Book 32/24: Goodwood

As I mentioned last week, I was lucky to receive a copy of Australian singer-songwriter Holly Throsby‘s first novel Goodwood from the good people at Dymocks Books. Of the 32 books I’ve read or started to read this year, I’ve read one novel. This one. I intended to read more novels, including some that have been sitting on my shelf for years, but I kept stumbling across non-fiction books that grabbed my attention and demanded to be read, allowing me to continue to collect underpants!

So finally, after more than ten months of reading, I’ve finished my first novel for the year. Hooray!

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Goodwood is set in a fictional (I presume) town in NSW, not the Hobart suburb of the same name (sorry Anchor Wetsuits fans). The Goodwood of the novel is somewhere relatively near to Belanglo State Forest (which may or may not be relevant as the book progresses) in 1992. There’s no mistaking this as an Australian country town, with local landmarks including the Bowlo, the Wicko (the Wickham Hotel) and Vinnies, and characters called Big Jim, Smithy and Davo. The reference to Glenn Ridge on Sale of the Century set the scene perfectly.

The story is mostly told through the eyes of Jean Brown, aged 17, who lives with her Mum Celia. It begins with the disappearance of two of Goodwood’s residents, 18-year-old Rosie White, who vanishes overnight, and the popular butcher Bart McDonald, who never returns from a fishing trip. The two apparently unconnected disappearances happen exactly a week apart, and they take away all sense of normality from the town as the people struggle to come to terms with what has happened.

As with any small town, everyone knows everyone’s business (especially Nance the grocer) and, of course, everyone has secrets, some of which are relevant to the disappearance of Rosie and Bart.

I read this book in three days, which is pretty speedy for me. I was hooked on the story right from the start and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Ms Throsby cohesively weaves together Jean’s narrative and the parts of the story she isn’t directly involved in, and builds believable characters. Their histories and the revelations of what they know are gradually revealed to build up a picture of a small, close-knit town overcome by tragedy, where no one is untouched by what has happened.

I haven’t read many mystery novels recently (OK I haven’t read many novels recently full stop), so I don’t know if there is a typical style or format typical of this type of this genre. As an inexperienced novel-reader, I found Ms Throsby’s writing to be clear and genuine. I could identify with the characters and the story came across as plausible. I really wanted to know what had happened to Rosie and Bart, as well as being interested in how Jean’s character developed during the story.

Of course I missed the key clue in the mystery (or at least the clue I think was key) and all the other pointers along the way, so the conclusion was totally a surprise for me. I’m really not good at mystery novels. Did I mention that? Maybe I should stuck to crosswords. Haha.

In short, if you like Australian writing and mysteries, I think you’ll enjoy this book. Maybe I should investigate this genre a little further.

Thank you Dymocks for a great prize, and congratulations Holly Throsby on a fabulous debut novel.

(ETA: I received this book as a prize from Dymocks and was under no obligation to write about it on my blog. I wanted to do this as part of my reading project for this year, as I did for several other books I’ve read – you can find my reading list here.)

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Goodies!

A few weeks ago I entered a competition on Instagram run by Notemaker and Dymocks to win a copy of Goodwood, the debut novel of Australian singer-wongwriter Holly Throsby and a new Two-Go Notebook by Moleskine. All I had to do was tell them what new hobby or skill I’d like to learn this spring.

Well that was easy – I’d just started my 30 days of cryptic crosswords challenge, so that’s what I said.

I entered and forgot all about it – and was very excited when Notemaker contacted me to tell me I’d won! I then had to decide what colour notebook I wanted – there are four colours: raspberry/green, light blue/pink, blue/yellow and ash/raspberry. They all looked lovely and I couldn’t decide, so I asked Kramstable to choose for me. He chose the raspberry.

My prizes have arrived!

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I haven’t started reading Goodwood yet, but it looks like a novel I’ll really enjoy. Anything described as “a little bit Twin Peaks and a little bit Picnic at Hanging Rock” (Hannah Richell, Australian Women’s Weekly) is going to get me interested. I’m guessing the town of Goodwood, where the story is set, is not the Hobart suburb of Goodwood! It’s next on my reading list and I’ll be sure to do a write-up when I’ve read it.

