A Friday Morning Coffee with Keef

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Today’s imaginary interviewee: Keith Richards

I’m never quite sure who’s going to show up for my peripatetic (and completely invented) brain-picking sessions with people I admire. After my last foray into imaginary interviewing — when I intended to focus on Virginia Woolf and ended up rambling on about the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius instead — I sat down one day not much later and made a list of people I thought I might like to “meet”.

I made two lists, actually, divided simply along the lines of life or death.

And armed with those lists, I quickly realised that it is much simpler to write about a person who is no longer gracing the Earth with their presence, particularly if they have been dead for quite some time.  In the era of #metoo (fundamentally important as that movement is), it is far more challenging to delve into the thoughts of a living person, particularly when they may or may not end up being outed as a sex pest.

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True. But you also see my sex pest problem…

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I turned up in my little patch of cyberspace this morning and discovered Keith Richards waiting for me.

Not really, obviously.

But after spending an evening this week watching Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America, the Rolling Stones’ documentary about their 2016 tour which culminated in their historic Cuban concert, there he was.

Keef.

With plenty, as always, to say. And, one can only assume, probably not all that bothered about whatever acusation anyone would level at him — the man, as he freely admits, has lived long and hard, and outlived many it was readily assumed he would predecease.

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Good question. How do you play with your time?

I’m not what you’d call a diehard Rolling Stones fan. I don’t have a standout favourite Stones song, but harbour soft spots for several (depending mainly on my mood). I know better than to put myself in the middle of any pointless Beatles vs Stones battles, because there’s actually no contest: the world is a better place for having both bands (I stand firmly with the girl from the taco ad on that one…“¿Porque No Los Dos?” ). And I can’t say I prefer any one of the Rolling Stones over another: I tend to appreciate them collectively more than I do indivdiually.

And yet, I have to admit there is something undeniably intriguing about Keith Richards.

Unlike the 2015 film Under the Influence, which focussed solely on Keith himself, the Olé Olé Olé! doco is about the whole band, though it does shift (seamlessly, I might add) from ensemble pieces to individual portraits of the band members. The juxtaposition of these different points of view enhances both: the concert footage of stadiums seething with fans is made all the more massive, while the one-on-one sequences achieve greater intimacy and poignancy. As the band wends its way (via private jet and with police escourts) through South America, we glean insights from each member into the various countries they are visiting and how they have changed during the fifty (yes, fifty) years that they have been performing there, into life on the road, and into life itself.

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Richards in Lima, 2016.

There is a beautiful moment in the film when Richards can be seen, initially from a distance, sitting poolside at a clifftop hotel in Lima, playing an acoustic guitar. The pool is turquoise, his shirt scarlet, the sounds flamenco. There is no doubting his musical ability: this is a man who, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s phrase, has done his 10,000 hours, playing everywhere from small pubs to gigantic arenas, or simply noodling away with an instrument and an endless succession of cigarettes, whiling away the time. Richards’ observation of Lima is that it has changed, markedly, since he first visited it in 1968: cities spring up “like tombstones” he says, as the camera pans out to reveal a skyline full of skyscrapers, resembling a cemetary more than one would like to admit.

Richards is a man who, quite clearly, knows how lucky he is — he seems, genuinely, to appreciate the trappings of fame he gets to enjoy, but he also appears to be acutely aware how fortunate he is to be doing what he loves (sorry, make that absolutely loves) for a living, and to be doing it with a bunch of blokes he has been hanging out with for five decades.

There is something that sticks us together. It’s nothing you’d ever catch us talking about. I feel I’m awfully blessed, really.

KEITH RICHARDS

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There’s a glimmer of it in here….

There is an occasional glint in his eye or a throaty chuckle that betrays the fact that he doesn’t half mind his own notoriety, either, but it’s nothing malicious — if anything, now that Richards is aged 75, these small glimpses remind me in some way of my own globetrotting gypsy grandmother who, at a similar point in her life, may well have had the same sense of mischievous glee in behaving in ways that were not generally considered to be age appropriate.

And finally, beneath all of this is a strong, unspoken sense that Richards knows just how lucky he is to be alive.

