Monday, July 10, 2017

Port Chalmers: the charming port

There is nothing quite like the feel of a port community. I have fond memories of visitng Lyttleton (Canterbury's port town) before and after the quakes, and feeling a sense of busyness; a kind of quasi-industriousness that permeated through the quaint quirky community. Now I am here in Port Chalmers - a mere 20 km from where I live (if that) in St Clair and yet it feels an entire world away. 
I still feel that familiar quirkiness I first experienced when in Lyttleton, a sort of rustic eclectic vibe of an ageless era that held the port in surreal suspended animation. Never changing yet ever changing. Busy. Vibrant. Colourful. Port people engaged in life.

Port Chalmers hums all day but mostly at night, as the commercial area of the port itself winds into gear. 
The town echoes with the thuds, crashes and bangs of ginormous machines; shipping containers swinging momentarily in mid-air while the empty bellies of naked ships await.  Trains roll in and out from the inner harbour port; an endless clack, clack, clack as the
night goes on oblivious to an approaching day.  Nothing stops. Not for a moment. Hundreds and thousands of dismembered trees lie sideways, stacked in neat orderly piles, each numbered, tagged, a destination in wait. How they don't get lost is anyone's guess. But so far from a forest they are - that lying in wait matters no more.
Figures in fluro vests and hard hats, scuttle around hurriedly, miniaturised against the monumental machines tasked with loading ships and keeping wharehouses full. Bright lights ensure the port is seen for miles around - a cacophony of colour - no chance of a ship missing its journeys end here.
Yet the town itself holds a quaint air from decades past. Old shops spill over with second hand and vintage goods; bespoke stores lend a unique voice to the main street and cafes attract weekend wanderers from the city. Port Chalmers - "Port" - is one of those places where a day could happily be spent wandering, eating, and poking around in numerous shops. 
I am here to dog-sit for a few days. It always feels like a holiday.  Why - when I have Dunedin at my finger tips?
Port has much to offer someone who prefers a community feel away from the dominant nuances of the city. Port has numerous walking tracks to explore, a modest but quality cafe scene, a wonderful collection of heritage buildings, picturesque marinas and jettys nearby,  interesting second hand shops, a supermarket and fuel and a library. Large cruise ships berth during summer and spring,  international ships come and go, bringing with them people from all around the world. These people come to Port - it is the first part of Dunedin they see. It may be the only part they see. They may stay a few hours or a few days - but they spend money in Port and then away they go. Gone.
It is this transience which gives Port its "porty" vibe. The transience I felt in Lyttleton. It's tangible. 
But, the community is vibrant and energetic; it has an "arty" feel to it, a place where creativity could be supported and celebrated.
This is how port towns often are. Out of the industrial nature of shipping, the noisey comings and goings, a culture is born.
Port Chalmers: culture creator.



Saturday, July 8, 2017

The importance of down time

People say we are "lucky", us teachers, because we get a two week break every ten weeks.  I don't think luck has anything to do with it. By the end of a ten week teaching term, teachers are exhausted, anxious and often ill, as they head into their term break.
I am.
During my two weeks "off", I know I will mark over 60 assessments. I will go to work and plan for my first week back of term three, and I will catch up on admin jobs that my normal teaching day does not allow time for.  I will sleep in a little, might drink a glass or two of wine and may even be able to escape for a few days out of town for a break. But I will always be thinking of things that I should be doing. This is the expectation that comes with being a teacher.



I will also be trying to get over this heavy chest infection I now find myself with. When I left work on Friday, many of my fellow work-mates were sick. It's what happens at the end of a high-stress, fast-paced term.  We fall flat on our faces. Teaching requires we give, give, give of ourselves constantly. Term break should be a time to pull back, relax, take in some down time, but so often it simply isn't.
Down time is vital for our body. A constant push-push elevates stress hormones in our system and we exist on a day-to-day cocktail of cortisol and adrenalin. This is not sustainable in the long term; it also carries health consequences such as increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, sleep issues, and could at its worst and with enough exposure, even lead to cancers. 
Never ever under-estimate the physiological power of stress.
So this term break, for me, is about pushing the reset button. Eating well; getting more sleep; getting some sunshine (teachers get very little of the highly important D3's available from UVB sunslight exposure as they're always indoors); doing some exercise; catching up with friends and family; experiencing things that make me happy. Getting myself well enough to go again for another frantic ten week term.

