Oprah Winfrey and one of the great spiritual thinkers of our time, Eckhart Tolle, present their 10-part series on Eckhart’s ground-breaking book, “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.”
Dr Chatterjee interviews people who inspire us to live better lives. A few of my favourite episodes: Jay Shetty, Julia Samuel, Peter Crone, James Clear and Laurie Santos. Listen here.
Brene Brown’s podcast is part interviews, part wisdom and a lot of heart. She also has a Dare to Lead podcast which is excellent. Some favourites: Barack Obama, Glennon Doyle, Guy Raz, Jon Meacham. Listen here & here
The fantastic Elizabeth Day interviews inspiring people about their failures and how they have grown and thrived from them. There are many favourites but here are a few: Gloria Steinem, Bernadine Evaristo, Julia Samuel, Mathew Syed, Alain De Botton, Phoebe Waller_Bridge and the wonderful Kazuo Ishiguru. Listen here.
I have been a huge fan of WTF for years. Marc Maron is a funny, empathetic and smart interviewer who is full of heart. No one really gets to the root of a person like he does. Listen here.
Julia Samuel has a podcast called A Living Loss and it is just what the world needs right now. Her empathy and powerful questioning will draw you in and keep you listening. Find it here. The episode with Elizabeth Day is excellent.
The new girl on the block! Coach, model and Positive Psychology practitioner, Saara Sihvonen brings her wisdom, warm energy and empathy to well-being. She is beautiful inside and out and she wants you to thrive and find your inner glow. Listen here.
Others on my occasional rotation are In Writing with Hattie Crisell, On Being, Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, This American Life, The Goop Podcast, Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, Grounded with Louis Theroux, Modern Love, Revisionist History and The Happiness Lab.
A friend of mine at work said she was dreading her birthday. Why? I asked. Well, I just don’t want to get older, she sighed.
It is better than the alternative! I retorted.
Yesterday was my birthday and I wanted to share my thoughts on birthdays: why they are important, why I feel they deserve to be celebrated with a big pop of champagne.
I woke up yesterday to an outpouring of love from many different corners of the world. People took time to mark the day as a chance to celebrate me and to let me know that I am loved. In this year, more than ever, this was a tonic I really needed. To have that reminder that while I may be far away and remote, the people I love are never far.
Birthdays are important, not just to mark the passage of time but as a way of celebrating you.
Birthdays creep up on you and there it is, you have made another turn around the sun. We are told, from very young, to be very excited about getting older. Every child jumps with glee when they age a year, feeling like they have won a prize. And then somewhere around 39 this feeling of excitement turns to a chill, a dread, a sinking feeling that time is running away from you. We start to worry that we are running out of time, that we haven’t done this or that yet. That our face and body are sinking. That we are losing something instead of gaining wisdom, stories, memories.
The pressure to resist this narrative is hard. Women have an internal clock that ticks, they have a face that ages and a body that droops. We have to fight back against the loud story that tells us we are now past the best date, we are expired, we are invisible.
I recently spent a lot of time diving into old photos for a project. And then spent another few hours reading old diaries. Some takeaways:
The past is a place of reference not residence.
Looking into the past I realize I wish I had appreciated my beautiful young face and body instead of wishing it smaller, better, firmer. It was just right.
We never know what we are doing but as we get older we get a clearer idea. I am so much better at listening to my intuition now.
The lesson from the past is to keep making memories. We want to live rich lives so we keep putting memories into a treasure chest.
Life is a necklace. We gather perfect memorable impactful moments like pearls. We want to collect as many pearls as we can. Touch them, be tender with them. These are the pearls of your years.
Keep looking forward. How much more do you want to do? To live? To be?
Find your values and live with them and not against them.
Be in the here and now. Taste and smell and touch it all. It stretches time and makes the days longer.
Somehow we are taught that it is bad form to celebrate ourselves. Better that we keep quiet and stay in the sidelines.
