Sea turtle swimming under water.

Just Keep Swimming

Personal Diary

I remember seeing a newspaper headline once, asking something to the effect of “Why are optimistic people so insufferable?” Then, as now, it struck me as a truly bizarre thing to say. Why should we find happy people difficult to tolerate? I certainly don’t. For me, they’re a breath of fresh air and an example of how to embrace the chaos and unpredictability of life with a smile.

In my life there is no better representation of this than my grandfather. He is the ultimate vision of a grateful, meaningful existence. I don’t think I have ever seen him unhappy. Not in a plastic, “fake it ’til you make it” kind of way, but a sincere, beaming display of exuberance. He’s a human embodiment of the warm rays of the sun.

Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I want to be, but more often than not I find reasons to feel gloomy and pessimistic; forever seeing risk instead of opportunity. I’ve written about Being Eeyore before, and unfortunately that’s a frame of mind that’s lingered over me like a little raincloud for the entire pandemic. All the same, it’s crucial to keep pushing forward.

“Trudging the road of happy destiny” is one thing. At least you’re progressing in a useful direction; doing your best to work through adversity towards brighter days and greener pastures. “Working and waiting to die” on the other hand, as a friend of mine once said, encapsulates the pain of profound despair and is an entirely different matter. Passive resignation of a hopeless and bleak future is no way to live.

So where does that leave us during hard times? “Just keep swimming.”

This is not to say my spirit animal is an animated fish with short term memory loss, but the mantra works. There are many additional quotes from popular culture we could also look to, from Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life,” to Gandalf’s advice in The Hobbit:

“Always remember, Bilbo, when your heart wants lifting, think of pleasant things.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

The point is, finding hope sometimes means looking for it – through action. “Seek and ye shall find,” as they say.

This is where optimistic people are so crucial in the world, at least to me. They provide us pessimistic folks with an example of what a positive outlook looks like, when it can feel so foreign and fake.

Optimistic people aren’t insufferable, they’re irreplaceable.

Buddhist monk sitting

Gaining Clarity

Personal Diary

As bizarre as it sounds, “What do you want?” is one of the most difficult questions anyone can ever ask me. Not “what do you want?” as a roundabout way of implying “I don’t appreciate your presence here and wish you would go someplace else,” but as a meaningful inquiry into my hopes and dreams in life.

I used to pride myself on responding “I’d rather want what I have than know what I want,” but I’ve come to realise, while it is an honest answer, it’s also more of a shield to avoid answering the question.

I admire people who can easily rattle off a list of life goals without exhibiting any strain. Some of them even seem to relish the experience! I’m just not that way. I find it a truly stressful process. I need to sit alone, simmer, mutter, and grumble my way through a list, which gets edited, crumpled up, thrown away, and revisited numerous times before I’m eventually satisfied with it.

It’s meant to be an inspiring process that reveals the endless possibilities of life, but that’s rarely the way it feels to me. All the same, I think it’s a really important topic to meditate on, and revisit – especially when life beings to feel stale.

When I was in uni (aka college), I had a geography lecturer whose mantra was “Once you know what to think, you’ll know how to act.” He must have emphasised that phrase a hundred times by the end of term, and I’ve never forgotten it as a result. I learned a lot of valuable lessons in that class – some geographical, some not – and for that I’ll be forever grateful to him.

If you never spend any time contemplating what you think, want, or believe, how are you going to know what to do with yourself, what decisions to make, or where you’d like to end up in the world? In the worst case, you’d risk spending your life merely existing; whiling away the years until you realise it’s over and you never bothered to think about what’s important to you. That would be a real shame.

For me, clarity brings purpose, and aligning with purpose brings happiness. That’s why pursuing the question “What do you want?” is so important. It’s a process through which we find ourselves; achieving the goals themselves is merely gravy.

Silhouette of a woman jumping a chasm

Blog Fearlessly

Personal Diary

For as long as I’ve been a blogger, there has always been one rule that I doggedly stuck to: Never focus on personal experience. Avoid disclosing what I’m feeling, thinking, doing, or what my childhood was like, because nobody is interested in reading about that.

