tea drinking and the Sunday papers).

Maybe these habits will only last as long as I live in this country, and be forgotten as son as I leave. But I have a feeling that I shall always long for a pub lunch, baked beans or the BBC whenever I can’t have them. And nothing will ever be quite like the delightful politeness, the celebration of eccentricity, the genuine curiosity for foreign things or the warm welcome I have always found here as a French Londoner.

All those little things will be sorely missed. Except maybe for the Great British weather…

Click here to support Diane’s tour & help the RNLI save lives at sea.

Looking back on a year of blogging: 11 tips for aspiring bloggers

First birthday_low res
Last Friday was my birthday (34 years young already!), and as well as celebrating in style with friends, it’s been a good opportunity to reflect on another date that came and went unnoticed earlier on this year:

On 2nd March 2013, over a year ago, I pressed “publish” on my first blog post on this site (and yes, that is a photo of me age 1!).

At the time I was taking part in the “30-day challenge”, and had received great encouragement from coach extraordinaire Selina Barker who had assured me that starting a blog had completely changed her own life for the better.

Still, I was pretty scared. Not only because I knew that the writing would be bad (everyone has to start somewhere, right?), but because it would be bad in public. And even though that was precisely the point of entering the challenge (I could have just have kept writing and told no one) it did feel daunting.

I was also stepping into the unknown: I had no clue what I would be writing about, I only knew that I wanted to write, share, improve my writing skills and explore my interests. 

So 47 posts later, how far have I gone?

  • My writing has improved: or if hasn’t, at least I feel more confident about it.
  • I think I found my elusive “voice”: now when I write, it still feels like me.
  • I’ve learnt to share: it’s still pretty scary, but I get on with it (plus I no longer shy away from telling friends in “real life” that I have a blog.)
  • I made friends with other bloggers: they have been really inspirational in keeping me going when I go discouraged.
  • I know myself better: I gained a better sense of the topics that work for me, and I realised how much I love writing. Also, I found out I’m quite a bit more creative than I thought.
  • Thinking about what I love also made me realise what I hate doing (and what I suck at): anything that requires too much precision, or rules, or repetition or God forbid, all three

So broadly it’s been a positive year. Mostly it’s made me appreciate that it’s okay to be a dreamer, and spend time thinking about stories or just doing nothing to see what ideas arise, rather than thinking it’s laziness.

And so although I know a year and 47 articles doesn’t make me any kind of specialist, here are a few tips I would like to give you if you are thinking of blogging but haven’t dared to try yet:

  1. It’s okay to have no clue what will come out of it: you won’t know until you start. When I started I honestly though I might write poetry and meditations as well as “self-helpy” stuff. As it turns you, I never posted one poem and almost everything is a story from everyday life. I don’t know for sure what I’ll be writing about in another year.
  2. Don’t be put off by technicalities: you don’t need any specific techie knowledge. Sites like Blogger or WordPress let you create a free account in 5 minutes. And there really isn’t much more to posting than to sending an email with a picture attachment. Honest.
  3. You are not alone: there’s always help at hand. I had encouragement from all the other contestants on the 30-day challenge, and it made me realise just how many new bloggers there are out there, who will be more than happy to meet and help you, online or in person, via all sorts of courses or communities.
  4. Don’t overthink it: you won’t know which posts your readers might respond to and which will go unnoticed. Don’t try to guess and don’t try to write what other people like. Go with what interests/ moves you, and with a bit of luck it will interest/ move your readers too. Also, it’s useful to have an editorial strategy, but it’s more important to actually get started.
  5. Don’t be scared to share: or rather, it’s fine to be scared, but make sure you share anyway. There are two massive advantages (three, if you count being proud of yourself for doing something scary) : you will probably get some great feedback and encouragement, which will make you want to write more. And it will create a sense of accountability, because once people know you blog, it makes it harder not to.
  6. Write with your heart, not your head: I could probably write a whole post about this, but if you don’t know the difference between the two, you probably are writing with your head. Practice free-writing in your spare time. Don’t edit yourself as you go (you may want to do first draft and edits on different days). Don’t use words in writing you wouldn’t use in conversation, and if it helps, imagine you’re talking to particular friend or reader.
  7. What you put in is what you take out: of course you could always write theory on whatever topic you’re into, but the magic of blogs is the insight into other people’s private lives, and how they can inspire our own. So don’t hide, tell us about you! The more of you you put in, the more touching the results
  8. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect from the start (or as some people say, “done is better than good”): I know it’s hard – especially as a marketing professional myself – to produce a website that looks amateurish. There are things on this blog I would cringe at in a work context (approximative design, plug-ins that half work, etc). But hey, we’re all here to learn, and the important thing is to improve as we go, rather than wait until everything is perfect to get started.
  9. Just keep going, a little at a time: while I’ve proudly posted something every month since last year, you might have noticed that some months have almost nothing in. That’s when I got discouraged, or tired, or generally life got in the way. Like with a diet, you won’t do yourself any favours by kicking yourself when you fail to write: just get back on as soon as you can, otherwise you’ll give up altogether. A little at a time is way better that not at all.
  10. You may need several attempts: this is actually my 3rd blog. The first one was shared with my family only in 2007; the second one had about 5 posts in 2008 before I gave up. So if your first attempt didn’t quite work, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get there.
  11. And finally the most important advice of all: HAVE FUN! you don’t know where it will lead you but so long as you enjoy the process you can be pretty sure you’re going in the right direction. 