And that, for my money, is something worth remembering.

 

A Visit From the Philosopher Emperor

Marcus 1I find it hard to believe that it is almost March, and that this year I’ve only managed to get fingers to keys here in my small patch of cyberspace twice. I thought, when I began this post, that it was going to be about Virginia Woolf — but as you will see, it didn’t turn out that way at all.

Last year I threw myself into the effort of picking a Word of the Month each month and mulling it over, drawing out the meaning I found in it and making sense of how it fitted into my life. I considered doing something similar this year, but found myself unable to settle on a theme.

I did wonder, after watching Gladiator for the umpteenth time, whether I could focus on a list of lesser-sung qualities or pseduo-virtues, much like those offered in the film by Commodus to his dying father, Marcus Aurelius, but know myself well enough to realise I am not the sort of person to hold up ambition as something to aspire to. Ambition may have its purpose and its place, but I am much more likely to agree with Marcus Aurelius himself, the last of the Five Good Emperors, that wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance form the cornerstones of a good character. More to the point, I am also aware that many people have written about such ideals since…well, quite obviously, since Roman times.

I then began pondering whether I would write a series of monthly posts at all.  I don’t mind working under pressure and am generally unfazed by deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise), but with a new school and work year offering a far more complicated set of variables than I have had to deal with in recent times, the prospect of a more fluid approach than that I had in 2018 had real appeal. After all, these are meant to the musings — rather than the rantings — of the Daydream Believer, and the prospect of committing to a  monthly post seemed a little, as Commodus might have put it, ambitious.

Marcus 2So, having unfettered myself from all sorts of strictures, I gave myself permission to meander down some old Roman roads, following the trail of the Philosopher Emperor and his wayward son.  Commodus, according to Cassius Dio (who witnessed his actions and antics firsthand), was “not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.” Ouch.

On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius is generally well remembered: he was the last of the Roman Emperors to be associated with the Pax Romana — a period of relative peace and stability through the Roman Empire which, almost miraculously, lasted for more than two centuries. Our old friend Cassius Dio says that after Marcus Aurelius died, the Roman Empire turned “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”.

Before he departed this life, however, that old Stoic Marcus Aurelius had some things to say that are quite possibly as relevant today as when he wrote them, back in the second century.  “The soul,” he said, “becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”

These, history tells us, are some of the thoughts which coloured Marcus Aurelius’ soul:

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.

You have power over your mind — not outside events.  Realise this, and you will find strength.

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.

He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.

They’re not bad are they? It’s probably a shame that Commodus didn’t listen to his dear old Dad…but at least history has preserved Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Cassius Dio’s Roman History for us all to dip into whenever we wish to.

Marcus 3So that’s what I think I’ll be getting up to this year: delving into the thoughts of people who I happen to find interesting, diving into the depths and exploring topics and stories and ideas I find intriguing. I suspect that Virginia Woolf might get a look in somewhere — I know she tried to today, but Commodus must have had other ideas — and maybe Frida Kahlo, and Ursula Le Guin and goodness knows who else I happen to encounter.

It will be a twisting, turning, and somewhat eclectic journey, I’d imagine, but this — as always — is an open invitation to join me and whoever I visit along the way.

 

Festivities & Finish Lines

xmas 2Choosing my Word of the Month for December was an absolute no-brainer: it is, and could only be, CELEBRATE!

We seem to have a special investment in Christmas (particularly) and the Festive Season (more generally) here in the Southern Hemisphere.  Our Christmases may not be white, fur-lined or fir-filled as they are in all the traditional carols, but here they are blue-skied, sunny and trimmed with sand and surf.

More importantly, they represent completion as much as they do birth. There is a real sense of “we made it“… the school year is over, workplaces tend to shut down, and everyone gets swept up in a whirl of carol nights and Christmas parties celebrating the end of another year.

We all watch Love Actually for the umpteenth time, despite the fact our winter coats have long been stashed away.  Summer arrives, in all its splendour.

