Category Archives: Not in London

Stuff I keep forgetting to remember

It’s been five days since my return from my break in Chile and I remain well-rested, mentally de-cluttered and slightly browner than normal (even if I didn’t sunbathe, a hole in the ozone layer makes Chile ideal for roasting yourself.)

Within a week I expect normal levels of pale stressy-ness to resume. 

But on the off-chance that I can keep them in mind, here’s a few personal truths that I remember every time I go on holiday.

Less is Calming
Lighter is Better
Slower is Better
Structure is not only Good, it’s Necessary
Random works when Usual doesn’t

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Filed under Not in London, Random idea, States of mind, Time management

Postcard from Zapallar

Given that it never takes more than 20 minutes, it’s crossed my mind that my daily run over the course of the past week has been more ritual than work-out.

But that’s OK, I’ve got to start somewhere.

For all of 2011 I never got close to reaching any sort of stamina for running — at least not the level I’d mastered only a couple of years prior.

Finding myself, at the start of 2012, in a location of mind-stopping natural beauty for a 10-day break, I decided this was a motivational opportunity too good to ignore. I said to myself that all I had to do each morning was follow the trail from the house along the road to the cemetery, down the cliffs and onto the rocky beach path which leads back up to the house. A perfect loop with unnaturally spectacular views. If I had to walk part of it, or even all of it, that was fine as long as long as I tried to run it. Daily. Without fail.

And as of Day 7, I have.

Two things inspired me to kick-start my running again. Something I read and something around me.

The something I read was an article posted by my fellow blogger, Ruben. It tells the story of a guy who claims he needs help getting motivated to go to the gym. The author replied that motivation wasn’t the issue. The problem was follow-through.

Each attempt to “motivate” himself will only increase his stress and guilt as it widens the gap between his motivation and his follow-through, between how badly he wants to work out and his failure to do so. We have a misconception that if we only cared enough about something, we would do something about it. But that’s not true.

Having become the Queen of exactly this sort of guilt-stress over the course of 2011 regarding my inability to stick with running, I read on…

Motivation is in the mind; follow-through is in the practice. Motivation is conceptual; follow-through is practical. In fact, the solution to a motivation problem is the exact opposite of the solution to a follow through problem. The mind is essential to motivation. But with follow through, it’s the mind that gets in the way.

Here’s the key: if you want to follow through on something, stop thinking.

Thinking about whether I’ll start running again or maybe try something new — that’s fine. But once I make the decision that I’m going to run and that I’m going to run tomorrow when I wake up here on my holidays in Chile — from that moment on any “thinking about it” turns to excuse-making self-sabotage.

It really is as simple as the Nike advert says.

Something around me
While I believe that most in things in life can be solved by the right words at the right moment in time (in books or conversation), words fix the mind whereas nature (wordless as it is) cures the soul.

So on top of the pep talk brought to me by Ruben, what really inspired me to get moving this week was the call of the wild. Not just the views: savage waves smashing against a shore of rock, a string of 10 pelicans gliding by on their coastal patrol, the sight of the sun creeping down and then falling below the perfect line of a horizon — but the soundtrack accompanying the scene. This is the loudest water I’ve ever faced.

As soon as I arrived the gutsy performance raging just beneath the perch of our house seemed to lay down the gauntlet … ‘come run with ME!” … and how often do I get that chance? in my everyday non-coastal life?

The path from Cementeria de Papudo back to our house at Las Perdices

Even if it is only 20 minutes each day, the sharp descents and rocky paths and collapsed stone walls are a challenge. Though not as heart-stopping as the one-eyed German shepherd that sleeps in the shade of the bushes at the entrance of Cementeria de Papudo.

I’m sure I appear demented as I slow my pace when I come to the part of my run where the dozing canine crosses my path. Each day my aim is to assure him that it’s not fear he smells, I swear. I slow down, get closer, even hold out my hand (oh god …) while telling him I MEAN YOU NO HARM I’M JUST TRYING TO GET FIT. As the days pass, the expression on the dog’s face is becoming increasingly perplexed. I suppose he worries about my mental health. He probably thinks I’m an axe murderer. I used to think this of runners too.

Anyway, once past the cemetery beast …. my obstacle course along this small stretch of the Pacific Ocean is getting easier by the day. I’ve learned to trip faster down this or that path, not stop at the top of the next one and to keep very low as I get to the end and face the steep and tricky climb up to the house.