 

Books that will change your life: “Cloud Atlas”

P1060341 low res

 

 

I originally picked “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell as a fun holiday read, but was soon gripped to it like I hadn’t been in a long time, so I though I’d share it with you:

 

The book

“Cloud Atlas” came out in the UK in 2004 to great acclaim; it was translated worldwide and turned into a gigantic-budget film epic by the people behind “Matrix”.

(The film flopped at the box office, which is a shame, but also not surprising because the book is so ambitious in scope and depth that attempting to capture it in two hours was a bit bonkers. Still, full points for trying!)

This intriguingly-named novel defies categories and is rather hard to describe. It tells the stories of six different characters living across the world in six different periods of time – 19th century South Pacific, 1930s Belgium, 1980s California, modern-day England, 2100s “Neo-Seoul” and 2300s post-apocalyptic Hawaii.

But don’t be fooled by the word “post-apocalyptic”, it’s not science-fi; and although it can be read easily without looking for deeper meaning (unless you’re like me, in which case this never happens), it is also a fable about the human condition.

The big idea

The six stories are almost self-contained, with only a tenuous link between them as one element of each story will be found again in the next. For example the journal of the South Pacific traveller will be found in a library in Belgium; a piece of music composed in Belgium will be heard again in California; a film made in present-time England will find its way to Neo-Seoul, etc.

But these links aren’t so central to our understanding: the real genius of the book is that each story is really powerful in itself, and by putting in parallel so many of them, it hints at the similarities between the people rather then what separates them.

The six characters all live in wildly different circumstances (a pensioner in a care home, a journalist investigating a nuclear plant, a clone on the run from the police…), yet they are all ordinary people trying to live their lives in challenging circumstances. As they face the difficulties, big or small, of their daily lives, they all have similar hopes and fears, loves and doubts, and the will to make sense of their lives and do the right thing.

At some crucial point in each story, the characters have to make a choice between following blindly what society dictates to them, or risking everything to break free of rules and be themselves: escaping slavery, helping others at the risk of their lives, etc

So the book is also a tale of courage and resilience, because following what they know to be right will test all the characters to their limits.

Why it will change you life

The most amazing thing about this book is how imaginative it is – its gripping narrative across six different “worlds” that all feel incredibly real. So if you just wanted a good holiday read, you could do worse: it’s hugely entertaining.

Yet readers will probably remember it for its deeper meaning too, the questions it brings about humanity and society – what links us beyond time and place, what makes us human.

It’s not all a warm fuzzy – the similarities between those people and their situations make it obvious that neither people nor circumstances evolve much over the course of History.

Patterns and mistakes are repeated – aren’t the “savages” of the 17th century colonies much the same people as the 23rd century “survivors” after the fall of our civilisation? Isn’t modernity perpetuating the same old cruelty under different guises – the compassion-less treatment of the old age pensioner echoing that of the slaves, and the human clones?

The author certainly doesn’t shy away from showing us what is nasty about humanity – greed, deception, cruelty, corruption, the pursuit of one’s own selfish interest.