Down time is valuable for everyone - that's what weekends are for - if people are lucky enough to get one. Finding moments to take some down time in amongst a busy, frenetic lifestyle, can be challenging at best. Here's what I recommend:
  1. If you have a lunch break, find a sunny spot on a sunny day and spend 10 minutes with the sun on your face. Even more so in winter. The power of the sun is transformational. 
  2. Stretch
  3. On a weekend - leave town for the day. Find a place to walk in nature - a beach or bush track. Have a picnic; sit in the sun; just be.
  4. Get to bed earlier than usual.
  5. Practice some form of mindfulness - being in the moment. Find a quiet place and sit for 5 minutes. Take in the sounds around you - notice them.  Let thoughts come and go. Use your breath to keep you present. If your thoughts stray, just let them go but come back to the breath.
  6. Read.
  7. Connect with people who are uplifting and good for your soul. Leave the anchors in the water. 
  8. Eat well.
  9. Take up a new activity, learn a new skill, do something that forces you to focus only on that activity.
  10. Smile.
There never seems to be enough time in the day to focus a little attention on ourselves. Before we know it, our life is whizzing by, gathering momentum with each year as if clattering towards some tumultuous event. It can almost seem out of control at times like a runaway train.
Don't be that runaway train. Take control. Take ownership of down time. Claim it.






Friday, June 23, 2017

Defying conformity: nurturing creativity for a future of innovators

"Get a hair cut and get a real job" - the famous words coined by recording artist George Thorogood - reflect a time when creativity was not considered as a serious way to make a living.  In fact, I argue that the creative industries are still considered social outliers in terms of what is deemed acceptable for our sons and daughters to be pursuing once they leave the mechanistic education factories we call "school".  
Kids are still given advice by school careers advisers to pursue the more "academic" subjects of the sciences and maths, whilst subjects rooted in creativity are often suggested as a gap-filler. I argue that in today's rapidly changing world, classical science and maths are redunandant without innovative thought and the ability to develop an idea or process through to an end point. In a way that is precisely what subjects such as maths and science do, but in a more rigid, prescribed manner.
The game-changers of this world will be those people who can conceptualise the creative process from its birth to its realisation and apply that to any given context. Creativity is the future.
Sadly many facets of society seek to suppress creative ideas - we see this across business, education (of all places) politics and even the arts itself, at times, is guilty of this. Society wants conformity and how do we conform? We all think inside the same rigid unbending box. It's safe inside there.
All innovation begins with creative ideas. Have a look around you - every single object, application on the internet, the internet itself, cars, everyday items we take for granted - have been thought of, designed and produced. 
The world cannot possibly move forward without innovation and creativity. Yet we actively suppress the seed of all creativity by suggesting it as a type of "hobby", limiting it within the workplace and schools and applying a sort of "there, there" approach to someone who has chosen to apply their out of the box thinking in a way that earns them an income (but not a "real" job).
Sadly, society does not equate creativity with intelligence. Society tends to measure intelligence through success in academic subjects.  There is research which suggests that the overlap between creativity and intelligence is greater than we realise.
Intelligence can be loosely defined as an ability to acquire and use knowledge (so is rote learning "intelligence?); whilst creativity could be understood as the ability to innovate and conceive new ideas through the mental process of anchoring existing concepts. There-in lies the catch - we need some idea of existing concepts in order to have the freedom to innovate. 
Here's a quote I love by one of the most well-known innovators and creators of all time, Steve Jobs:
"Creativity is just connecting things up. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesise new things. And the reason they were able to do it was that they have thought more about their experiences than other people".
What Jobs is alluding to here is seemingly random connections of concepts may go unnoticed by people who are not creative; whilst those who are can grasp and see those connections. They can then do something with those connections.
Creative people also have the ability to work with their ideas rather than give up once potential problems arise; so problem-solving becomes a pivotal aspect of innovation and ultimately creation.
If, however, the environment one is in, stifles or does not actively promote innovative thinking, creativity is lost. When creativity is lost, we find ourselves back inside the safe four walls of our self (and societally) prescribed box.
Creative people are curious; they're not content to see things as they are, but rather seek to see things for what they can be; they are the boundary-pushers. 
Edward de Bono said "creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way". I argue that educators have an obligation to break out of established ways of doing and being in order to truly allow kids the freedom to be innovative, not just in the arts but in all facets of their school life - from the "academic" subjects right through to physical education. It is essential.