The little notebook is lovely, and I’m not sure what I’ll use it for yet. I like the normal Moleskine books because they are slightly narrower than an A5 book (21 x 13 cm) and I find them very comfortable to use. The Two-Gos are smaller still, 11.5 x 18 cm, so basically the same width as my Midori Travelers Notebook, and about 4 cm shorter.

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Because it’s the same width as the Midori, it sits nicely on top of it (see ^^^) and has  given me the idea of using this book as a catch-all/journal to carry round with my Midori, which I’m using as a diary next year. (The technicalities of how I’m using my Midori are beyond this post and require a degree of initiation into the Cult of Midori to appreciate.)

The Two-Go has a lovely contrasting colour inside the front and back covers.

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And doesn’t the green go nicely with my pretty new Lamy pen? (Yes it does.)

The final interesting feature is that the pages are plain on one side and lined on the other, which means you could (if you were learning to draw, for example) do some drawing practice on one side and take notes on the other. If that was your thing.

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The book has 144 pages and two bookmarks, as well as the back pocket that most Moleskine notebooks have. The cover is hard canvas, so it has a lovely textured feel.

Time will tell whether this is the journal solution I’ve been looking for, but I really like the look of this notebook, so all I’ll have to do is get over the fear of the blank page and write in it!

Thank you Dymocks and Notemaker for your very generous prizes. I was thrilled to receive them.

Book 30/24: Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8)

I was intrigued enough by the title Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) when I saw this book in the library to pick it up and scan through it, because I had no idea what the title meant.

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Obviously if you’re a crossword enthusiast, you would have picked up pretty easily that it’s a cryptic crossword clue, which is what this book is about.

Well, partly about. It’s the memoirs of South African-born writer Sandy Balfour, which tells the story of his leaving South Africa with his girlfriend to eventually living in London. The story of how he got deeper into the world of cryptic crosswords is intermingled with tales of his travels, the story of how he and his girlfriend made a home and family in London, and Mr Balfour’s continuous questioning of where he belongs.

It explores how to interpret clues and touches on the compliers of these crosswords from newspapers like the Times and the Guardian. This fascinated me. I had no idea that “setters” operated under pseudonyms and had their own styles and ways of interpreting the rules. Mr Balfour explains how, although crosswords were invented in America (by a British ex-pat, which a previous reader of the library’s copy of the book has gone to great pains to point out on page 103), they were refined by the British to the extent that they are seen as something quintessentially British.

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Throughout the book Mr Balfour uses clues to illustrate the points he’s making – some which he talks through in the text, and others which he leaves for the reader to solve. He also reproduces a puzzle from the Guardian (number 22445), which was about him, set by legendary Guardian setter (the late) Araucaria using words provided by Mr Balfour, for his 40th birthday. That’s a pretty cool gift!

(I love this. Araucaria’s pseudonym was taken from the monkey-puzzle tree (botanical name Araucaria), which is also known as the Chile Pine, anagram of Cinephile, which relates to his love of film, and is the pseudonym under which he set crosswords for the Financial Times.)

All this without even touching on the varied and interesting experiences Mr Balfour has had since he and his girlfriend left South Africa, which would have been great reading even without the crossword references.

I loved how this book was put together, and about half way though I knew that this would be my next 30-days challenge. I have about a week to go with 30 days of yoga, but I’ve just today completed my drawing lessons from You Can Draw in 30 Days – it’s only taken four months! So much as I love my 10-15 minutes drawing each morning, I’m going to replace it with learning to do cryptic crosswords.

I’ve tried this in the past, and I have a basic understanding of some of the clue types, so my challenge is to learn more. I’m not confident enough to attempt anything like the Guardian crosswords, but I have a couple of books designed for beginners, so I’m going to get them out and see how it goes.

By the way – can you work out what the clue in the title of the book is? (I couldn’t.)

Book 16/24: Yoga For Life

I didn’t know anything about Colleen Saidman Yee or her husband Rodney Yee, other than that they featured on a couple of yoga DVDs I’d bought. Turns out they are a pretty big deal in the big wide world of yoga, which I’m largely unfamiliar with – hence my not knowing about them!

Kramstable really got into Colleen and Rodney’s DVDs when I was using them, so I started following Colleen on Twitter. I was quite delighted a couple of years ago when she responded to one of my photos of Kramstable following her yoga sequences on the DVD and offered me some tips about keeping him interested in yoga.

