Island Blog 161 In Pursuit of Excellence

wisdom

Unlike the pursuit of happiness, which is always the end goal of any human being and never the right one, the pursuit of Excellence is one that must be embarked upon to elevate our own sense of self.  Happiness is a secondary part of this pursuit, for, in each success, therein happiness lies.

The old-fashioned encouragement of our elders and leaders, in the form of teachers, parents, guides, will tell us to strive on, to do better, to make something ordinary into something extraordinary, In order to be the best, but this teaching needs further explanation.  We do not pursue excellence in order to beat someone else.  We pursue excellence in order to beat ourselves, that negative monkey-mind that keeps us always just below our own par.  In truth, it is ourself we make extraordinary and not the thing we do.  Although each success results inevitably in a ‘thing’ such as a published book on a shelf, a painting sold, a medal awarded, our name on walls in hallowed halls, the real happiness lies in the knowledge that we worked on, through difficult times, through darkness and doubt, cold comments and hot criticism, to achieve what now glows with light in the eyes of the world.  Despite all the difficulties we may have encountered, we continued with our work, perhaps in a lonely silence, until suddenly everyone wants to shake our hand, or bake us a cake,  even those who disbelieved and doubted as we faithfully marched on down our chosen path.

It doesn’t matter to me if this work is in the public eye or not.  Most good work is done alone.  It is easy, so easy, to be seduced into thinking that successes come with the genes, but we can be astonishingly good at many things, do little to develop them, giving up, saying ‘It’s not working for me’ and ultimately waste a gift, flush it down the loo, walk away from it.  Each one of us is placed just where we should be, and it is our job in this one life to locate it and build.  Not one single soul is without a gift.  Perhaps it is for caring, perhaps handywork or bending metal into shapes.  It might be to uplift others, to paint, write or make music.  It could be staying calm and strong at times when others panic.  It might be with animals, with parenthood, with teaching or entertaining, cooking, translating, sports or marketing.  The list is endless.

The problem is nowadays that everyone seeks glamour and judges themselves on that basis, especially the young, although it doesn’t stop in youth.  People consider their lives ruined when life drops a boulder into it, but this is not the truth, for just like that any one of us can lose a job, our looks, a lifestyle, a loved one and yet life is not done with us yet, for somewhere in there, after the grief and the mourning is past, there is something still at which we can excel.  We may not feel like it, but who does want to start again?  And yet, I have seen it too many times, the indomitable human spirit doing just that.

Pursuing Excellence is a way of being, not something for those born with a silver spoon.  Someone washing dishes can wash them consistently with excellence, if they have that burn inside them, that need to do everything to its highest level.  I meet so many people who seem to be waiting for something to happen.  I want to tell them it already is.

Consider this…… it isn’t the great thinkers and do-ers of the past who will make history now, but each one of us.  I don’t mean ‘out there’ in the world, I don’t mean an OBE or a spot on Britain’s Got Talent, but inside our own families and friends, and, more importantly inside our own hearts.  No recognition is worth a fig once the hype has died away.  What lasts for ever is the knowledge that we worked and studied and focussed and never never never gave up.  We alone made this happen. This is what will carry on, will carry us on, will be told down through the generations, will make others think, consider, re-evaluate their own priorities and make a change.  This is what really tells us we can do it, wherever we are placed, despite our limitations, our commitments, our troubles and strife.  One person, one gift, one chance to excel.

