Saturday, 9 September 2017

Building our relationship with a place day by day, just by looking

I like to think about our relationships to places. How, sometimes, we fall in love with a place as well as a person. Or, we love a place because we love a person — or even the opposite sometimes.

I spend a lot of time alone, but a lot of that is time looking out at the mountains. I love hiking in them on solitary weekends and letting the environment help me process what’s going on in life and where I’m heading. Those days make me feel light, happy, and at home.

I receive a lot from just looking and watching the mountains from afar as well, in the evenings or on lazy weekends. Each week I spend here I feel more familiar with the mountains that form the valley in which I live.

You can watch the mist roll in, envelop the peaks, and roll away again.

You can see the snow come and go, settling only momentarily in late summer months before taking up a more lasting presence as winter nears.

There’s the fresh morning light that makes the glacier shine and there’s the deep red glow of the evening sun on the rocks.

There are beautifully clear and bright days as well as moody, bad visibility days where you feel sorry for the tourists. And many days in-between.

If it feels like things are changing or falling apart, I look more to nature now than I ever have before. I think we have landscapes just like we have good friends, food, wine, music, poems and books.

I live in a very beautiful place, but I think there’s always something uplifting to pay attention to. We can get closer to nature or look for the little glimpses of it around us in the city. There’s the night sky, the water, the trees, the flowers, and the sunshine.

As you slow down, look, and watch a while, a lot happens inside of you. Anchor yourself to your home surroundings and let them grow close to you. Build on that familiarity with time.

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Just to say:

I now write about my adventures over here on my personal website. I also share on Instagram and Twitter

I'm hoping to get writing about books again soon, but let's see how that goes. For now, sending my warmest wishes to you all.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

19 quotes for people who love books from Books for Living: A Reader's Guide to Life by Will Schwalbe

Will Schwalbe's Books for Living: a Reader's Guide to Life was published earlier this year, five years
after The End of Your Life Book ClubBack in January, I wrote about how Books for Living had
helped me to slow down, make time for the important stuff, and ask others more often, "What are you reading?"

Since writing my review, I've been pondering the book and asking some questions about my own reading habits. First and foremost, why am I not reading as much fiction these days? 

To start addressing this, I recently read – and absolutely loved – Elephant Moon by John Sweeney and The North Water by Ian McGuire. Both books reminded me of how much I enjoy (and need) regular doses of fiction.

Reading fiction is how I wind down, escape from work and worries, and become a better me. The business and self-improvement books I can sometimes gravitate towards don't cut it.

To help keep this in mind, I've compiled some of the many quotes I highlighted, underlined, and applauded in Will Schwalbe's Books for Living. I hope that other keen readers will enjoy these too.

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1. On looking to books for answers

2. On being a librarian, bookseller and reader

3. Reading makes us feel less alone

4. Talking about books is the greatest gift

5. Searching for books to help us make sense of the world

6. On accidentally discovering books that change your life

7. One question we should ask more often

8. Don't ignore book recommendations from the universe

9. The best part of interrupting a book with a nap

10. Let others nap

11. Books improve us without us trying

12. Books and people are bound together

13. Every book changes your life

14. The love of reading is greatest when we don't know we're reading

15. Reading is an art

16. Books don't need to be thick enough to stop bullets

17. Reading brings with it responsibility

18. On beautiful endings

19. Reading widely is a way to become more fully human – and more humane

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Sunday, 19 February 2017

"Life – her life – depended on self-discipline": Reading Elephant Moon by John Sweeney to rediscover perseverance and wonder

I don’t think anyone’s immune from the doldrums. The same goes for loneliness. Just recently, I felt a wave of something tinged with sadness and just wanted to be comfortable and tucked up some place familiar. I didn’t know what to make of it. Maybe this is what loneliness feels like, I thought. Huh.

I’m a fine candidate for loneliness by any account. I intentionally distance myself from most people and live a life that’s really not that far from a hermit’s. But I’ve never thought much about feeling lonely. Alone, yes. But not lonely.