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Yoga For Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom is the story of Colleen’s life, starting with her early life in a large Italian/Irish family in New York, who moved to Bluffton Indiana, where a teenage game of chicken on the highway changed the course of her life. The book tells of her early marriage, return to New York and four-year heroin addiction, the lowest point of her life.

Colleen then writes of how, after the struggle to kick heroin, she established a modelling career. She ponders the question as to whether her longing to find expression through her body would have led her to modelling in the long run; whether she would have become a model if a modelling agent hadn’t stopped at a restaurant not long after she’d stumbled on it and found a job at – and what, even with the break she’d had, were the odds she’d succeed as a model.

“Some people believe we make our own luck,” she writes. But she takes the view that what seems like good luck can easily turn into bad luck, and that bad luck can result in something good:

“In yoga we learn that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because everything is always in flux and rarely what it seems. The key is not to get too attached to any one scenario or outcome. . . . Life is sometimes beautiful sometimes ugly, sometimes sad, sometimes joyful. It’s a wild unpredictable ride. The best we can do is take the ride with love and a sense of humour. Notice your breath in the present moment, whether you consider it to be a ‘good’ moment or ‘bad’ moment. Because that moment is all we have.”

Colleen spent some time in India volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, a time which profoundly influenced her and indirectly became her first experience of yoga teaching. During this time she began to realise that “every encounter is sacred” and that everything will pass away. She writes that Mother Theresa had said even though everything is impermanent and could disappear at any time, that is no reason not to do your work.

“What you spend years creating someone could destroy overnight. Create anyway.”

On the theme of impermanence Colleen also writes about how clinging to what is impermanent prevents us from living in the present moment, and she tells of how distressed she was when her daughter left home to go to college. “I wanted to run back and grab her and tell her not to grow up and leave me.” I feel like this every single day when I think about Kramstable growing up and eventually leaving me.

Colleen continues:

“I have been studying and practising yoga for the last 28 years learning how to avoid clinging to what is impermanent as gracefully as possible, and to focus on what doesn’t change – call it the higher self, love, the soul, God, the divine, true teacher, essence, original nature, or the state of yoga – whatever you want.”

It occurred to me that this concept of impermanence connects strongly to what Brené Brown wrote in her book I Thought It Was Just Me. She writes of how, in a culture of shame, we see people as “us” and the “others”. The “others” are the people who we don’t want living next door; whose kids our kids aren’t allowed to play with; the ones we insulate ourselves from. But, she continues, we are the “others”. We are all one [insert unfortunate event] away from being “those people”, the ones we pity, the ones bad things happen to.

I think what this implies, and what Colleen is saying, is that it’s important to fully live in the present moment, but to know it’s just that: the present moment, and that if we get completely attached to it we’ll be unable to deal with what happens when things change, as they undoubtably will.

Likewise, if we get hung up on times things aren’t going well, instead of accepting that what’s happening is what it is, we can end up clinging to old pain long after the events have passed.

Of course, when things are hard, it’s difficult not to focus on the pain. Accepting that what’s happening is what it is, says Colleen, is something that she can grasp intellectually, but when something devastating happens, she’s still in excruciating pain. However, she says, feeling this pain is important. “If you can’t feel the fullness of any emotion you’re not fully alive.”

(I think I got a bit distracted here. Colleen’s comments on the impermanence of things, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, reminds me of a difficult time at work when I was really struggling. Someone who was struggling with the same issue I was stood up and said publicly that yes what was happening was painful, but “there will be an end point”. Realising that the painful events were a stage I had to get through but that it wouldn’t last forever really helped me to clam down and take things one day at a time.)

While on a camping trip with her brothers, Colleen was struck by lightning, an experience which she says “zapped” her into contemplating santosha – contentment. At this point in her life she had thought that she would only be content when her grades improved, or she got married, or she had money. She writes:

“You can wait your whole life and never happen upon contentment. The key is to accept what is and not allow yourself to be jerked between liked and dislikes, attachments and aversions. Accept what is, right now, whether it’s comfortable or painful.”

At the end of her time in India, Colleen was ready to search for something bigger than what she had been seeking – a boyfriend, a career, a family – but she wanted to be able to “serve in a way that would enable peace to prevail in [her] heart” while living in the modern Western world.

Her story continues through her increasing immersion in the world of yoga while maintaining a career as a model, her struggle with epilepsy, her second marriage to photographer Robin Saidman, and a miscarriage, followed by the birth of her daughter. She then talks about how she moved into yoga teaching and how she and Rodney eventually ended up together.