As one door closes, another opens.  You’ve all heard that one.  At times I scoffed at it, seeing nothing but closed doors, and considering that open door to exist only in the Secret Garden and other winsome tales, but that was simply because I had my blinkers on.  Thinking we are too old, too tired, too sick is to die whilst still alive. Someone said to me, at that difficult time, ‘It is my opinion that the only way out of any gloom is to turn the light on someone else.’  I thought, Cheeky So-and-So, but it did think me over the next while.  And, he was right.  Initially, when gloomed-up, we need to begin to forget ourselves, because the habitual thinking is poisonous to our minds.  Once we have shone the light on loads of others, seen their lives, heard of their troubles, we gradually realise how much we have at home.  Much that seemed so little not days ago.  Then, once restored, once our mouths are full again of laughter (most of it at our own self) we can ferret about inside our own life with fresh eyes for that ‘something we can do.’  Then, we baby step it out of the attic, dust it off and, without anyone else having a scooby about it, we begin to fashion a new thing, a thing that will challenge us, for we have never done this before, upset and confound us, meet with difficulties and comments, doubts and fears that we are being complete charlies, until one day we discover that we believe in it;  we believe in us believing in it.

And then, my friends, we are off, because we are now in Pursuit of Excellence.

Island Blog 155 Should or Must

 

Should Must

 

I read an online paper called Brainpickings.  I recommend it highly.  Someone miles away spends all her time researching and presenting thoughts on pretty much everything.  What I most like is her choice of material and the way she delves deep into the inner workings of her subject, supporting it with other writers’ observations, scientific fact and personal comment.  Her funding for all this work comes solely from voluntary contributions.  She obviously feels she ‘must’ do this for her life to be as fulfilled as she wants it to be.  I doubt there’s a ‘should’ in sight.

How many times a day do we say, or hear another say, ‘Oh I should be doing such and such….’ or I ‘ought to get back and get this job done’?  In our very words we are saying how terribly much we would rather not do those jobs at all.  Any sentence with an ‘ought’ or a ‘should’ inside it needs challenging. It means we are not doing what feels right to us and yet we fail so often to question our own sense of integrity at this point, mindlessly performing tasks like circus animals, for the benefit of others.

I am not saying that we do only that which we want to do.  How riddickerluss would that be?  A great number of us would spend all day in bed, or on a beach, or watching Friends Series 256 from start to finish. No dinners would ever be prepared and the housework would go to pot.  Dogs wouldn’t be walked, nor windows cleaned, nor gardens gardened, if on that particular day we didn’t want to do any of it. Nobody would commute to work and the world of commerce would die on its feet.

I am also not saying that we should swing the full 90 away from ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ because daily work is good, regular ordinary tasks essential to our lives, our businesses, our jobs.  The key is to walk away from the should, just a little and check out the view.  If I didn’t do this thing, this mindless thing that I hate doing, and no longer want to do to please this person or that, what would I do instead?  It wouldn’t be nothing, no, it would be something, so what something feels right to me?  What, in fact Must I do, for my own sense of what is right?  Now that, my dears, is the right question.  Must is when the task ahead, not necessarily an exciting one, becomes exactly the right thing to be done, in order to move on; to reach the goal, the fulfillment, the sense of achievement.  I must do this and so I will.

Simples.

In my experience, inner questioning is essential.  It’s the beginning of Mindfulness.

Did you know that 99% of all the work that leads to winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the painting that sells for millions, or the grown child who says Thank you Mum for teaching me all the right things in life, is done alone and unnoticed?  The glory world we live in now, the glamour of it, the annorexia of its body and spirit, the fast-track dash to ultimate success, is one of illusions.  Watch less tv, read no newspapers for a month and then see how you feel about life around you.  It is a remarkable fact that what we do/watch/listen to/surround ourselves with, on a daily basis, can turn us from ourselves, can tell us ‘this is what the world says, so it must be true’ and can corrupt our glorious human nature.

I say read more Brainpickings, read more books that lift our spirits, either novels or non-fiction.  Read ‘Feral’, read ‘The Road Less Travelled’, read anything, but read.  We writers have some good things to pass on.

This now from Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my heroines, a woman way ahead of her time, independent, strong, beautiful and wise.”  When you adopt the standards and values of someone else….you surrender your own integrity……(and) become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Following her is Elle Luna from her book The Crossroads of Should and Must.   Read them both, and then walk off into silence and reflect. And then, question every move you make.

“When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.

Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires – unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.

Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own – and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive”

‘Must’ be the difference between being alive……

and merely living.