Stone fruits are in season — mangoes and plums, peaches and nectarines — and seafood and salads seem the obvious choice for dinner, particularly when paired with prosecco or a crisp sav blanc.

xmas 1And even though several people have commented to me recently that everyone seems so stressed at this time of year, but my own experience has been quite the opposite.  When I went to the grocery store the other day to do the last Big Shop before the Big Day, I was amazed by the number of strangers who smiled at each other and engaged each me and others in conversation — there was a palpable sense of Christmas cheer in the air.

So I wish you, and anyone who has followed the Blue Jai Creative journey this year, a Christmas worth celebrating this year. May it be filled with the things that warm your heart and nourish your soul, wherever you find yourself.

And me? I’ll be with my family, making Christmas last as long as we can until New Years Eve rolls around, enjoying long sultry days and balmy summer nights until we welcome 2019 with glorious starbursts of fireworks above Sydney Harbour.

We’ll be drinking white wine in the sun.

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Mandala People

Mandala 1November, it seems to me, is something of a forgotten month.

Not that it means to be, of course. Here in the Great Southern Land, November kicks off in style and ceremony, with all the pageantry (and absurdity) associated with the Race That Stops the Nation.   But once the Melbourne Cup has been run, all the celebratory elements somehow disperse, disappearing into the seven week slog towards the summer holidays and Christmas.

November, however, is not a month to be underestimated.

I have learned this, the hard way, in years gone by — and that’s why it seemed apt to made Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for November the most challenging I’ve selected all year: INTEGRATE.

Because it’s time, people.

It’s time to put all the pieces together.

At the year’s outset I wished my nearest and dearest (and anyone who happened to stumble across this small patch of cyberspace I call my own) strength and ease. And as time went one, we explored a different theme together each month, focusing on a specific concept. I invited you to connect and reimagine. To set your intention and find momentum. To seek alignment and focus. To know and understand your habits. To appreciate the value of honesty and perseverance.

Now don’t panic…I’m not about to start spouting stuff about “journeys” or “spiritual awakening” or “discovering your destiny”.

And please — feel free to insert an eye roll or three here. Seriously.

Mandala 3If you’ve read any of my posts during the year, you’ll know that’s not really my style.  Life is far too full of unexpected twists and turns (of both the totally awesome and not-so-crash-hot variety) for me to seek refuge in fluff and bunkum.

That said, nothing’s going to stop me from having the temerity to add the Mandala as a Symbol of the Month for November.

The mandala, despite its recent and frequent appearance between the pages of apparently calming colouring books, is an ancient symbol with its roots in Buddhism.  For Buddhists, the mandala represents nothing less than the whole universe — and if you’ve ever seen Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala, you will know how well this symbol fits with the concept of integration. It is incredibly beautiful (not to mention meditative and downright humbling) to watch as the monks use grains of coloured sand to form intricate patterns and pictures, working harmoniously together and producing a single unified whole out of many intricate and interconnected pieces.

Mandala 5If you haven’t had the privilege to see a sand mandala being made, you can watch one being created here. For me, it’s almost like watching a life unfold, which is why I believe it to be such an appropriate symbol for integration: it’s what we do, all our lives.  We take the pieces we have within our reach and we arrange and rearrange them until they fit in a way that looks and feels right for us.

In Jungian psychology, dreaming of a mandala represents the dreamer’s search for completeness and unity — those important, intangible things we are all searching for. We are all familiar with the niggling sensation when the pieces aren’t quite fitting together properly, or that the colours are somehow clashing. But we also know the feeling — the utterly glorious feeling — when they do fit, perfectly, and the colours seem to sing.

We are Mandala People.

All of us.

Anyone who is running a business or raising a family or generally trying to succeed in life is a Mandala Person. We are all trying to bring together — to integrate — all the separate parts of our existence and striving. We are all working on our own internal mandalas, making the picture as whole and complete as we can.

mandala 4It’s worth remembering, at this point, that the word integration comes from the Latin word integrus, meaning renew or restore. Each day is an opportunity to renew our commitment to bring all the pieces together, to restore our faith in the knowledge that every last grain of sand we add to our own internal mandalas counts.