In respect of her epilepsy, which she developed later in her life, Colleen writes:

“The biggest transformation has been my acceptance. When I take my little white tablets every day, I’m grateful for Western medicine. . . . I don’t feel defeated any more. Instead I feel awakened to the fact that I’m not in control of everything. Maybe we’re born into bodies that challenge us to learn lessons we haven’t yet understood. All situations, no matter how painful, can be opportunities for growth.”

She takes this lesson into her birth story, where like so many of us, Colleen had expectations of what her daughter’s birth would be like and was disappointed when it didn’t turn out as she’d wanted it to.

I remember one day at pre-natal yoga my beautiful teacher Julia was speaking about expectations, and something she said has stuck with me to this day. She said, “You don’t get the birth you want; you get the birth you need.” To this day I am trying to figure out what my experience was trying to tell me; what I need or needed at the time.

Expectations can make us unhappy when they aren’t met. Colleen observes:

“We all have small daily desires. Something as insignificant as expecting ripe avocados at the market, then finding they’re all hard can make us irritable and impatient. When you count on a future-based result you’re not living fully in the moment. Expectation can keep you locked in a narrow tunnel with no broader vision. Joy is right here right now. The key is mindfulness, noticing when your expectations have taken you out of the present and made you unhappy.”

Colleen also relates a story of attending a workshop with yoga legend BKS Iyengar, who told her that her problem was that she didn’t take the time to let anything absorb. “You are moving too fast from one pose to the next. Perhaps you do this in your life as well. Slow down.” Colleen says that he was right and that since then she’s started to notice when she’s rushing mindlessly from one thing to another. It’s a good thing to notice when we feel overwhelmed and rushed.

I loved this book. Colleen weaves her story into 14 themes, ranging from roots, addiction, forgiveness, service, fear, love and peace. Each chapter relates her story and the things she’s learned back to the theme of the chapter, and includes a yoga sequence connected to the theme.

It’s beautifully put together, and even though my life is completely different from Colleen’s, I could relate to almost everything she had written. I think this is because she has captured the essence of the human experience in her writing: Beyond the superficial differences that make up the detail of our day to day lives, we’re all human beings and we’re all making our way the best we can in this unpredictable world.

The Dalai Lama has said that we are more similar than we are different, and I think this is why I was so easily able to connect with Colleen’s story.

I got a lot out of this book. It’s one I want to refer back to again and again.

Book 23/24: Changeling

You’re probably sick of hearing me say, “I didn’t know much about [author of the book of the moment] until I read the book”, so I’ll simply say Mike Oldfield’s story was nothing like I’d expected.

I remember when I was in Grade 7 one of the older kids at school talking about the experience of listening to Tubular Bells, and I’d built it up to be this amazing piece of music that would completely alter my mind. After that build up, I don’t remember when I first heard it, or even if I actually heard it before listening to Tubular Bells II, which was released in 1992. What I do remember is that around the time I was listening to Tubular Bells II, there was one of those end of the world rapture prophecies floating round. I hadn’t quite weaned myself off my grandmother’s religious views at this time, so I wasn’t too sure whether to believe this or not, but I clearly remember thinking if the world was going to end, that was the music I wanted to be listening to when it happened.

Also around this time I went to see the musical Hair (at the Theatre Royal), which I loved, and I had the cast recording on high rotation along with Tubular Bells II at that time. When I was reading the book I thought it was kind of cool that Mike Oldfield had been in the orchestra for the original production of Hair during its West End run in the early 1970s. Strange grooves.

And for with that rather long and rambling introduction, here’s my thoughts on the book.

It’s broken up into five groups of three chapters, and begins with an intense description of a rebirthing process Mr Oldfield went through in 1978 (the Exegis seminar), where he faces his demons and survives, an experience that he describes as resulting in “the huge blood-crazed demons that had been stalking [him] for the previous 20 years suddenly disappeared”.

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Most of the book is about his life from when he was born in 1953 to 1981; the final chapter covers the period from 1990 to 2006, and there are four short interludes written in 2006 and 2007 that cover his thoughts on Family, Spirituality, Fame and Rebirth. I liked the structure. It was hard not to feel the pain of the little boy who never fitted in, and whose family gradually fell apart as he grew up.