Honestly, in the past I would avoid referring to myself at all. It was broader trends and concepts that were important, not me. I was simply the messenger.

For some reason, I always saw personal journals as a cardinal sin I needed to avoid. They were absolutely fine for other people, but not for me. Every post, every article, needed a purpose. Every line was to be crafted with the reader in mind. To focus on myself was egotistical and unnecessary.

And really, in the context of political discourse, or analyses of topical matters relating to my profession, I do think that’s appropriate. If the purpose of a blog post is to convince someone of something, clearly articulating objective facts and logical analyses are the best means of achieving this. Relying on personal opinions isn’t going to help.

However, this blog has an entirely different purpose. It’s a space for me to work things through. If anyone derives benefit from that, I’m overjoyed, but that’s not why I post. This fundamental difference is hitting home for me this morning, which is leading me to completely rethink what I share, and how.

It stands to reason then, if I write for my own benefit, then I need to be fearless and thorough about it. Half measures will avail me nothing.

In some ways I appreciate the fact no one reads this blog. If they did, I’d probably start self-censoring out of fear of losing face, or offending people.

I don’t plan on ever sharing information about other people though; not family nor close friends. That feels inappropriate, and not my right to do. I will, however, aim to be as open and honest with myself through this space as I possibly can. I want to learn and grow as a person, and lying to myself will hardly achieve that.

selective focus photography of woman surrounded by people in the street

Finding Passion

Personal Diary

Many blogs ago I wrote about politics, and slowly, perhaps inevitably, I grew so angry and despondent I spent all day every day angry and spoiling for a fight. It was no way to live, and I eventually packed up shop and never shared my opinion on current affairs again.

Today, aside from my wife, there are few people on this Earth who actually know what I believe, which is just the way I like it. I’m far more interested in finding common ground, or better still, providing support to others in need, than stepping onto the battlefield of internet discourse. God knows there are more than enough people sharing their opinions online. There’s no need for yet another angry wail in the darkness.

After the political phase I took an interest in technology – particularly online technology – and became a tech blogger. I enjoyed that far more, and for much longer, but eventually my employer began to take an interest in the same topics, and my hobby passion soon became work, which gradually took the sheen off. In time, I stopped writing about that too.

And yet, my wife has often said I’m happiest when I’m writing, which makes it a true travesty that I do it so little these days. In the past I wrote because I wanted to be heard; then I wrote to analyse and explore emerging trends in my sector. With those two phases behind me, I wonder what’s left.

Like many others, I’ve spent the last 2 years in a limbo of anxiety and fear, constantly hoping the pandemic will run its course and leave us all alone, yet increasingly falling prey to pandemic fatigue and hopelessness. With politicians now talking about the “new normal,” I’m not left with much optimism, and the idea of holding on just a bit longer no longer seems like a productive solution.

So today, I return to a tool that’s always helped me process complexity, and work through blockages – writing. Not to stand atop a soapbox, or advocate for the new shiny online tool, but to find my way forward during a difficult time; find passion, not just begrudged endurance.

My plan is to post my thoughts every morning for the next two weeks, to hopefully develop a rhythm and flush out my mental pipes. I have no idea what will come of this, but clearly a different strategy is warranted. So I hope this works.

Running to stand still

General

I am absolutely appalling at relaxing. Today is my first day of a week off, and I spent the entire day on a list of tasks that didn’t need to happen. It was great to get them done, sure, but rest and relaxation were on the agenda too, and yet didn’t make the cut. Literally, I had ‘write’ and ‘nap’ as numbers 4 and 5 on my to-do list respectively, and I’m only just getting to write now, at the end of the day when I’m too tired to devote much mental energy to it.

I’ve learned through experience that short term goals are far more achievable than solemn proclamations that “I shall never do this again, as long as I live!” So for the rest of today, I’m going to sit on the couch and listen to music. Tomorrow, I sleep in, drink coffee and write in the morning, and then enjoy whatever takes my fancy after that.

When you live your life according to a never ending to-do list, obligations and commitments slowly assume a higher priority than serenity and contentment, and that just won’t do.