"There is a notion that creative people are absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true for they are in another world altogether"  
Mary Oliver

 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Stress and Living The High Life

There's' something almost unacceptable about wanting to live a happy, fulfilled, rich life - it's almost as if there is an innate streak amongst humans, to wish some small amount of suffering on one another. I find it interesting that in this era of "mindfulness" there is always someone willing to remind you that doing anything other than working like a slave,  marinating in solid stress and stumbling home exhausted each evening, is "living the high life". 

There is enough research out there now that demonstrates people who work in or are surrounded by positive psychology, are the people with the highest levels of well-being. Yet we are very good at condemning those who aim for this but at times falter.

To live a life with authentic happiness (not one necessarily created through social status - which is transient, or wealth - which is often a result of social status), but deep, profound authentic well-being, is not something one must ask society permission for. In fact it's crucial to our survival. But - we so often scorn those who strive to  attain this. 
Yesterday I got sick. I hosted a bunch of well-intended comments on my social media page which ranged from "get well soon" to "you need to slow down" to "too much living the high life". I find it amusing how some in my world feel the need to tell me what I should be doing (clearly I am living the high life, going too fast and it serves me right for being sick), whilst others do not feel the need to apportion a sense of blame. 
I find myself feeling defensive when I read these comments, as I know what my life is like and how I have ended up sick. One word: stress.
We are told "work-life balance"; but yet if we try to gain a little of that, we are slammed down by the societal moderators out there, who bring us back to the notion that each of us is really meant to suffer - even just a little bit. Where is the kindness toward one another? Where is the support? Where is the unity toward a common sense of flourishing and well-being?
It's not there; because to pursue the things that make us each happy (in my case photography and mixing that with hiking, mountain biking), is deemed to be selfish, unnecessary and "living the high life".
These very aspects which talk to our soul, which engage us with life on this planet, which connect us more deeply and authentically to the world around us; which "blow our ears back" should never be held accountable. Hold firmly onto those things. They are the antithesis to stress and the much needed antidote to the chaos and negativity that seeps through the cracks.
Make space - let the light in - shine - apologise to no one - be sick - get well - live your life - FLOURISH.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others".

Marianne Williamson


 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Draw: why we photograph

"Why don't you just look at it instead of taking a photo?" my American friend asked after I had insisted he pull over so I could photograph a classic New England barn, surrounded by pristine new snow.
I stood there, knee-deep in the soft, light whiteness, trying to capture the barn in a way that reflected how I saw it.
It got me thinking though - his question - because so often we feel a photo must be taken at this or that place, almost as a sort of proof we were actually there.

Now - I was here - fully present, aware of the snow slowly melting into the inside of my boots, my friend anxiously waiting in the car, and the light making it all appear so flat. I took the shot anyway. I wasn't pleased with it, but I had to have it. I needed to possess that moment - right there, right then.

 

I think about photography a lot. I wonder - who do we photograph for? Ourselves? Others? What do we do with the photos once they become a number on our hard drive, tucked away in some folder - not unlike old photos sitting in a dusty old album. Are they ever seen again? 
I own a high-end crop sensor camera. It's not a "professional" camera by any means and I confess to absolutely wanting a really really nice camera that has more capabilities than my current model. But there's a funny little voice that says "you can't have one of those until you're GOOD at what you do!".
What is "good"?
I see tourists here in Dunedin - bus loads of them - many with high-end expensive professional level cameras. They take photos of anything and everything. Why? I think scathingly that they can't even compose a decent shot and they probably use their camera on auto settings; and their $5000 worth of camera body is wasted. 

 

Yet they take their photos for the same reasons 
I take mine; because the subject matter is ours for a brief moment in time. Fleetingly, we own it.

 

We each see a different world through the lens of our camera - yes sure you could argue that Photoshop, Lightroom and other post-production tools make image manipulation that much easier, but yet, in a similar way that a painter captures a scene through his or her own interpretation with a brush, so too the photographer creates an image that reflects his or her own creative slant on the subject using available tools - or perhaps none at all. Not every shot requires further interpretation; some require more. It's personal, you see.