He writes of Christmas 1960:

My dad had made me a beautiful model of the Ark Royal aircraft carrier [he was into planes]. It was complete with little tiny planes, each on individually painted. I remember that Christmas like it’s locked in my brain because of that model. The fact that my father made it and hand-painted it himself really impressed itself on me. When I was later to write music, maybe that was part of why I wanted to pay great attention to detail, to make sure it was something really special. To be worthwhile, I knew it had to be really big, epic and important, not something to be thrown away. Perhaps those feelings go back to that wonderful Christmas present.

As a child, Mr Oldfield came to music as a release from his problems at school and at home. He writes of how he would listen to records and spend hours trying to work out how to play a certain piece: “It was like a switch went on in my head: I’d finally found something that I really liked and I really wanted to do. . . . I must have looked completely obsessive, but for me it was a way of escape.”

At the age of 12 he started playing regular gigs at the Reading Folk Club. His older sister Sally was playing in the clubs as well, with her friend Marianne Faithfull, and he says of the time that he he wasn’t really socialising, as most of the people he was around were older. He was using his guitar as a means of communication and escape from school, his mother’s mental illness and family problems. He writes:

I understood music like other people didn’t. I felt it and saw it very deeply, with crystal clarity. When I listened to a piece of music I could see all its components, its parts and how they fitted together. I didn’t just sit back and think, ‘oh that’s nice.’ If someone said something like that to me I would be furious with them, ‘What do you mean, can’t you see what’s going on? It’s brilliant!’ Music to me was something different, a vast kaleidoscope of magic and wonder. To this day my mind boggles at how superficially some people listen to music.

In music, he had found a way of coping with life. He writes that it was a sanctuary where he felt safe, it was something that he found interesting – and it was something that made him socially acceptable.

Mr Oldfield recalls his first music class at school after his family had moved from Reading to Harold Wood, where he had to conform to the rules. While he created beautiful harmonies, it wasn’t what the teacher had wanted, and he found the whole experience boring. However, he credits this teacher for introducing him to one of his favourite pieces of music, Sibellius’ fifth symphony, and he says that the beginnings of Tubular Bells started from him wondering how he could do something like that piece.

It was at this time that he was introduced to LSD and hash, and he explains that things wouldn’t have happened the same way without drugs:

That first experience might have flipped a few switches in my brain that led to the utter paranoia I experienced later, which left me feeling incapable of doing much at all for years and years. Through all of that came my life as it is, Tubular Bells and everything else. I wouldn’t put it all down to my drugs experiences but they made me who I am and made the music the way it was.

His experiences with drugs were relatively short-lived though. Following a horror trip in 1970 when he saw reality as it really was, which was the beginning of a decade of panic attacks, he says he’s never touched LSD again.

By this time he was waiting for his 15th birthday so he could leave school. In the meantime he recorded some demo tapes with his sister Sally, under the supervision of Mick Jagger. They ended up recording an album together under the name Sallyangie, but eventually Mr Oldfield felt as though he was in his sister’s shadow and he wanted to do his own thing.

The book continues to tell the story of Mr Oldfield’s first band, Kevin Ayers and the Whole World, which he joined at the age of 16. He notes that he felt like he was the young boy in a band of much older guys, and he didn’t think they took him seriously -they tolerated him, but he wanted to be as good as them. It was with Kevin Ayers that he first started drinking, which he says helped his guitar solo in the show become one of the wild points – like Angus Young of AC/DC (who actually doesn’t drink!).

After this band disbanded, Mr Oldfield continued working with Kevin Ayers and eventually ended up at Shipton Manor, owned by Richard Branson, having been given the chance to work on the album that would become Tubular Bells.

This was recorded over two periods in 1972 and 1973, and the book describes the huge amount of work he put into this album that became a monstrous hit – and how he signed a contract with Virgin that in the end committed him to 17 years and 13 albums with the label. On becoming famous, Mr Oldfield writes:

Eventually I realised that I couldn’t have any true friends any more, because I couldn’t trust why they were being friendly. . . . It’s horrible but I couldn’t see any way of avoiding the feelings of mistrust. To succeed in the music business you have to be very savvy and worldly wise. If anyone can rip you off they will, without a second’s thought. . .  The paradox is if you become strong and tough enough to deal with it, you could lose the sensitivity needed to create whatever it is, the music, the art.