Nurturing the void

Writing

Which sin is worse for a writer, self-censoring or over-indulgence? I could have asked ‘why we write,’ but I feel I’ve done that before, and balking in the face of the twin fears of creative cowardice versus introspective navel-gazing seem more on-point tonight.

When we step beyond private, handwritten spiral notebooks and diaries and into the digital realm of blogs and self-published works, there is an immediate sense of being seen and judged. Likes, comments, page hits, tweets, Facebook posts, reshares. Intentionally or not, they become the metrics against which we judge our own efforts, where one cruel word is too many and 1,000 compliments not enough.

In a sense this is what drives us to post our work only to begin with – the hope that it might be seen and appreciated by others. Yet in doing so, we inevitably find ourselves staring into the soulless void that is the anonymous internet, and we freeze, then begin to second-guess ourselves – or at least I do.

“Should I use my blog to practice, to ponder, and to hone my craft, or shall I only share completed works with which I am wholly satisfied (if there is ever such a thing)? What if I post something and hate it later. What if someone else hates it? When is it good enough to share.”

There is no single set of correct answers to these questions, of course. What matters is our purpose for writing and sharing in the first place, and that is a question we must each answer for ourselves; not once, but many times. Many times, because self-doubt and fear of criticism are insidious, pernicious adversaries we must face each and every time we click ‘Publish.’

My personal mantra is “I write to think.” It is the justification and the encouragement I need to continue writing and experimenting. I feel happier and more accomplished when I’m writing, whether or not the end product lives up to my expectations. A work written is infinitely more worthwhile than an idea abandoned.

Likewise, we must support and encourage each other. I’ve heard enough artists and best-selling authors speak of imposter syndrome to realise it is an affliction from which most most creative people suffer. Each of us has experienced times where a once great idea no longer appears that way, and we despair as inspiration gives way to disillusionment and frustration.

A kind word can make the difference between a crumpled fist of anger, and a third, fourth or fifth draft attempt. Creativity is an endeavour to be nurtured and embraced, in both ourselves and others. Share your works without fear, because I appreciate them.

Déjà vu

General

I feel better when I write, but I find so many excuses why not to. And after a while, I forget it was even a ‘thing’ I once did, until I rediscover the joy, the release, the relief, and make another commitment to make it a regular practice again. It all amounts to a never-ending cycle of short lived, albeit well-intentioned, promises to myself, to reengage with passions I truly have that I never seem to stick with.

Re-reading the last few posts I’ve made here, it’s disheartening to see how little has changed since I I last contributed anything here 12 months ago. Work is still going a restructuring process in the wake of financial impacts from the global pandemic, which is also still taking place. Greater Sydney is once again in lockdown, and fingers are being pointed by politicians, newspapers, and social media, as to whose fault it is that we’re still in this situation 18-months in, while the rest of the world – it seems – is slowly emerging from the ashes.

I’ve spent the better part of the last year grappling with the seemingly Sisyphean task of trudging ahead in the face of never ending adversity. Rolling the metaphoric boulder continuously uphill, only to find another hill not far behind it. And all the while, the thought that a change to my perspective would improve my reality has not been far from my mind. Yet for some reason, diligent attention to my mental health has always ranked lower on the priority list than nearly everything else. Something I’ll get to later; only later never comes.

It makes me wonder, then, that rather than being a Sisyphean task, where a sustained burden can never truly be cast aside, I deal with something more along the lines of a recurring cycle of opportunity to make the right choices, and do the right thing, and ultimately treat myself more kindly. Each time around, I carry the opportunity to pause, recognise, and change. When I don’t enact it, the cycle is repeated once again. It’s not a boulder; it’s an unclaimed choice. Perhaps the sense of burden stops when I set the weight down, and consciously move on without it.

Dealing with difficult times

Work

All around me people are losing their jobs, and it’s impacting me far more than I expected it would. Breaking news last night reported that my last employer has announced 500 full time staff will lose their jobs, with potentially more to come. I was a casual employee there until April, and had I not managed to secure a contract position elsewhere until the end of the year I have no doubt I would have become an unemployment statistic myself.

