It’s my birthday today. I love birthdays – not because they’re about getting older but because they’re about celebrating existence: the existence of those we love as well as our own. It’s affords us a moment to stop and think about the miracle of every life. It’s about being grateful that if it weren’t for this day, I wouldn’t have been born into this wonderful, crazy world. And it’s about being grateful that I have the chance to live in it for a bit longer.
Although mindfulness is mainly thought to be about as living in the moment, I believe that it’s also about being conscious of what has come before – and thinking about how every hour I’ve lived and thought and walked and talked and written and read and loved, informs the person I am today.
On this my 35th birthday, I thought it would be fun to share 35 things I’ve learnt since I stumbled into the world, many of which I’m still working on! You will see many of them echoed in my writing too.
Photograph by Jess & Sasha Mann
(1) Be grateful
I’ve come to the conclusion that gratitude cures just about everything, especially those pesky emotional gremlins like anger, anxiety, envy, frustration, depression, dissatisfaction. Gratitude shifts my gaze from the holes in my life, the things that aren’t there, to what I have. In 2010 I was introduced to a transformative exercise by the Harvard happiness guru, Tal Ben Shah. Every night, before I go to sleep, I write down five things I’m grateful for. It’s amazing how even a seemingly dud day is transformed by re-focusing on the things that make my life special. A kind word from a colleague. Tennessee hugging our cat, Seb, who’s just come in from the rain, stating ‘WET!’ and then giving him a kiss. Walking through the golden, autumn leaves. Taking note of these things before going to sleep stills the mind, encourages better sleep and has a knock on effect of making me more observant the next day: it trains my mind to notice the things that make me happy, that I’m grateful for. It tends to attract more good things too.
I write my five, ‘I’m grateful for…’ things in a Five Year Diary so that every time I make a new entry I can see what I wrote a year before. It’s a deeply healing, calming, restorative process, one that I do with my little girl every day, even though she doesn’t fully understand it yet. I want it to be a ritual she carries through her life.
(2) Be curious
If gratitude is the personal and emotional value I hold dearest, curiosity is the intellectual quality I believe in most.
When Tennessee Skye was born, I decided that even if I messed up every other aspect of parenting, I would make sure that she grew up with these two values: gratitude and curiosity. I believe that, held together, they are the key to a beautiful life
(3) Ask questions
Questions, well, they’re the natural consequence of curiosity. I know that I’m a nosy parker and that I can sometimes be a little probing (sorry for all those embarrassing moments, Hugh), but I also asking questions is at the heart of my life as a writer and a human being. Whether it’s putting my hand up in a lecture, asking a man on the bus where he bought his yellow cap from or teasing out the story of how a couple met, most of my sentences are shaped in the form of questions. Statements are finite and terminal – questions are expansive and live-giving.
This is connected to curiosity and asking questions. Interactions become infinitely more interesting and meaningful when I listen more than I talk. If I do all the talking, I tend to come away feeling rather hollow and depleted; when I listen, I come away enriched. And by listening I mean full, active listening rather than just hearing. It means tuning in with my mind, my heart and my body – about using all my senses, about making it about the person I’m listening to rather than about me. It’s one of the hardest things to do and I think I’ll spend a lifetime mastering it.
(5) Keep learning
This is connected to curiosity and asking questions and listening. Whether it be learning something about myself, about the food I eat, about a practise like yoga or Alexander Technique or teaching, about the person I love, about my characters, about a topic I’m researching for a novel like Retinitis Pigmentosa or international adoption, knowledge expands the perimeters of my life and my creativity. It builds me as a human being and as writer.
(6) ‘Only Connect’ E.M. Forster
Alongside curiosity and asking questions and listening and learning, comes making connections. I often tell my pupils that making connections between seemingly disparate ideas is the sign of an intellectually alive human being, that it’s what makes knowledge and understanding exciting and it’s about finding your voice too – no two human beings will make the same associations. I believe that there’s a complex and beautiful link between the emotional, physical, intellectual material and spiritual strands of our lives and that the more connections we make the more we are ourselves are connected to our lives, each other and our place in the world. I also believe that, ideologically, the more we connect the less likely we are to draw up barriers and to create polarities which lead to extremism and to the kind of crises we’ve seen throughout the history of human kind that we continue to see today in Syria.
This is the concrete side to the ‘only connect’ coin. One of the wonderful aspects to becoming a published writer and working as an artist is how it’s opened my eyes to how my job as a storyteller is at one with the roles and practises of other artists and people working to understand the human condition. I’ve loved collaborating with the illustrator, Ginny Baker and the crochet artist Vicky Stott as they’ve brought to life the animals in my stories. I’ve loved collaborating with Sasha and Jess Mann, two promising young photographers. I’ve loved collaborating with Quinn Simpson on how coaching relates to crafting character (masterclass on this to come). I’ve loved collaborating with Janet Weight-Reed on creativity and wellbeing. Every day I find new ways to collaborate with human beings who, like me, are trying to make sense of this strange and beautiful life.
Illustrations by Ginny Baker.