Mr Oldfield goes on to describe the difficulty he had following up such a successful album (Hergest Ridge, the difficult second album), his increasing dependence on alcohol, and the release of his more successful third album Ommadawn in 1975. As the 1970s progressed the world of music was shifting to punk and Virgin, which was essentially a one-artist label, was feeling like a laughing stock, debating whether to drop the “progressive” label and focus on punk. Mr Oldfield writes that he wasn’t marketable at that time, and was constantly attacked in the music press. Consequently he lost his spark and music became a chore to him. It was around this time he attended the Exegis seminar, after which he felt like he was floating on a cloud. He decided he needed a new way of living and working – he writes that it was like starting a completely different life.

He writes of becoming a father, losing his fear of flying then learning to fly, and even going on tour, which he had refused to do in the past.

The final two chapters of the book cover 1981 to 2006. He writes of the settlement agreement with Virgin and another breakdown he had at the end of the Discovery tour in 1984, the break up of his relationship and the albums he made in a more commercial vein with actual songs on them (this was the Moonlight Shadow period). He writes that that last album he made that was full of songs was Earth Moving in 1989. His next album Amarok, was another instrumental album. Richard Branson had wanted him to call it Tubular Bells II but he refused. He said he wanted to do Tubular Bells II, but that wasn’t it. As a result, he says, Virgin didn’t promote it, and it didn’t sell well. He says this is a shame because it’s probably one of the best things he’s ever done.

It’s a single 60-minute piece, which was probably difficult to isolate a piece for radio or release from, and has been described as Mr Oldfield’s protest album against Virgin, and apparently includes Morse Code spelling out “FUCK OFF RB” about 48 minutes in.

Mr Oldfield finally did get to make Tubular Bells II, released in 1992 on his new label Warner. He describes working on it as a joy and that it, and therapy, helped him get through the break-up of his family, his second relationship break-up involving children.

The book ends with Mr Oldfield’s musings on “now”:

I’ve had to learn what I am and it’s not a musician, it’s something else. To me, a musician gets out his instrument and just plays or entertains. That’s not me at all: What I can do is transfer the essence of a feeling or emotion, express it in music. … I’m an interpreter, a sonic mood translator if you like. I can take the beautiful feelings you get in life, and the horrible ones as well, and I can turn them into aural sounds, give form to them in music . . .

From now on my music is not going to be cool, it’s not going to be hip or sexy. It’s going be hand-played and mathematical; it’s going to be as complicated as I feel it needs to be. I’m not going to care if anyone likes it or buys, it, which is exactly the way I felt when I was 19. . .  If I can somehow persuade people how to play again properly, to stop concentrating on how good they look on TV and really start to do interesting things with music, then I’ll try to do that.

I found Mr Oldfield’s story fascinating and knowing the stories has made me want to track down more of his work. I’m currently listening to Ommadawn, which I love and have on high rotation. I think I’ll figure out the Morse Code in Amarok next!

Post script: As I was putting this post together, I learned that Mr Oldfield’s father, Raymond Oldfield, passed away last week. In the book Mr Oldfield says that he has tremendous respect for his father, and that he’s learned how important it is to accept your parents the way they are. He learned in the Exegis seminar that “we look at our parents like gods” and that “if you don’t grow up and see them in their proper place, as proper human beings, you can carry on your whole life looking at them through the wrong perspective”. I think I know what he means there, and it’s a good lesson to learn.

On contemplating death: Book 21/24

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington (2014)

Book 21 - ThriveBefore I read this book, I knew of Arianna Huffington in connection with the Huffington Post, but that’s about all. I found out more about her on Gretchen Rubin’s “Happier” Podcast (Episode 65)  when she was talking about her new book The Sleep Revolution, which follows up on the information about sleep she presented in Thrive.

In the podcast, and in a similar interview with Dan Harris on his 10% Happier podcast, Ms Huffington speaks of having a wake-up call when she collapsed from exhaustion after working 18-hour days as well as being a mother to her two teenage daughters, and woke up in a pool of blood after fracturing her cheekbone and cutting her eye. This lead her down a path to reduce the stress in her life, cut back on work and sleep more.

In Thrive, Ms Huffington says that “over time our society’s notion of success has been reduced to money and power”. She says this can work in the short term, but over the long term she sees money and power by themselves as being like a two-legged stool, which is eventually going to fall over. Many successful people, she says, are now falling over.