Island Blog 149 Fire and Ice

 

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149 – another Prime Number – indivisable by any number other than 1 or itself.

I like that.  That’s me.  Others may suggest alternative descriptions of something or someone so resolutely singlular, not many of which would raise me high on any Christmas card list.  Words like Selfish, Stand-Offish, Stubborn, Thoughtless, Narcissistic, Ego-Centric and so on and so fourth and fifth and sixth.  You get my jist.

But (and there’s always a few of them) in order to carve a furrow along which I am happy to walk, I have to be the one to carve it.  No, no, not that way!  they might cry.  Look, see, here’s a nice womanly path, one full of other nice womanly dudes with behaviour manuals and clean tea towels in their well-ordered drawers.  One look is enough for me.

How I have managed to love love love being a wife and mother of many, whilst maintaining my singularity is a puzzle to me.  Actually I didn’t manage that maintaining thing to be honest whilst living in the melee.  It was a question of forward motion at all times to avoid being crushed, but now, with hindsight, I can see that my intense and consuming need to be singular, even in those times, kept talking to me – an internal sustaining dialogue, despite the requirements of hostessing, mothering, catering and, against humungeous odds, domesticating those in my precarious care.

Anyone who has forged ahead in life has to be of singular persuasion.  Forging ahead and tidy tea-towel drawers probably argue with each other.  Now, shall I forge today or tidy my tea-towel drawers?

Some might say there are those who could do both and in the same day, but I doubt it, because the whole thing about forging is that it decides not only what you do or where you go, but who you are, your choice of path.  Consequences arise inevitably.  For example…..if I choose not to cook supper because I am busy writing, which is important to me, this ‘me’ who is completely forging and not a bit hungry, I may well upset you who are:

a.  Hungry

b.  Not a little irritated that I have abandoned my post.

c.  Alarmed at this turn of events, and concerned that, if ‘allowed’ this turn may take an unhealthy hold on me.

If I continue to walk this path it will eventually become the norm, expected and, to a degree, accepted.

Really? Well my mother never told me that and nor did anyone else by the way Jimmy (certainly not him), but it doesn’t mean I can’t learn it now.  Anyone can learn it now, any now, however grey and worn and old and tired.  People who decide to make a change will always find a guide when they need one.  Thing is, you have to take the first and scary step.

When a volcano erupts, it doesn’t ask permission.  ‘Oh, now, sorry to bother you, but would it be okay if I erupt next Tuesday night about 10pm, hmmm?’

When a glacier decides to move along a bit, causing masive tidal chaos, seals to flip overboard and huge ships to bonk their noses, it doesn’t check with anyone first.  It just moves.

These are prime events, huge events with consequences for us all, and, of course, barely related to any human ‘forgings’, but they illustrate my point to a degree.  If I wait for permission to forge, when my internal voice is hot enough to bend steel, then what on earth is my life all about?  I may well be remembered at the wake as a Good Woman (with tidy drawers) who was kind to everyone, never said NO, and certainly not in capitals, and who always put others first, which, in my opinion, says only a small thing about me.  The BIG THINGS are :

What did I do with my life?

How did I make a difference?

What legacy do I leave and who will learn some wonderful new freedom for themselves, by observing my work?

If the answers are Not Much, Didn’t, and Not Much, then all I have done is make a sandwich.

We are born of Fire and carved by Ice, like mountains.  We might take a little trip inside ourselves and remind ourselves of that.

 

Island Blog 132

2014-03-28 12.29.53

 

 

We never talk about shrimps up here.  In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that word used anywhere in Scotland.  Up here, across the tempestuous border, we talk about prawns, and they are quite believably so.  Shrimps I remember from Norfolk days, and you needed 3000 of the little so-and-so’s for all of seven sandwiches.  I have been served up a plate of ‘prawns’ before now, and knew fine I was being ripped off, but not up here.  Folk can’t believe their good fortune when they order a prawn dish, savouring the fat pink bodies, dense and firm and tasting of a fresh wild ocean.