If I was here for another week I’d have to graduate to some next level – maybe a double loop?

I’m hoping that my 10 days working this circuit has done the trick and that I’ll remember Zapallar the next time I lie in my bed on a wintry London morning and tell myself that it’s raining and too slippery or that more sleep would do more good than a run.

Perhaps I’ll ask the dog to wish me luck before I go.


Filed under Not in London, Sport, States of mind, Words

The pleasure in doing the wrong thing

Here are some of my favourite wrongful activities:

  • Taking a bubble bath in the middle of the day, and even better, a weekday
  • Taking myself out to dinner while I’m working on a piece of writing, so that I can work alone but amongst people (and get fed)
  • Going to a foreign city, making little to no effort to see the tourist attractions and sitting outside a cafe people watching instead

The way I was raised, my basic personality, the attitudes of people around me — each tell me that all of the above are at least a tiny bit wrong. Eyebrow raising indulgences. Signs of brat-like behaviour.

I mention these guilty pleasures today for a couple of reasons:

  • I’ve just been in Madrid for a couple of days and it reminded me how much I love lounging in foreign cities (especially beautiful ones). I wasn’t a total sloth – I did take the photos above, I did stroll to Plaza Mayor, I did walk down to the Museo Prado (though I didn’t queue to go in.) But mostly I did things I could do anywhere – I wrote, I read, I ate, I got a pedicure (the friend who mentioned the state of my toenails can now relax) and in doing all these things I chose not to work my way through a list of must-do attractions. I can’t tell you how how much I enjoy this particular brand of laziness
  • The 2nd reason why I mention “not doing what I should” is because it’s that time of year again when a lot of people push themselves to “be good” … to lose weight, quit smoking, stop shopping, find a mate, change jobs, give up alcohol … [insert yours here]. In fact, I just read somewhere that the new name for the month we’re in is Janupause … we put our bad habits on pause for a few weeks until we revert back to standard operating procedures. And so, I thought I would share 2 cool things I read this week that suggest we should adopt a different approach to improving/fixing ourselves.

Forget normal self-help, this lady is brilliant.  My biggest complaint against self-help is just how annoying (and tedious and un-funny) the tone of it usually is… not so with Danielle LaPorte — check our her blog post on how she kicked the time management habit

In a similar vein, a former colleague of mine (and active blogger) recommended this HBR article on 5 things to stop doing in the year ahead– the lingo is a tad corporate and work-y, but the ideas are very wise. And for all of you who know me personally, yes I know I am SO guilty of all of 5 things — you don’t need to remind me.

Happy Reading … till next week


Filed under Not in London, Self-help, States of mind, Time management, Work

Abraham Lincoln meets Oprah

The story I told yesterday about my friend who lost her dad got me wondering about the connection between grief and gratitude … which through the magic of following Google leads down warrens brought me to the work of Dan McAdams.

A psychologist by trade, McAdams has compiled a social history of the sorts of stories that Americans tell themselves. These reflect the deep–down optimism that, as far as I’m concerned, marks the American attitude to life more than any other quality.

According to Publishers Weekly, McAdams analyzed hundreds of American stories — the Horatio Alger success stories, the early, middle and latter-day self-help classics, the writing of Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln and good old Oprah. He looked at confessions from the Puritans and he read the narratives of slaves. He checked out all the back copies he could find of People magazine.

And what he found was this — that Americans tell redemptive stories.

Stories of deliverance from suffering. And that these stories help us on multiple levels. In one piece of research patients healed faster if they had a redemptive story to tell themselves. The kind of people who say things like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” have a much higher chance of surviving than the rest of us.

The interesting thing is this — redemptive stories are not happy tales. They are not glossed over, upbeat, superficial approaches to dark times. The deeper the trouble, the harder the toil, the longer the suffering, the more power a redemptive story has in equipping us with the perseverance to make it through such hardship.

All we have to believe is that Good can come from Bad.


Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Identity, Not in London, States of mind


“At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves — that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas important to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.” Page 59

Reporting live from the 1307 East Grinstead to London Victoria service, I forgo my usual train habits to post this blog about what I would prefer to be doing right now: train-dreaming.

Long before I’d read the passages quoted in today’s post, I’d known that trains and me are good together.

Having a view sliding past a fast-moving landscape lets my mind expand and bounce around without any of the pressures of frustrated concentration. I save my thorniest problems for train time. Puzzles complete, possibilities explode and even poems unfold. Give me train-dreaming any time.