There is a lot of talk about habits at the moment. Losing the bad ones, starting new ones, using habits to build will power, finding a habit that will solve the problems of your life. The problem with habit talk is that it can draw out the shame gremlins and much negative self-talk. If the habits are unrealistic it is a straight road to disappointment and self-criticism. When I was in my local bookstore recently, I saw a ton of books on habit changing so it must be something on people’s minds.
What habit do you want to change or start?
These authors have interesting ideas:
Tiny Habits (2020) by BJ Fogg offers a simple and easy to follow solution:
You need motivation (the desire to do it), the ability to do it (the time and space) and a prompt (a reminder that says to do it now.) When these three things happen, habit forms. But, most importantly, you also have to link the habit to a positive emotion so that you want to do it. Take a new habit you want to try, maybe it is a daily workout regime or mediation or even writing in a journal and scale it back so that it is as tiny as possible. In fact, it will be so tiny that there is no excuse not to do it and you will even feel a positive emotion afterwards. Want to meditate for 15 mins every day? Start with three deep cleansing breaths. Then link the habit to a positive emotion, so that the habit will stick. Maybe play a favourite song (your personal anthem) afterwards, or have a lovely cold glass of juice, or stretch your arms over your head and smile. BJ Fogg also attaches tiny habits to his daily routine. He does push ups after he goes to the bathroom, opens a book when he is on the subway and takes deep cleansing breaths when he turns off the tv. The smallest tiny habits can make a big difference when they all add up. 1 minute of meditation can become 5 in a matter of weeks, a 10-minute walk can become an hour in a month. String together the tiny habits and voila, you have real, concrete change. Baby steps are the way to go.
James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits (2018) suggests the following: “3 R’s of Habit Change” and it goes like this…
1. Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior)
2. Routine (the behavior itself; the action you take)
3. Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior)
He also asks us to think about the impact of a habit: The short-term response to eating that chocolate bar is pleasure, while the short-term response of a run might be pain. But the long-term response is the exact opposite. Think weight gain over fitness. He says almost every habit that you have is the result of many small decisions over time. Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits.
If you make your good habits more convenient, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them.
My biggest take away from James Clear is this one:
“Every action you take is a vote for the person you wish to become.”
So decide: I am a runner and then you will run. Don’t run to become a runner. Run because you already are a runner. The habit will align your vision of yourself with the reality of who you are. I am a writer so I write. I am a photographer so I take photos every day. I am a meditator, so I mediate. The goal is not to run, it is to be a runner. This shift in how to see a habit as an extension of your identity is very helpful in getting motivated.
Think about that. In the doing we transform into being who we want to be.
So imagine yourself. Create a vision. And then start something because it is who you already are.
Take away inquiry:
What is the one thing I can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?
Julia Samuels, the renown British Psychotherapist, expert on grief and bereavement and author of the wonderful, This too Shall Pass, has coined a phrase that really speaks to me at this time. She speaks of a “Fertile Void.” We tend to see situations as black or white, this or that, either or. And it is quite common to see ourselves, in any tricky place or time, as having only two choices: To move forward or retreat. But there is another alternative and one that should give us pause to ponder. We could see this time as a ‘fertile void’, a place to sit in this discomfort and listen, learn, and travel inward to our interior selves. Imagine, instead of thinking we have to know everything now, rather say: “I don’t know, I am going to sit with this, listen and see what comes up.”
The reason this phrase resonates with me is because I have a very hard time being with things. I am discovering that real freedom is to be okay, despite and not because of circumstances. It is a hard one to get our head around but something to aspire to everyday.
In this ‘fertile void’ try reframing your perceptions about what is happening around you. Problems are caused by our perceptions of what is happening rather than what is actually happening.
A couple of things to try:
Breathe deeply in for 4, out for 4. Do this 5 times. Slow down. Notice the sounds in the room, your feet on the ground. Gently rub two fingers against each other and notice the sensation.
Make a cup of tea. Put down your phone and sip your tea slowly while doing absolutely nothing else.
Replace “ if only I could…” with “ I have/I am.” Write this down into two columns and see how the reframing shifts something.
A Fertile Void is a beautiful paradox. A place of emptiness where things can grow.