She says that the way society has defined success is not sustainable, either for individuals or societies, and that to live the lives we truly want and deserve, we need a third measure of success that goes beyond money and power. She calls this the “Third Metric”, which is made up of four pillars: Well-Being, Wisdom, Wonder and Giving.

The book is made up of four sections about those themes, and Ms Huffington explores these themes through examining research, scholarship, her own personal experiences and experiences of others. Like in Big Magic, I didn’t find a lot of stuff that I hadn’t read about before, but I found the discussion in the chapter about Wonder on death and dying to be particularly moving and thought provoking, so I’m going to write a bit about what she says on this subject.

As we know, we’re all going to die. Whatever we believe happens to us after death, our life as we know it will eventually end.

Ms Huffington writes: “The closer death comes, the deeper we bury it, desperately putting machines and tubes and alarms and railings between us and the person stepping over to the other side of the mortality line. The medical machinery has the effect of making the person seem less human and therefore his or her fate less relevant to us . . . It allows us to not think about it, to put it off endlessly like something on our to-do lists we never quite get to.  . . . Rationally we know we’ll get to it – or run smack into it – eventually. But we figure we don’t need to deal with it until we really have to.
Why should we think about our death now? she asks. What good would it do us?

“A lot actually. In fact there may be no single thing that can teach us more about life than death. If we want to redefine what it means to live a successful life, we need to integrate into our daily lives the certainty of our death. Without no ‘dead’ there is no ‘alive’. . . . As soon as we’re born we’re also dying. The fact that our time is so limited is what makes it precious.”

Everything we accumulate in our lives, power, money, success, will be no more permanent than we are, she says (you can’t take it with you) and, while you can leave an inheritance to your children, you can also pass on “the shared experience of a fully lived life, rich in wisdom and wonder,” which seem to me like much more significant things to leave behind. “To truly redefine success,” writes Ms Huffington, “We need to redefine our relationship with death.”

She goes on to say that research has found that avoiding the reality of death leads people to hold onto customs and beliefs that contribute to stability (which makes sense to me). This includes identifying with groups based on race or gender or other attributes. It’s suggested that holding onto a group in this way can lessen our fear of death, because the group has an air of permanence, even if we we the individual are impermanent.

However, Ms Huffington writes, this holding on can be one explanation for things like racism and for ways in which we “demonise outsiders to glorify our own group.” She describes how the research (by Professor Todd Kashdan) found that mindful people who were willing to explore what’s happening in the present, even it it’s uncomfortable, tend to show less defensiveness when their sense of self is threatened by their own mortality. Professor Kashdan concluded that “mindfulness alters the power that death has over us”.

I found this to be one of the most interesting and powerful sections of the book, I guess because death isn’t something I think about too much. I was particularly moved by Ms Huffington’s description of the last day of her mother’s life, which she describes as “one of the most transcendent moments of [her own] life”. She writes that she keeps coming back to the lesson “don’t miss the moment”, which was her mother’s personal philosophy. The present moment, she writes, is the only place from which we can experience wonder.

She writes of maintaining a sense of wonder and curiosity, and says there are three basic practices that help her live more in the moment – the only place from which we can experience wonder:

1. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath for ten seconds whenever you feel tense, rushed or distracted. This allows you to become fully present in your life.

2. Pick an image that ignites joy in you. It can be of your child, a pet, the ocean, a painting that you love – something that inspires a sense of wonder. And any time you feel contracted, go to it to help you expand.

3. Forgive yourself for any judgements you are holding against yourself and then forgive your judgments of others. Then look at your life and the day ahead with newness and wonder.

“The only thing people regret,” she quotes English Poet Ted Hughes as having said, “is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” This brought to my mind several articles that have been published on the regrets of the dying, where on their death beds people don’t regret not working hard enough, but regret not having lived a life that was true to themselves and not having been braver, loved more, spoken up more and so on.

When I think about it, this is one of the reasons I’m doing the #yearoffear challenge – to start to get braver and do things I’ve been scared of doing, so that I don’t have as many regrets when my time comes.

That’s pretty heavy stuff! But I also got a lot more out of this book than just contemplating my own death; I even got a couple of new ideas for my #yearoffear challenge – so I’ve added them to the list.

Recommended.