Many wonderful people – some of whom I know, others I don’t – now find themselves in uncertain financial times amidst an ongoing crisis of global public health. It is difficult to see an optimistic way forward at the moment, which adds even more insult to injury. I worry there are simply not enough jobs available to soak up the impact to these unfortunate souls. And when my contract is up in December, I may still yet join their ranks.

The higher education sector has taken an absolute beating this year, as have many others, with many institutions having to make difficult decisions to stay afloat. I’ve heard rumours of other institutions folding completely.

We’re seeing arguments spill out into social media about who to blame, and I’m half expecting to see a string of industrial action events following the wake of the redundancies. In the end though, I worry they won’t do much to help the people who suddenly find themselves without work. When a university finds itself facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, the cost cuts have to come from somewhere. There just isn’t that much fat in an institution to avoid impacting staff.

There was a time when a job in higher education equated to security for life. I no longer believe that; my experience has shown as much. The times are different now, and we must adjust to this new reality – unfortunate as it may be.

This has to begin with prioritising our mental health. If we cannot roll with adversity and still find moments of joy and peace we will truly struggle. I have known the darkness that comes from self-doubt, depression, frustration, anger, and despair. Even in employment they still arise sometimes. Resilience and perseverence are crucial qualities to cultivate, and they must be honed and kept strong. This requires constant action, meditation, and attention.

Part of this comes from helping others, particularly those who find themselves unceremoniously jettisoned from organisations and institutions. When I was first made redundant in 2018 I felt invisible, forgotten, and unimportant. It’s critical that we show people in similiar positions that this isn’t the case, and that they still matter to us. The dark times will pass, but until they do it’s crucial that we look out for each other.

Monk hands

The Illusion of a Clean House

Sobriety

I’m absolutely terrible at relaxing, I realise that now. I was up at 5 am today (a Saturday in the middle of a long-weekend) because I get grumpy when I sleep in. I don’t know why; I love sleeping in. But when I do I inevitably end up spending most of the day crotchety and ill tempered, as though allowing my body to rest is wasting time that could be spent on more useful endeavours like laundry, yard work, or doing the dishes.

Once upon a time I would stay up until dawn playing Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, Icewind Dale, and other fantasy RPGs. I played guitar, wrote songs and poetry and would while away the hours day-dreaming about ideas for novellas and short stories. But somewhere along the line I went from easygoing and fun to dull and dreary, forever putting responsibility and commitment ahead of spaciousness and joviality.

Every spare second became an opportunity to be productive and useful – picking something up, putting something else away, planning for what needed to be done next, worrying about what I was omitting, forgetting, or ignoring. Lists, tasks, obligations – always living in the future rather than the present. It’s positively exhausting sometimes, but I can’t seem to stop the habit.

My son has been begging me to start playing World of Warcraft and telling horrible dad jokes again, because apparently I’ve become too boring, bossy, and judgemental – and I believe him. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – and so it does with me.

In re-reading these words I realise what an obsession it’s all become. There is a line where being proactive and productive becomes something else – something less helpful and all together more restrictive; where the emphasis shifts from cleanliness to control. When I feel helpless, I clean. When I feel worried, I clean. When I feel inadequate or self-conscious, I clean.

It’s as if having a pristine house will let me live in the illusion of control for just a little while, until something is out of place and needs to be resolved. Then the whole cycle starts again.

In early sobriety I was taught about how lack of power was my dilemma; that alcoholics like me try in vain to control the world around them and when we can’t, we get upset and either lash out at others, drink to deal with the anxiety of life, or both. I seem to look at a messy house as symbolic, as if it’s an indicator of the quality of my life or how well I’m performing and providing.

I don’t drink anymore, but I still have to contend with the anxieties of life as much as anyone else. I do sometimes worry that I’m less capable of dealing with the stress than normal people, but that’s neither here nor there. I must deal with what is, not with how I wish things were.