What do you want to grow in this space? What would you like to see differently?
I went to a lovely Yin class recently and the theme of the meditation was spring, renewal and decluttering the mind. It got me thinking about this poem by Philip Larkin. You can feel his jealousy as the trees are permitted to start again, get a second chance, while we all have to age. And yet, maybe that is, in fact, the trick and nature has all the wise and clever answers. Yes we age but we can always start afresh. While everything ages, while time moves forward, we can take heed and also be brave enough to change and start anew.
But he also acknowledges that there is a certain grief in change. Just look at a photo from 20 years ago and that pang of nostalgia will leave a stain on your heart. Where were you? What were you so worried about? Did you ever imagine it would come to this? How could time be so cruel and rob us so?
I have been thinking a lot about time and change. In this strange Covid world that we are living in, it seems time is frozen, or at least we are. But time is still moving and we are changing even if we are stuck, trapped perhaps, in our homes, the places we are living. On the one hand I want time to hurry up so that this can all be over and we can be free to see loved ones and travel. But in the speeding up of time we are also asking to age, to miss out on the present and to be looking away from where we are.
With spring comes rebirth, the start again, of the inevitable cycle. But with spring also comes the knowledge that it will be short lived and our lives will spin and change and age, whatever we do with it.
Mary Oliver asks “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And I ask “what will you miss if you are looking too far into the future?”
So begin afresh, be wild and embrace this one and only precious life. Focus on the here and now and notice what is changing.
Something to ponder:
What can you learn from the trees?
If you want to hear a beautiful recording of Larkin reading this poem accompanied by some clever animation you can watch it here.
A poem can teach us a lesson, like a wise sage calling to us from the past.
In this poem we are being asked to consider, with gratitude, the gifts of experiencing everything, the sorrows, the pain, the joy, the delights. In short, we cannot experience anything if we don’t experience everything. So, let that bad day happen, don’t push away the glum feelings, the worries. Sit with them. Invite them in as you would a day filled with laughter and friendship. Yin comes with Yang, the light only comes with the dark.
We have a tendency to expect everything to be just great, all the time. And if it isn’t, we stamp our feet and demand a do-over. But how poor we would be without the richness of feeling it all. I am not making light of hard times and all my empathy goes out to anyone struggling. But it might help to remember that there are lessons in what is hard. And that things will not stay hard forever. The one thing that is 100% certain is that things will change, time will move, the earth will turn. So in the meantime, why not try to make gifts of the hard times and feed them to yourself to make you grow?
What is your gift of Covid?
Mine is photography. Last April-June I took a photograph every day as part of an #isolationcreation series. I would never have done that, had I not been stuck at home. In fact, my creativity thrived on not being able to go out and take photographs; forced to stay home I discovered a love of still life. My other gift was being forced to sit still and just be. I am by nature very restless and can’t stay home all day without climbing the walls. But I read, I cooked, I talked to people I hadn’t connected with for ages. I went for walks in our one hour outside. My capacity grew through being forced to do very little. The gift was in the irony.
Here then, is a poem from the wise Rumi. Feast on it and think what your gift might be.
The Guest House by Jalaluddin Rumi
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
I am a reader, a big reader. I used to believe that if you started a book you had to finish it no matter what. I don’t stand by that edict anymore. If a book doesn’t ‘speak’ to you after you have given it a decent chance, then it is ok to set it aside. Life is too short to sit through movies you don’t like and read books you don’t enjoy. So be kind to yourself and let reading be a joy and not a chore.
Travel is out, seeing family is nixed, for many the dark days of winter are here so I have decided to let books be my comfort. When I am struggling to find something to look forward to there are always books, glorious books. Little worlds to roll into and sigh.
The End of Where we Begin by Rosalind Russell
(It is incredible and a must read. It’s a non-fiction story about resilience, hope and humanity told with grace and heart. What a fantastic read to start 2021.)
These are the books I am excited to read in 2021:
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. This has had rave reviews from multiple sources I trust. I hear it is the kind of book that you absolutely need to talk about once it is done. Sounds perfect for the heart of February.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel. From what I hear this one is captivating.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Am I the last one to read this book? I feel everyone I know has read it and loved it so maybe it is time.