So, that’s how I came to need a book that would cheer me up, transport me somewhere else, and warm up my state of mind a little. Warm up might sound a little odd, but that’s what I wanted. I often gravitate towards books about the Arctic (and I love to travel there too), but that wasn’t what I needed. I was feeling out of character, and I wanted to read about an out of character place. I chose Burma during World War II.

After a few pages, I knew I’d chosen the right fiction prescription. Elephant Moon by John Sweeney is a book to uplift your soul and fill you with hope and the knowledge that life – while no doubt containing so much suffering – is a real wonder.

Life – her life – depended on self-discipline, on keeping her mind level and focused.

It’s a book that will show you love, great perseverance, and a destination in reach when it seems impossible – and elephants. Elephants (along with a joint favourite, the glorious emperor penguin) fascinate me with their intelligence, their bulk, their wise long-lashed eyes, and their compassion.

As the Second World War rages, the Japanese Imperial Army enters Burma and the British rulers prepare to flee. But the human legacy of the British Empire will be left behind in the shape of sixty-two Anglo-Burmese children, born to local women after affairs with foreign men. Half-castes, they are not acknowledged by either side and they are to be abandoned with no one to protect them. Their teacher, Grace Collins, a young Englishwoman, refuses to join the European evacuation and instead sets out to deliver the orphans to the safety of India. She faces impossible odds because between her and India lie one thousand miles of jungle, mountains, rivers and the constant, unseen threat of the Japanese. With Japanese soldiers chasing them down, the group's chances of survival shrink - until they come across a herd of fifty-three elephants who, with their awesome strength and kindness, quickly become the orphans only hope of survival. Based on a true story, Elephant Moon is an unforgettable epic tale of courage and compassion in the midst of brutality and destruction. 

It's a book that deals with serious themes, but as with life, there's also humour and great beauty:

‘As it happens, I’m trying to learn Japanese at the moment.’ ‘Why?’ ‘To pass the time.’ A reply so transparently nonsensical that she could not help being a little intrigued. ‘No one learns Japanese to pass the time, Mr Peach.’ He said something in a soft lilt, strange tones rising and falling, and then translated: ‘One fallen flower returning to the branch? ‘Oh no! ‘A pale butterfly.’ 

Read Elephant Moon if you'd like an escape from life for a couple of days; if things feel a bit too much, or if you’d like to just marvel at the courage and determination of someone else while you’re having much-needed time to rest and recuperate.

When you’re ready to resume being a warrior in your own life, this book will help put you where you need to be.

Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles on Sundays to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Books for Living: a reader's guide to life by Will Schwalbe - a reminder to slow down and savour life

Every once in a while, a book comes along that gets me really excited about other books. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe was one of them. When I read it back in 2013, it came at precisely the right time.

I was twenty, working for a tech startup in Barcelona for a year, and struggling. I'd had a course of EMDR therapy for post-traumatic shock the year before, and it made a huge difference to my confidence. But I still had some work to do. Living alone, in a small badly-chosen flat without proper windows, and abroad for the first time? It was a challenge.

I was pushing myself. I'm glad I did, because it worked out exceptionally well in the end, but I needed all the support I could get. I got a lot of that support from books. Reading The End of Your Life Book Club encouraged me to read, to keep working on Tolstoy Therapy, and to do something meaningful every day.

I included the book in my winter reading recommendations, and in July 2015, I shared Will Schwalbe's wonderful line about why The Hobbit might have remained such a favourite book of his: "I think it's because it shows that people–or hobbits, as the case may be–can find strength they didn't know they had".

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When I saw that Will Schwalbe had written another book, Books for Living: a reader's guide to lifeagain about the power of books, I knew I'd have to move it to the top of my to-read list. I read most of Books for Living on a train to and from Zurich one weekend, finishing it up on Sunday afternoon tucked up under blankets in my house (the book has that pleasant effect on you). The book is the author's opportunity – and our own – to ask, why is it that we read?

I’m on a search—and have been, I now realize, all my life—to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions that I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.