In Tapselteerie days, I would drive over the hill to meet the fisherboats coming in, bartering with the raw and ruddy-faced hard-working ‘boys’ for an overflowing crate of still-twitching jewels, the huge aga pans left to bring themselves to boiling point as I travelled.  The eyes of the guests grew wide with amazement as I laid down plates of them, pan fried with garlic and fresh herbs.  Then I would make bisque from the shells.  Nowadays, you can’t buy them on the quay, as I did, because they all go for export.  But there are a few choice restaurants who either make sure they have their own creel boat, or have found a way to do as I did, and connect with the fishermen. Some of these ‘boys’ are still fishing, some have stepped back to let their sons carry on the good work.  After all, shrimp or prawn, lobster, oyster or mussels are always a different experience when they are fresh and still full of personality.

Much like us.

So why am I talking about shrimps and prawns and the like?  It isn’t to lead on to the obvious Bigger is Better thing.  What I am talking about is choice and quality, yes, but more about paying attention to the strings that bind us.  Driving over the hill to find fresh shellfish meant I had to know and befriend the fisherman.  If he thought I was a stuck up little madam, he would have said nothing was available and I wouldn’t have blamed him for that.  I know that the lonely process of buying goods, any goods, via the interweb is easier, cheaper often, but it involves no human contact, or very little.  In fact, we seem to enjoy  as much ‘very little contact’ as possible these days, and, yet, it is only through a bonding process that anything in life really works.  Oh, I am not saying we don’t need, use and value the internet, but out of balance we can find ourselves clumsy and careless at times when we are with another person.  Out of practice.

When I go shopping for clothes (I hate shopping for clothes and am the very first to look online), I will avoid with great energy, huge shopping malls, caves of blue lighting, plastic walls and no air, or none already breathed in and out again.  Instead, I will choose the little shop with a ‘ping’ as I open the door and a welcome smile on the face of the assistant.  I don’t want ‘NEXT!’ yelled at me.  I have a name, and it isn’t that.  Although I absolutely do not like a pushy sales person, I do like the question ‘Can I help you with anything?’ and then, when I say I just want to browse, to be left to do just that.  If I buy something, I want her, or him behind the pretty counter, to be interested in me and my choice, as I will be in them.  I want to walk out feeling very chuffed with myself and with my purchase, and, more, the pleasant memory of our human encounter.

If I sound stuffy, I don’t mean to.  I blog, I Facebook, I text and tweet, but it isn’t all I do.

Recently I came to realise that my work is lonely work.  Writing, painting, loving my little home and being in and around it, walking with Poppy in the fairy woods, none of these get me in front of people. This is my choice.  I am, at heart, solitary and I need that space around me to feel creative and healthy, but, out of balance, I get fearful in crowds and resist meeting friends.  The good news is, that this is instantly fixable, once recognised.  Driving through Glen Coe, beneath the craggy snow-covered tops of the Three Sisters, I pulled over to call Lisa, my publisher.  We talked of mice and men, cabbages and kings, and, as I turned back onto the road, I felt a lift.  It wasn’t the content of our conversation that did that, but her voice in my ear, connecting me once again to the outside world and, in doing so, raising my confidence in me, making me feel important and interesting and changing my whole outlook so that I was, once more, fresh and full of personality.

Island Blog 129 Out of Africa

African woman

 

 

In Africa I was more likely to find wildlife than wifi.   Of course, there were odd times, in a bar perhaps in town or in a friend’s spanking new office block, but mostly, the only form of contact with anyone at all, was with a handshake, a wide smile and an exchange of words, a state of being I rather like, even if I did, out of habit, reach for my phone if ever we stopped for coffee.

This new office block, with its wide light rooms and wrap around views across Capetown, is already a business hub.  Inventive and creative thinking, interior design and spatial understanding brings together anyone with a business to run and no desk to run it from.  Hot Desks are affordable and genius, because, not only do you get your own space, wifi connection, etc, but you also get to work in a bustling energetic atmosphere among other creators, all of whom are more than happy to network over coffee or a beer.