Lustre a novel. By Raven Leilani. It has been on a lot of ‘best of 2020’ lists and Kate Baer ( the poet and brilliant reader) said that it made her gasp.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. I hear so many good things about this book. It also has Obama’s stamp of approval. So there is that.
Jonathon Franzen, Elizabeth Strout and Sebastian Faulks all have new books coming out in 2021. Something to look forward to for sure.
Books I have recently read and loved:
(I read so much in 2020, especially when we were housebound during lock down. This is just a short list of books that are hard to put down. Just what we need.)
What Kind of Woman by the aforementioned Kate Baer. She writes poetry about the mundane and sublime, making profound the little moments of marriage and motherhood.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evasisto. It won the booker in 2019, deservedly so. Written in the different voices of complex women and girls, it time travels, takes risks, celebrates womanhood and life and is brilliant page after page.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. This is fresh, clever and much deeper than it appears. While it is an easy read it tackles the subject of bias, racism and identity through the relationship between a white family and their black babysitter. Excellent.
Writers and Lovers by Lily King. Digested this in a matter of days. A coming-of-age story about a writer, a lover, a grieving young woman.
Find Me by Andre Aciman. I absolutely loved Call me by your name and also really enjoyed returning to this world in this sequel.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Lived up to the hype. Utterly engrossing story that takes place in the wild marshes of North Carolina. It has love, beauty, nature and a touch of mystery.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Rock and Roll! Great rollicking fun. I hear there is a 13-episode mini-series coming and I am here for it.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. People have been telling me for 5 years to read this and I was always put off by the length. Well. I digested in big gulps over 10 days. Just read it. Wow.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. I taught this for the 2nd time and decided to re-read it. Loved it even more than I had before. It is a graphic novel about a childhood spent during the Iranian Revolution. Warm., funny, human and heartbreaking. Just fantastic.
Howards End by E. M. Forster. The only classic on this list and also probably the best book of all. Adored it.
Nonfiction books I have recently enjoyed:
These books have fed both my soul and brain. I read them all with a pencil in hand, underlining sentences and then writing about them. I have learnt so much and feel enormous gratitude to these authors for their brilliance and their ability to put that brilliance on paper.
I am not a huge fan of resolutions. They are too much pressure and most of the time you fail and then just feel worse. There is something profoundly wrong about the concept of a ‘new you’. Instead, let us reframe that and consider what you like about the you that exists right here and now. Change is good, it is the only certainty there is, but let the change be built on the foundation of what already is.
How about this year, instead of resolving to change, we resolve to do a little dusting, a clean out and a shuffle through the closets of our lives to see where we are, what we like and what we want to keep.
This year has been overwhelming. We do not need to listen to the loud noise telling us to be better, thinner, shinier, richer, fitter. We can choose to listen to our own inner voices telling us to be who we are: just fine, works in progress, picking up gifts as we travel through time.
Ask yourself these three questions:
What was a gift that you want to take forward into 2021?
What did you learn this year? Did something shift or turn this year, did you drop a bad habit or pick up a new one, did you learn something about yourself?
2. What will you say yes to this year?
Find 3 things that you want to commit to. These should not be massive tricky things that involve unreasonable time commitments, or a lot of money and they should not be things that won’t fit easily into your life. Most importantly they must involve no ‘shoulds’ but instead they should be ‘wants’. So instead of ‘I should start running,’ make it something you actually want to do. And it could be as simple as wanting to call an old friend more frequently. If there is one thing this crazy year has taught us, it is that connecting with people you like is an easy, available, and free pleasure.
What do you want to take forward this year?
3. What will you say no to this year?
Again, no ‘shouldn’ts’ here. Think about something a little less concrete. Instead of ‘no sugar’ consider ‘no treating my body badly.’
What do you want to let go of this year?
Language is important and the way we write our intentions can change the way we move forward.
Keep it simple and celebrate the little things.
Be kind to yourself. This is not a race, this a journey.