For Will Schwalbe, there are so many reasons that not reading is not an option. Books entertain, allow us to make sense of the world, help us to become a better person, and let us figure out our own answer to how to live our lives.

Chapter by chapter, Will Schwalbe shares books that speak to the particular challenges of our modern lives. There are thrillers, children's literature and cookbooks shared as antidotes to the noise, distractions, and screens that challenge our missions to live fulfilled and happy lives.

Most memorable is when Will Schwalbe connects these books to the real reason why he chose them; the story of why they left such a mark. This comes down to one repeated theme: people. There are the people he grew up with, the people who have now gone, and the people who remain a happy part of his life. Each one has a story, and it's a pleasure to read these.

Books, Will Schwalbe shows us, allow us to honour those we've loved and define how we want to live each day more fully. And, of course, it reminds us to keep reading. The books we read become a part of us, as do the authors and the authors who influenced them. What could be better for personal growth than absorbing the wisdom and life lessons of the ages?

Books for Living is for all of us who love to ask and be asked: "What are you reading?" When I next ask someone that question, which I hope to be very soon, I'll think back to this book.

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I’m not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started. Brains are tangles of pathways, and reading creates new ones. Every book changes your life. So I like to ask: How is this book changing mine?

Books for Living: a reader's guide to life by Will Schwalbe is now available as hardback or on Kindle.

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Sunday, 1 January 2017

Stargazing as therapy: reminders to look up at the night sky from Tim Ferriss, BJ Miller, Ed Cooke

One of my favourite books of 2016 was Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss. It was also one of the longest I read last year, at 704 pages for the hardcover. 

The title of the book is intriguing, and it delivers too. The content is heavily based on the Tim Ferriss Podcast – which includes interviews with some of the most interesting and accomplished people out there – but it also dives deeper into the tactics, routines, and habits that have brought them such brilliant results.

As expected, some things come up again and again. Meditation, morning rituals and setting aside time for pondering were oft-cited as secrets of success, but it was something lesser-mentioned that intrigued me most: stargazing as therapy.

Yes, we've all looked up at the stars before. And calling it therapy could seem silly. But it's something that I appreciated being reminded of. It's so easy to forget about the stars.

I feel very lucky to have my walk home from work. When it gets dark early in winter, I have the privilege of an unspoilt nighttime panorama with Orion above me.

After reading Tools of Titans, I now pay a bit more attention. I try to sit out on my balcony at night more often, or just look out the window after turning the lights off. I sit, admire, and ponder. It's my nightly free therapy session. Sometimes I need a reminder to do it and pay proper attention, but when I do, it's absolutely worth it.

As BJ Miller says in Tools of Titans:

When you are struggling with just about anything, look up. Just ponder the night sky for a minute and realize that we’re all on the same planet at the same time. As far as we can tell, we're the only planet with life like ours on it anywhere nearby. Then you start looking at the stars, and you realize that the light hitting your eye is ancient, [some of the] stars that you’re seeing, they no longer exist by the time that the light gets to you.

He adds,

"Just mulling the bare-naked facts of the cosmos is enough to thrill me, awe me, freak me out, and kind of put all my neurotic anxieties in their proper place. A lot of people—when you’re standing at the edge of your horizon, at death’s door, you can be much more in tune with the cosmos."

Ed Cooke, the Memory Champion and Co-founder of Memrise (who I've been so impressed by for years), shares something similar in Tools of Titans:

I'd just think, ‘Oh, everything feels terrible and awful. It’s all gone to shit.’ Then I’d [consider], ‘But if you think about it, the stars are really far away,’ then you try to imagine the world from the stars. Then you sort of zoom in and you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s this tiny little character there for a fragment of time worrying about X.’ 

Looking up at the stars and thinking about our place in the cosmos doesn't come with a price tag. If you can see the sky it's accessible, and you don't need to do anything to turn the stars on. You don't even need to travel. All you need is a clear enough day and the motivation to go or look outside.

Like Tim Ferriss says, "The effects are disproportionate to the effort". The stars are one of nature's finest beauties and they're just out there waiting for us to admire them.

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