At every robot (traffic lights) there may be 3 lanes of vehicles.  I look across at those parked beside us in our little silver car (Maggie) and can hardly see the tops of the buckies (four-wheel drives) without craning. Inside these sit the well-upholstered Africaaners, their windows tight shut for the aircon to work.   On the other side, a people carrier taxi, all windows open, pumps out music, the black passengers grinning and bopping on their way to or from work.  The second we stop, the street sellers move in, weaving their way among the cars, holding their merchandise, such as beaded animals, children’s wooden puzzles, mobiles, jewelery, long-legged birds fashioned from plastic bags, woven sunhats and the Big Issue. The sellers are clean and proud, in the main, the turbanned women flashing sparkly smiles, the men making eye contact.  Not begging but business.  We don’t buy because we can find exactly what they are selling on the high street or at the market, even though they did assure us it was all their own work. It could also cause a cafuffle if the lights changed in the middle of negotiations, for there are always negotiations.  The asking price is set high, the rest is barter.

I found the beggars, when we did meet them in town, and you always meet them in town, most distressing to observe.  I always wanted to give something, but, had I done so, I would still be there in Market Square with not a penny left to my name.  Once you give to one, others move in, many of them children, and all of them thin as rakes.  Those who live in Capetown are not cold hearted, but they have grown a thicker skin.  They will consider employing anyone who turns up, who cleans up, who decides to move up in life, but they will not easily support those who choose doorways to sleep in and some lethal coctail as nourishment.

I thought much about that.  If someone has lost whatever they had, which may not have been much, it might not take long for that loss to turn into an acceptable way to live.  I imagine self-confidence and respect dissolve pretty quickquick when your only chance of food is by raiding bins on collection day.  I watched a man walk down the street doing just that and talking away to himself. He was oblivious to me, beyond stepping off the pavement to avoid a collision, and his eyes were bloodshot and empty.  I pulled my bag closer and felt vulnerable and overdressed and frightfully well spoken and, well, guilty.  We were heading out of town for a few nights on the coast, with food and wine and a rented beach hut to wrap around us and all he had to look forward to was another long street of wheelie bins and the possibility of Thai curry leftovers in polystyrene. And a doorway to sleep in.

Then (for life always sends a balance to help out) I met young black people with a zeal in their bellies. Not priveleged and living in one of the townships –  mile upon mile of tin roofs and dust floors, but still determined to find new quality for their lives, waiting at tables, working on the dustcart, cleaning, odd-jobbing, and so much more.  ‘If anyone wants it, the work is here’, I was told more than once.  This is a country where labour is abundant and cheap.  Wages are low, work is hard, but these people have a joy about them, a laughter that may well not come from a place of comfort.  It’s more an attitude than a result of how life treats them.  In other words, it comes first, that smile, that easy laugh.

We saw the maids arriving at the big smart Africaaner homes every morning around 7am.  Dressed in black with brilliant white aprons, they trudged up the hills from the noisy taxi that brought them out of the townships, talking and laughing together.  They always looked up for a greeting and always responded with friendship.  Their hours, from 7.30 to whenever they were done cleaning, looking after children and cooking, might earn them £8 at the far end of a day that expects a woman to do every domestic job required.  Then they walked back to the taxi rank, back to the townships to their own families to begin all over again, every single day.  When I talked with one maid, she told me she was happy to work.  Work, she said, is important.  No work, no importance. She look at me, astonished when I told her I had worked as a maid for a time.  Why?  she asked me.  ‘You don’t have maids in Scotland?’  As if cleaning was not for my shiny white hands. I fumbled about for an answer that didn’t sound like ‘well, I needed the money.’  She would have fainted clean away, had she known the wage I was paid for doing far less than is expected of her. And then she smiled the widest smile and then she laughed a laugh that made her bangles jingle and shook her head in amazement and amusement at the very thought of the ‘Ma’ cleaning a house, even her own.  Then she gathered up a huge pile of washing and left me wondering at my priveleged life and how often I forget to remember that it is just that.