Book 19/24: Big Magic

This was a book I’d heard of, seen around, glanced through occasionally in the bookshop, not read for an online book club that I’m not really in, heard other people’s opinions of (well one other person), and finally decided to borrow from the library.

Book 19 - Big Magic

I finished it in four days, which is probably a record for me this year, and I found it a very easy book to read. The basic idea of the book is that it looks at ways people don’t express their creativity and the things that get in the way, and gives you a gentle (or not so gentle) push to overcome your road blocks.

There’s six sections, and I found something relevant to me in most of them. I’d have to say that most of the ideas that the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, presents are ideas I’ve heard before, so a lot of the book is reinforcing what I already know (but don’t necessarily put into practice).

I like her take on this though. “Most things have already been done – but they have not been done by you . . . Everything reminds us of something. But once you put your own expression and passion behind an idea, that idea becomes yours . . .  Attempts at originality can often feel quite forced and precious, but authenticity has a quiet resonance that never fails to stir me. Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart.”

I think the book succeeds in doing this very well.

I was intrigued with Ms Gilbert’s concept of ideas being “a disembodied energetic life-form” that have consciousness and are driven by the impulse to be made manifest in the world – which they must do through a human partner. She believes that ideas are basically hanging around looking for people who can manifest them, and when an idea finds someone who could bring it into the world, it appears to them – and if you’re attuned to it, you can either work with it, or not. I believe in fairies, so this seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation to me.

This is covered in the second section, “Enchantment”, in which Ms Gilbert tells a tale of how she once began to work on a novel, devoted herself to it, but due to external circumstances changing she never finished it.  And how when she finally did get back to it, the spark, the idea had gone and she was unable to complete it. Some time later she was talking with a friend she’d met around the time she’d lost her novel, and it turns out her friend was writing the exact same story.

Two things interested me about this tale. First, Ms Gilbert’s belief that the idea had transmitted itself to her friend at the time they first me, and second, her reaction to finding out what her friend was writing. Instead of getting shitty that her friend was writing ‘her’ novel, and beating herself up over a lost opportunity, she chose to be excited and grateful that the idea was becoming reality, and that she’d played a part in making it happen.

Whether or not you believe in ideas having a life of their own, I think the big learning here is that being happy for someone when they do something you wish you could have done, or go somewhere you really wanted to go, or met someone you would love to have met is much better than lamenting over what could have been or feeling jealous or miserable because you ‘missed out’. Am I right?

I imagined from the tag line of the book “Creative Living Beyond Fear” that it would have a strong focus on overcoming fear and going out and doing things. Actually the chapter on fear (“Courage”) is rather short. It distinguishes between the fear within you that keeps you safe and that you need to stop you jumping off grooves or walking into traffic; and the fear that shows up when you’re trying to do something different or creative. And while this fear is unhelpful, it’s natural to have it. But she says if you try to fight it you can kill your creativity at the same time. So Ms Gilbert says she welcomes fear on her journey, but she makes it clear that she and her creativity are running the show. “You’re allowed to have a voice, but you aren’t allowed to have a vote,” she says to her fear.

She suggests that if you can’t travel along with your fear you will never go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting. This is a concept I’ve come across in a couple of other places recently, so it was nice to see it reinforced here.

The book is very easy to read and touches on a lot of very simple things that I often forget. Some of the great memory joggers for me included what Ms Gilbert says about people’s reaction to your work being theirs, not yours, so you should just go out and create for yourself and not worry about what people thing. And much along the same line, most of the time people are too busy thinking about themselves to worry about you and what you’re doing. You don’t need anyone’s blessing or permission to go out and create.

Perfectionism is a high class version of the fear of not being good enough that not only stops us finishing things, it also prevents us from starting in some cases.  Ms Gilbert says no matter how much you try, someone will aways find fault with what you’ve done, so you need to finish it, put it out there and move onto the next thing.

Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding – because that’s the moment when interesting begins.

Be curious, explore something and see where it leads.

If you get stuck, do something else. Do anything, but do something.

They were some of the messages that jumped out of this book for me. I enjoyed reading it, and found Ms Gilbert’s anecdotes from her own life that explained what she was talking about interesting. I haven’t read any of her other books, so I don’t know if this is typical of her style, and I found it very easy to read. It’s probably not for everyone, but even if some of the concepts don’t appeal, many of the messages are good things to keep in mind if you’re trying to be creative and need a bit of a push to get going.