I wasn’t particularly pleased when several years ago I came across someone else with a lot to say about train-dreaming. I wasn’t pleased because I was envious. Someone else had stolen my thoughts, said them so much better and gone and published them! The _ _ _ _ _ _ _ !

But to prove I have matured since then I shall not attempt to outdo Alain de Botton in his brilliant descriptions of mind-wandering in transit.

“Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is almost a quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do. The task can be as paralyzing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand. Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks, are charged with listening to music or following a line of trees.” Page 57 de Botton’s The Art of Travel.

Which leaves me with another 40 minutes of this journey to indulge myself and do just this …

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Filed under Books etc., Not in London, States of mind

I love my friends but … (2)

So there have been 6 of us here at the shore and today we welcome our 7th member ( whose been on maternity leave from us but has come down from Oxford for a day of writing.

The 6 in the house include:
One Ace Couple
One Swedish Barista
The person we regard as an Editorial Wizard
A man called Joss.
And Me.

If you want to know more about us, Dave, our podcaster in residence is recording a special WG (writers group) edition of his show GBA ( I’ll send the link whenever the show gets produced but highly recommend you check out Dave’s series before then.

Back to the activities of our group these past few days ….

The evening we arrived (Wednesday) we set up home and ate a big meal together and since then it’s been a full-on schedule of writerly pursuits — hearty chunks of the solid solitude that makes writing possible followed by evenings fuelled by drink and debate as we critique each other’s work.

There are 6 types of writing spots found throughout our cottage.

1/ the conservatory table
2/ the conservatory’s soft furnishings
3/the dining room
4/the sitting room
5/the bedrooms
6/the back yard

All six give us access to an ocean view. And except for the bedrooms all give us access to each other.

Typically two people have taken the conservatory (often the Swedish Barista on the sofa and either me or the Editorial Wizard at the table.) Increasingly Dave’s been in the back yard overlooking the ocean or up in his room with his ukulele working on his song. The other half of the ACE Couple (
works at a small desk that’s technically in the sitting room but feels like it’s in the conservatory thanks to the huge pane of glass that separates the two.

During the writing day Joss ( stays in his room. Unless he’s reading the paper or on a food break. Or yelling from the kitchen, “this sink is stupid!” as he’s just done now.

The rest of us are spend the day working within ear shot of other people’s keyboard pitter-patter. The odd chair shuffle or a sneeze reminds you you’re not alone but surrounded by other tormented writers some of whom are entering that state of grace known as Being on a Roll. There are offers of tea for those on their way to the kitchen, but other than that there’s an unspoken group committment to considerate noise levels and gentle separateness.

Pajama-wearing is not only acceptable, it goes unnoticed. It’s possible that I’ve never spent such an extended period of time embracing my most scruffy self without self-consciousness… at least not surrounded by 5 others who aren’t family.

This is also the first time my clock has been in sync with the collective clock of a group of people sharing an experience.

We’ve been waking, sleeping, eating, writing, reading, fighting and playing exactly when I’ve been most ready to wake, sleep, eat, write, read, fight and play.

The looseness but togetherness of our individual daily habits combined with our group’s evening rituals has made this possible.

And that’s been possible because more than a group of hand-picked friends, we are a group of group-picked writers. And that gives us, despite all sorts of personality variations, a shared temperment. It gives us a natural right-working-ness.

It might even make us a team and not a group at all. Or, maybe, as one of us said during our GBA recording session, a group of people who share a writing friendship.


Filed under Not in London, On writing, Relationships

I love my friends but …(1)

We’ve lost internet access here at Lattern Cottage on our writers retreat …but through dogged determination my antique blackberry has pulled through and will permit me to post bite-sized updates to Panic Station.

Now – there is more to say about boredom. Who knew there was so much philosophical debate on the topic. Never mind a nifty framework or two. But we’re taking a break from exploring this state of mind (and its finer cousins which I promised to mention) so that I can report live from the retreat. Where boredom hasn’t stood a chance.

Since arriving here I’ve learnt something new about spending time with groups of people.

Here it goes:

The best groups to hang out with are not necessarily those full of people you’ve hand-picked as friends.

Sometimes the best groups to hang out with are those who’ve hand-picked you.

I mean no offence to all my lovely hand-picked friends. But it turns out I do love you more separately than all bunched together for days at a time.

More on this to follow … If you’re still talking to me

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Filed under Not in London, On writing, Relationships