Island Blog 111 Love Defiant

 

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‘Love is giving someone the power to break your heart, and trusting them not to’.  Some wise soul said that, and I pinched it.

When we fall in love, we fall into infatuation at first.  We can think of nobody else all day.  Their face and voice lift us up to heights we never knew before.  Every time.

When I looked up Love on the interweb as my old ma calls it, every link on the first page and beyond guided me towards young love.  Now, young love is not just for the young.  The ‘young’ adjective describes Love, not the people feeling it.  We can fall in love at any age, and thankfully, we do or the world would be chock full of lonely old people, who have loved and lost and find they can love again.  But love is not just a feeling.  It’s a verb.  In order to maintain a love between two people, both have to work, sometimes, very hard and over long periods of time.

So what is love, the verb?

Well, after the first overwhelment of love, hitting us right in the heart like a meteor has landed there, things slowly change.  Is this, we ask ourselves, the death of love?  Did I make a huge mistake? Is the ‘honeymoon’ period over?  Hopefully, yes.  Now we are getting real.

You may have made a mistake in your choice of lover, but you also may not, for at this point comes commitment, a cementing of a love, a choice to grow it into something long term, something that will sustain both people for the rest of their lives.  Ok, so we ‘commit’ whatever shape that takes and on we go.  At first we can allow things to irritate, because we are still floating on cloud nine and, as we know Love is blind.  But, when those things that irritate don’t disappear, we begin to wonder, because our initial plan to make the other person into a carbon copy of ourselves, isn’t working.

This is the uncomfortable bit.

‘Vive la Difference!’ is something we can laugh about and nod our heads to, but can we actually live with it?

There is another saying, that ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’.  Well bin that one.  I believe that saying sorry and taking appropriate action thereafter is precisely what Love is.  Otherwise we can just go on with our irritating habits, expecting the other person to get over themselves without considering their feelings and that is not ‘love’.

‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ is another.  However, the small stuff grows into big stuff if left unattended and, by the way, the small stuff is in the way every hour of every day is it not? Dropping socks on the floor, nagging about who does what, harping on about slamming the car door, not helping with the shopping/kids/accounts etc.

So how do we un-sweat it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of it, for this subject is one discussed to death all over the world in many languages.  What I can say is that Love is a journey, not just a feeling.  Beyond the chemstry, the longing to get home to a loved one, the daily joy, is a great depth of other things, essential things that, if applied with patience, will grow into a lifetime love.

But what about all that small stuff?  Does he/she get away with it all? Hmmmm.  Jury is out on that.  I have made all the mistakes, harping, nagging, moaning about my lot, and you already know that, if you’ve read Island Wife.  But, what I have learned, thankfully, is that love is not about getting my own way in everything.  It is not about a clear stage, just for me, with himself prancing about like a dancer in tights, to lift me up every time I feel like a pirouette.

No, love is about Compassion.  Kindness.  Loyalty.  Friendship.  Affection.  And each one of these is a choice, NOT a feeling.  In fact, feeling them is unlikely at first, given the small stuff sweats.  These depths of love are something to do, to work on, to write down as reminders.  It’s like going back to school.

Goodness…… that sounds old and boring, even to me who knows all this first hand.  But, as nobody can explain the truest, deepest meaning of Love, its high price and its long term rewards, then we just have to believe in it, even though, as a rule, we really only believe in that which we can explain through logic.

Love is not just about those first fiery weeks/months or even years.  It’s not about agreeing on everything (which is fortunate as we hardly agree on anything)……nor is it something to be taken lightly, thrown away without deep consideration and every effort made to find it again should it appear lost.  It’s not real in movies or romance novels.  It’s not just for Christmas or for days when I feel good about myself.  You won’t find it winning the lottery, or being promoted or writing a bestseller.  You find it by making daily commitment to it’s development and growth.

And my last word, learned through experience, is this.

Forgive, even if nobody says sorry.