Each day is a new beginning until, of course, we reach the end of our days. And once again, the sand mandala provides us with an exquisite reminder of our own impermanence: in the Buddhist tradition, as soon as the final grains of sand are added to complete the mandala, a lama takes his dorje and runs it through the sand. The bright colours fade into grey, resembling ashes or dust, and the sand is swept into an urn. The sand is then poured into running water, so that the healing powers generated by the mandala’s creation flow on and are extended to the whole world, so that it may be re-energised and healed.

Each grain of sand ultimately becomes part of something much larger, just as we are all small — but important, and individual — parts of a much larger whole.

So this month, and every month, I invite you to embrace the spirit of integration. Know that you, like everyone else, are a work in progress. That the only person who knows how the pieces really fit together for you, is you. That it’s perfectly fine to take your time — indeed, to take a lifetime — with the process of putting it all together. That every day is an opportunity to restore and renew.

We are Mandala People.

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In Praise of Perseverance

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These woods are lovely, dark and deep…

Perseverance is a word which makes me rather uncomfortable.

Not excruciatingly, wrigglingly uncomfortable, but ever so slightly ill at ease.

I’m not sure whether it is the fact that when you say the word aloud it includes the sound of the word “severe” — which, in my experience, is frequently followed by other unpleasant words like pain or punishment, or at the very least implies the possibility of (dire) consequences — but all the same it’s a word which makes me…squirm.

And yet, weirdly enough, I still chose Perseverance as my Word of the Month for October.

Why?

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…but I have promises to keep…

Well, simply put, I chose it because I know how much perseverance counts.

Coming from the Latin word perseverantia, meaning “abiding by strictly”, perserverance is defined as steady persistence in a course of action, particularly in spite of difficulty, delay, or discouragement.

Perseverance requires rigour. It demands discipline. It shuns shortcuts, and makes a motto of Robert Frost’s oft-quoted phrase “the best way out is always through”. It is found in long evenings that stretch into the night, and also in the small hours, before the dawn and the next day’s deadline. It is not an easy bedfellow — perhaps because when you need perseverance, sleep is one of the things you’re most likely to have to sacrifice.

And yet, perseverance gets the job done.

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…and miles to go before I sleep…

Because perseverance is all about endurance, and seeing something through until the very end, regarless of the obstacles and setbacks encountered along the way. It is more than practice. More than patience. It is simply more — because there is always something more to do, even after the longest day.

So even thought it is not something that makes me comfortable, I am grateful for perseverance. Because steady persistence is something I can do — and even strict abiding when it’s called for.  And, along the way — though further along, much further sometimes, than I’d like to admit — I can see that when I persevere, I progress. I improve. Perseverance may involve sustained effort, but in the process I, too, am sustained.

This October, therefore, I wish you the perseverance to persist as you continue on your journey, whatever it may entail and wherever it will lead you. Because the best way out is always through — and sometimes along the way, often when the path is most difficult, we discover things within ourselves that enable us to endure, and which sustain us for many miles more than we can even begin to imagine.

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…and miles to go before I sleep.

 

Still the Best Policy

honesty 3Honesty. 

I picked it as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for September, because here in the Great Southern Land September coincides with the arrival of spring. As I’ve said before, I think that this time of year is great for making resolutions — for me, September is about fresh starts and new beginnings.  And coming hot on the heels of last month’s examination of habits, I thought a decent dose of honesty would not go astray.

Honesty is something I associate with one of the Big Ones: TRUTH.  We all know that truth is up there with love, and beauty, and all the other things that Julian Sands’ character yells out the window in A Room With a View…not that I can recall even half of them now.

And honesty is a direct path to truth.

Except when it’s not…

Sometimes it’s a twisting, turning, back-tracking path, completely lacking signposts yet somehow full of potholes and pitfalls.

honesty 2It can be difficult to be honest, particularly with ourselves. Sometimes it’s easier to believe our own internal rhetoric, even when it’s untrue. Perhaps you’re a person who consistently underestimates the time a task will take to complete and, as a result, frequently fails to meet deadlines. Maybe you’re someone who takes on new things even when you’re at maximum capacity, and know that something else (usually you or those you hold most dear) will suffer as a result. Or, quite possibly, you might be the type who gives in to that invasive voice in your head telling you that if you do five minutes less on the treadmill no one will ever know. (That same voice is equally insistent about eating the second cookie, by the way…)

It’s not always easy to look yourself or someone else in the eye and speak the truth: doing so requires a combination of courage and compassion. But I believe we benefit greatly, both personally and professionally, when we bring honesty to the forefront of our dealings: with friends and family, with clients and colleagues, with everyone we interact with.