 

But still - why do we photograph?  I know why I photograph: to create and evoke emotion; to communicate visually an idea, feeling or context; to fulfill that creative need I have always had and finally, to share how I see the world  with others.

 

For the tourist hurriedly snapping a photographic record of a holiday; taking the cliched iconic "been there" shots which anchor the visual account of their experience, is no less an interpretation of a context than the best photographer in the world would be capable of. Photography is compellingly subjective.
It is also compellingly addictive. I remember when I owned my cafe in Motueka; I was hunting the perfect coffee, every single moment I made one. In this sense, I am hunting the perfect image, every time I open that shutter to capture what it is aimed at. I have an idea in my head of how I want it to look - my way of seeing it - and that is what drives and draws me to keep taking photos. I want to get better at interpretation of what I see and feel from being in that place, in that moment, at that time.

 

I sometimes see photography as the phenomenological way of seeing - and of being in - the world. Photography for me is ontological, although some may argue how can it be, when there is a camera lens between the subject and myself? The camera lens is myself.

 



Friday, March 31, 2017

The Anatomy of Loneliness


 
"
Don't you get lonely?" someone recently inquired of my seemingly hermit-like, solo  existence in my small apartment by the beach. "No" - I proclaimed - "there are people who live all around me". 
On a Friday evening such as this one, mentally exhausted from dealing with teenagers all day, my retreat into my small alone-space, is a welcome respite. The notion of not having to speak to another soul again (except of my own choosing) for an entire weekend, is a welcome gift. The mental and emotional withdrawal from others, recharges my batteries and renews my energy - but lonely? I wondered.
There is loneliness - and there is being alone. At times I feel classicly "lonely" (not having another person in my immediate vicinity who gives a toss, is in a sense, a loneliness experience); and yet I have felt incredibly lonely in the company of people I know. But chronically lonely?  When I think of what "loneliness" looks, feels and sounds like, I picture sadness, as if the two are synonymous. No - I do not feel sadness at finding myself on my own; I do feel strangely at peace with this quiet, solo existence.
So it is with great pleasure that I announce to the inquiring person that not only was I surrounded by other people living in this huge old mansion-turned-apartments, but I was in fact of the other genre of "loneliness". I was the lonely of "unfrequented, remote, isolated". This, I believe, to be some sort of sub-conscious choice. Perhaps a fear of rejection; perhaps a fear of "getting in the way"; perhaps a long-engrained distrust. So - I therefore am alone; at times transiently lonely for human adult contact and conversation; but mostly lonely because I dwell in my head, in some remote, isolated place. This is what separates me. 
This is what keeps me, alone.

 

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Mindfulness Buzz-Word

Articles about mindfulness and gratitude have become popular reading fodder for those seeking to clear out some mental clutter, noise and restlessness from their lives. The thing is, these articles all make mindfulness practice sound so easy, when the reality is that it takes consistant practice and daily dedication to implement it successfully into your life. 
One could easily suggest that being "grateful" every day for what life offers and being mindfully engaged in the process of living, should be second nature. It is a compelling reflection on society (possibly more so modern western industrialised society) today, that we are at a point where we must teach people how to undo the damage that needing to "get ahead" has done; that we need to learn mindfulness and gratitude. Wow.
I have been reflecting on this a lot lately. I used to teach Les Mills classes - Body Combat, RPM, Body Pump. All these classes are high energy, full-on, pushing oneself to beaty basey music for an hour. Then along came Body Balance (a "mindfulness" class loosely based on the tenets of Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates). This class was developed at a time when the trend was high energy group fitness classes - Body Balance was the antithesis to this. It drew a small core of people however, who could see the value in their daily lives. Now - two decades after its introduction, these classes are packed.

 