A clean house will not help me deal with life any more effectively than a messy house, but seeing the world through a place of serenity, acceptance and gratitude certainly will. So today, when I “clean house,” I plan on doing it internally – beginning with my frame of mind.

Old camera and photos sitting atop an old map.

The Environmental Impact of Travel

General

My family loves travel. It’s our biggest passion in life, and a topic of conversation never too far from our minds. We have a giant map pinned to the wall of our kitchen that acts as a reference and source of ideas, and rather than movies and TV we tend to watch documentaries on different places in the world that we want to learn more about.

Each one of us has a bucket list of new places we’d like to see, or locations we’ve already been that we’d like to revisit and learn even more about. We don’t accumulate possessions, but photographs and memories. It’s a shared avocation that continues to bring us together as a family, and even unpleasant events can eventually become entertaining topics of conversation.

We’ve endured the misery of gastroenteritis in Paris, having our connecting flight from Orkney to Glasgow unceremoniously cancelled without notice and having to frantically re-book everything to reach Iceland on schedule, and arrived at an AirBnB only to find our hosts nowhere to be found. They’re problematic and frustrating while on the road, but become memorable snapshots that add to the colour and vibrancy of a trip afterwords.

And yet, the topic of whether international travel is even ethical has begun to arise more and more these days, and it’s worth examining more closely.

Impacts

Reading through the headlines and horror stories, there are two main criticisms I’ve begun to see with regards to long distance travel: pollution and overcrowding.

Travel requires fuel, and international travel requires a lot of fuel – enormous amounts of it in fact. And when you are trekking halfway across the world, as we often do, the environmental impact of getting there can be quite significant. So the question arises, how is it reasonable for us to contribute to global warming simply to get away on a holiday? Why not stay somewhere closer to home?

To add insult to injury, once you arrive at your destination, you do so along with massive throngs of other travellers. News reports tell of anti-tourist protests in Barcelona and overcrowding policies in Amsterdam and Venice, while others report locals are increasingly having problems finding places to live, with the ‘Airbnb effect’ leading to significant shortages in local housing markets.

Cruise ships dominate tiny ports never intended for behemoths of their side, resulting in thousands upon thousands of people appearing all at once, clogging the streets and alleyways in the process and polluting the water with what one watchdog labelled the “dirtiest of all fuels.” Then, after several hours of disruption, they return to their floating city and head towards another unsuspecting town.

It would seem that one family’s relaxing adventure becomes another’s burden; another stone added to the crushing weight humanity continues to encumber upon the world.

Opportunities

And yet, were there no benefits to travel, there would be no incentives to engage in it, but the reality is this isn’t the case. Chief amongst these benefits are fostering understanding, facilitating learning, and connecting people.

The spectre of nationalism has been looming for quite some time now, with some countries adopting increasingly isolationistic, self-serving policies that look out for their interests at the expense of the global good. Once unified worldwide commitments to environmental protection and carbon reduction have begun to weaken and wane, and even in the face of pandemics like coronavirus, we see places where national economic growth is being put ahead of human welfare.

In the face of what feels like a retreat from global cooperation, it’s all the more crucial to continue to recognise and embrace the diversity in the world, and explore the many languages, cultures, and people that dwell here – and a key way of doing this is through travel.

Travel pulls us out of our comfort zone and makes life feel real. It presents us with new lessons and sensations, where things are profoundly different to what we know. It makes us stop and pay attention, and helps us understand what existence looks and feels like beyond our realm of experience. It encourages us to become global citizens and acts as a crucial counterpoint to the threat of nationalism.

Changing Behaviour

And yet, the negative impacts that travel has on the world and those that live here – human or otherwise – must not be ignored. It would do no good to foster cultural understanding if it comes at the expense of the very planet we live on. We need to be considerate about how we travel, and the lives we lead when we are at home.

This requires a constant, considerate consciousness about what we buy and consume, how we approach comfort and indulgence, how we commute and get around, and what we teach our children. If we are to continue to travel as a means of seeing the world, and learning about its creatures and its people, we must ensure we offset the environmental impacts of travel by changing our behaviour and being kinder to the world at all times.