So this spring, I invite you to approach yourself, your life and the many and varied people in it with new honesty.

Turn your face the morning sun, and to thine own self be true.

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Every Single Day…

habitSome time ago, I was reading a book by Gretchen Rubin when I came across this phrase: The days are long, but the years are short.

These words resonated with me — not least because at the time that I read them, I was the mother of two pre-schoolers. My days seemed to be filled with repetitive, mindless tasks that revolved around keeping my children happy, healthy and (by obvious extension) clean, and that work — because it definitely is work — was often relentless and mind-numbing. The days were long (and the nights could be even longer), but the years were flying by with alarming rapidity.

Don’t get me wrong: being a parent is — without question — the single most rewarding role I have ever taken on, and this post is not about to descend into an extended diatribe about just how hard those long days and nights can be. (Besides, in my experience, even when a child has behaved absolutely diabolically while awake, that same child can somehow, miraculously, completely restore your faith in and love for them once they are soundly asleep — particularly if they stay that way for an extended period.)

No, the reason I recall that maddening yet magical part of my life is because I chose HABIT as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for August.

What now? Parenting is a habit?

Not at all. But I have been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, which tackles habits and habit formation head on, and brought to my mind the wisdom of the ancients, specifically this observation from Aristotle:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Now that my children are growing up and increasingly self-sufficient, I would prefer not to think about the tasks I performed with increasing Aristotelian excellence when they were smaller, save to say — as a random example — that I reckon I could wrangle just about any kid into a five-point harness car seat while blindfolded. Possibly even one handed.

habit 2Aristotle’s adage did make me think, however, about the things that I repeatedly do now — because these, my friends, are my habits. Sure, there’s all the obvious basic personal hygiene and basic living habits like showering daily, cleaning my teeth morning and night, eating a decent breakfast, that sort of thing. But what else, I wondered, do I do every single day?

Well, I read…and I write…and…if I’m totally honest I probably check my social media accounts…

I mean, what do you do every single day?!

And that brought me to another one of Aristotle’s little gems: Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

When we know ourselves, we know what repeatedly do. We recognise our habits, good and bad, and know which of these we want to cultivate with further repetition and which we want to eliminate. One of my friends, for example, makes a habit of keeping a gratitude journal, of taking time each evening to record what she is grateful for every single day. She also encourages her children to say what they’re grateful for too, and even if they don’t yet write it down she’s hoping, by repetition, to help instil the same habit in them.

Another friend makes herself a properly brewed cup of coffee every single morning. For her, this is a good habit: not only is it something that she enjoys drinking, but she also enjoys the ritual of making it. For her, it is an important act of self care (not to mention the fact that it provides a caffienated kick-start to her day). And that’s where self-knowledge kicks in too — my friend also knows that drinking coffee all day long is not good for her (or anyone), so she relishes that morning cup all the more.

Needless to say, the same combination of repetition and self-knowledge can assist in a business setting, too. Religiously checking your business bank balance won’t improve your cashflow, for example, but billing clients regularly, offering multiple methods of payment and chasing your debtors often will all help. It’s about knowing what you need to do, and repeating the necessary actions to make those things happen.

So I ask again: what do you do every single day?

Does it match up with what you know you could be doing every day?

Because, just like when I wrote about eudaimonia and human flourishing, I think those ancient Greeks were onto something. Sure — for a modern take on it, check out Gretchen Rubin’s book (she really does unpack the whole habit bag, even if I did get slightly annoyed about her frequent references to wearing yoga pants all the time), but I think — as usual — what we’re all aiming for is what human beings have been aiming for for thousands of years. And yes, the Greeks had a word for it too:

 

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So I wish you well with all those things you do repeatedly this August, and with the habits your self-knowledge asks you to cultivate in the future.

Sophrosyne here we come!