My point about mentioning these classes, is that we are taught from a very young age, to push; to achieve highly at school so we can achieve highly at life; to push ourselves physically in sport (the harder the better); to strive; to go, go, go. We get to earn our relaxation time during official public holidays or during our legally prescribed five weeks annual leave a year.
In-between times though, we must push ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally. All of this aimed at the reward of a "chillax" somewhere in the distant future - "I can relax when....." and "things will be better when...." We are taught to always be in pursuit of something. Check out this Alan Watts clip which outlines some of this thought.
We are not taught from an early age about self-care; about how things will only ever be as good as they can be in ANY GIVEN MOMENT. We are not taught to have an awareness of the moment we are in, everything is aimed at projecting us somewhere else - our education system is where this begins. 
I find myself thinking lately about how kids in school could benefit so much from "mindfulness" training as a method of mitigating negative behaviours, rather than punitive guidance after they have somehow messed up. 
I teach at a school where there is compulsory silent reading (yes - of hard copy actual books), for 20 minutes after lunchtime and before the final teaching session of the day. It is compulsory also for every teacher. It has been revolutionary in transforming negative behaviours; it has been transformative for literacy levels within the school, but the biggest benefit I see, is the kids come into last period relaxed and more receptive to learning. One could argue it is a form of mindfulness. Through reading the kids (and teachers) are in the moment - not on some gadget; not stressing about NCEA; not worrying about the coming sports tournament - they are sitting quietly engaged in reading. 
It is a first step towards mindfulness and it is a highly valued part of our school day.

 
But what of us busy frantic adults?
To be grateful for each small thing and to be mindfully aware and engaged, does indeed take practice. 
It is not as simple as "ten easy steps towards mindfulness" or "best tips on practicing gratitude". When the whole world is telling us to speed up, it seems almost impossible to slow down!
So, for want of yet another set of "how to" advice, here's what I (try to) do to enhance these things in my life.

1. I accept things as they are. "It is what it is". My karate instructor always used to say that, and he was so right. It is what it is.

2. I try to get some form of connection with nature everyday. This usually happens through a beach walk or a bush walk - anywhere away from cars, people, noise. 

3. "When doing dishes, just do dishes". This is another saying gleaned from karate. I always remember it every time I do dishes! It means, just be in the moment and be very aware of what you are doing at that moment.

4. Know that life doesn't owe you a living. 

5. I try to make positives out of my negatives. For example; right now I work part-time, so at the end of the pay fortnight I have very little in my bank account. Rather than thinking "oh my god I have only got $13 in the bank - I'm BROKE"; I think: "I have a roof over my head, I have a car to drive and fuel in the tank, I have food in the fridge, I have clothes and shoes to wear everyday, and, I have $13 in the bank - sweeeeeet". 

6. Lists. I write lists. These things help to sift through the must-do's and to help clarify if it is a must-do or a not-so-vital. A list also names the thing that is on your mind. This creates more space and clarity.

7. Smile at someone. Smiling is an act of being engaged with another person RIGHT THERE IN THAT MOMENT.

8. Get off the device (says she who is on the device a fair bit....). But let me tell you this; the device is a barrier. The device keeps us disconnected (not connected) from our true selves and others. The device lulls us into an altered reality. This is the thing - it is an object into which we project ourselves, taking us away from who we are.  

9. Make time. This is the big one. We are told to rush towards that ever elusive prize of "somewhere in the future where things are awesome", rather than to slow down, look - really look - and engage with the world around us. It could be as simple as sitting somewhere alone, quietly, for five precious minutes.

10. Don't wish for someone else's life. Don't wait for things to be "better in the future". Don't put things off until "the time is right". The time is never right; there is no time like right now here this very present moment. What happened yesterday, last week, last year, five minutes ago, has happened. It will NEVER come back or repeat itself. The future (tomorrow, next week, next year, the next hour) has not happened yet - don't project into it. It may not happen. NOW is what you have. 
This does not mean you shouldn't make plans or have some kind of draft plan for what you would like to have happen in future years, but the realisation must come that this moment now is a pivotal part of that hoped-for future.

 

One thing I have not discussed here is a personal spiritual belief. I have seen the rise and rise of "mindfulness" as a thing you make time to do. The attitude of mindfulness as a separateness from oneself does not sit well with me. But  I also acknowledge that we need to start somewhere, and makingntime for conscious connected mindfulness may be no different than making time to pray.
This post is aimed at discussing the all-consuming rush that society sucks us into and some simple ways of disconnecting from that and reconnecting with oneself and/or perhaps a spiritual connection. 
I use the term  spiritual very broadly. In New Zealand Maori - Taha Wairua - a deep sense of peace, contentment, well-being and clarity  through a connection to a higher self; or for some this could include a deep religious belief. 
Finding some small sense of clarity and purpose through mindfully going about ones day, could be the start of something wonderful.
So that's it from my limited perspective. There is more I could write but I have two delicious sons I hope to go and meet for coffee. To make that happen I need right now to get out of bed! And on that note - 
check this out!