This roller coaster ride of a book forces us to look at our own circumstances in the light of the characters’, and wonder for ourselves: where we are on this continuum?

But beyond the dark side, what I chose to get out of it is that although greed and cruelty may be omnipresent, there is always an option to do what we believe is right, even when it is not easy.

Each and everyone of us may be insignificant on the scale of History, yet the choices we make everyday – between crime and kindness, acceptance or fighting back, have the power to influence our collective future.

Our lives are shaped by events that begin long before we are born and will continue long after our death. Yet everything is connected – the future, past and present; the universal and the intimate.

As I said, a pretty gripping read…

 

Minimalist March: Almost epic fail

P1020327 low res

You might have guessed from the fact that I’m reporting in May on my March “everyday challenge” that something went a bit wrong. Here is what happened:

The plan:

I keep accumulating stuff, but I hate tidying and house cleaning. So when I came across the Becoming Minimalist website earlier this year, what it said made a lot of sense. I’d also been listening with envy as some friends embarked on “100 things” challenges (giving or selling their belongings until they only had 100), and kept thinking how much nicer life would be if only I didn’t have so much clutter.

I had somewhat of an epiphany, the same kind Liz Gilbert has in her bathroom when she prays for an answer to her life dilemmas and a calm voice in her head tells her to “Go back to bed”. Well, the voice in my head said “Tidy your room”.

So I started doing just that around February, giving a few unused things away (how good that felt!) and when March came I though I’d keep the momentum going with a three-pronged approach:

  1. Give stuff away: Unworn clothes, unloved gifts, uncomfortable shoes, uninspiring books, and all sorts that fill 75% of my cupboards
  2. Use what I’ve already bought: apart from the bedroom there’s also clutter in the kitchen (8 jams, 4 soy sauces, uncounted near-empty pasta bags); in the bathroom (cosmetics abandoned after I bought shinier ones); on every shelf where books gather dust while I buy more
  3. Buy only what I need: Only buy stuff that I haven’t already got (see above), and that I either really need, or will makes me really, really happy

What actually happened:

Folks, I’m sorry to say but life took over (at least some kind of life). I had a humongous project at work which meant head-down on the computer all day and many evenings, thus guaranteeing more untidy mess, unsorted cupboards and dust gathering on my belongings.

But the actual worst was the constant buying of take-away cappuccinos, crisps, biscuits and whatever junk snacks would see me through the day : the ultimate unnecessary purchase, which not only empties your wallet and but actually makes you feel sick.

Of course I didn’t get round to donating anything, not even sorting piles of stuff to donate.

On the upside, I didn’t have time to buy anything much other than comfort foods, and the odd Kindle book (which is also cheating, but at least they don’t take much space).

What I’ve learnt:

I DID realise exactly how much stuff I own that I don’t need: that I bought for the wrong reasons, or was given and kept for the wrong reasons; including items no-one remembers buying but just somehow got itself into the house.

As I considered what to part with and what to keep “later when I have time”, I became increasingly uncomfortable with not only how much space, but ultimately time, money, and worry all these redundant things accumulated to.

It also became increasingly clear while accumulating stuff doesn’t make me happy, some things in particular do. Some of my belongings actually make me smile or feel comforted and using them feel indulgent and luxurious every single time – a stylish handbag, a pretty cup, a lovely hand-cream. T

So while I will be happy to have fewer things, I will also be more mindful in the future of buying only the sort of things that tickle me with happiness every time I look at them.

I was also interested to notice that the reasons I keep clutter in my house reflect, in some sort of annoying metaphor, those that account for the “emotional clutter” in my life:

  • Analysis Paralysis (do I keep this? do I not?)
  • Imaginary obligations (towards keeping gifts, or expensive purchases)
  • Fear (of letting go, of not having enough)
  • Procrastination (I’ll take that pile to the charity shop… tomorrow)

So, in fact, getting rid of house clutter may open a whole new life for me. In fact maybe a failed monthly challenge will be a first step towards my new “less is more” life…

Top tip for those who might give it a go:

De-cluttering is ultimately about honesty with yourself and learning to distinguish what you really need from what you’re holding on to for the wrong reasons.

As you clear the physical mess in your house you get to reflect on your choices and values, what you want to leave behind, and what more of in the future.

A chance to go off auto-pilot, and take responsibility for own your choices.