Meet Louis, star of The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells – and Hamlet, star of What Milo Saw, (or as Tennessee calls him, Hammy). I’ll show you Mrs Fox and Houdini soon too! Amazing creations by Victoria Stott.
(8) Be generous
Collaboration has allowed me to celebrate and promote people who, like me, are on their own artistic journey. Every step forward we take as human beings is a balance of our own dogged perseverance and the generosity of a kind soul who stretches out a hand and helps us onto the next stepping stone. When I designed this website over the summer, generosity was one of my guiding principles, I didn’t want it to be just about me, I wanted it to be a celebration of all the wonderful people I know and admire and learn from, who share my journey to a deeper understanding of story and the human condition.
(13) The mind, the heart and the body are intrinsically connected
This is a natural extension of what I’ve learnt from Tennessee. That it’s impossible – and indeed dangerous – to separate how we feel and think and inhabit our bodies and that these three components to being human and alive in this world have a knock on effect on each other. Think about how the physical act of smiling – or of slumping your shoulders – affects your mood and your thoughts . How tiredness saps creativity. How a brisk walk or cycle freshens your mind and lifts your spirits. How feeling happy and positive makes you walk faster, more purposefully and with a straighter spine. Practises like Yoga, the Alexander Technique, meditation, mindfulness and nutrition have all been hugely influential in helping me understand this concept. I’m a beginner in this journey and need to work hard on my habits and routines but I know that the more I invest, the more I’ll enjoy life – and the better I’ll write. The interaction between heart, mind and body is also my way of understanding character and of exploring their actions and reactions as they make their way through my stories.
I recently listened to a wonderful BBC Radio 4 interview about finding the remains of famous people like Cervantes, the Mona Lisa and Richard III. The sociologist Tiffany Jenkins summed it up brilliantly:
Our bodies tell the story of our lives.
(14) Play is a serious matter
Hugh (along with Tennessee) transformed my understanding of teaching and learning by reminding me that one of our most serious roles as educators is to allow our pupils to experience exploratory play. He is one of those teachers you long your child to have: child-focused, inspiring, fun, open-minded. Little upsets him more than teachers who spend their lessons asking, ‘guess what’s in my head’ questions. He believes in starting from the position of a student, taking where they are, what they know, what they’ve experienced, how they see the world and using that to explore, playfully, a literary concept or a dramatic text. It’s hugely empowering and much more meaningful than being didactic. There’s an energy to play, a momentum, an openness to stumbling on the unexpected which brings us closer to the truth. It’s a practise I’m learning to bring to my writing.
(15) Talk to strangers
See my post on this. It’s vital to my writing life and to my life as a human being. It’s where I do my research on the human condition which is the stuff of my novels.
(16) Mark the moment
This links to point 1: gratitude. It’s about stopping and looking and appreciating. Whether it’s about taking a breath, smiling and acknowledging a special moment, making cake for a birthday, cooking a meal together for an anniversary, writing a card to loved one, tying a ribbon to a balloon or making a diary entry, it’s about acknowledging that life is made of moments and that most of those moments are pretty special and deserve to be celebrated.
Walking is as important to me as breathing. It’s my daily meditation. The place where I’m completely alive to the moment. It’s where I make connections that inform my stories. It’s where I get to know my characters. There’s something about the rhythm of walking, the way your breath flows in and out of your body, the connection of feet to earth, the awareness of the shifts in a day or a season, that makes walking the most natural and powerful exercise in the world.
(18) Be an actor, not a reactor
The greatest influence on my psychological understanding of the world and my life is Victor Frankl. Reading his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, changed my life. He talks about how, the last human freedom, is to choose your response to any given situation rather than letting external factors shape your thoughts and actions. It’s the hardest thing to do in the world but the most empowering too. It’s about being active rather than passive in your life – which is a key to writing good characters and good stories too. Engaging characters make decisions, they don’t just have things happen to them.
In his words:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
(19) Make your own family
This is going to be most controversial point. It’s a deeply personal belief that many won’t agree with – I don’t mean to cause offence, instead, my intention is to give hope to those who, like me, haven’t had the joy of a solid family unit to grow up in. Blood ties can be amazing – I have witnessed some of the most beautiful relationships between members of a conventional family (connected by a family tree with a similar genetic make-up). My little girl, Tennessee Skye, is a magic mix of me and the man I love most in the world: it feels like such an honour that this awesome little girl that is an expression of our love in both a spiritual and biological way.
But blood ties are only part of the story. For me, true family involves those people who act like family, who live with me day by day, who share my journey and let me share theirs, who understand me for who I am and who celebrate my strengths whilst helping me to work on my weaknesses. Above all, it’s about the people who allow me to be the very best version of myself that I can be.
My expansive view of family stems, in part, from my experience growing up: I am very close to my mother (mama) but others have filled in the gaps left by absent family members. I have also witnessed how powerful adoption can be thorough my godson and my godmother – adoption is the subject of my third novel coming out in January 2017. My writing is filled with gloriously cobbled together families. In What Milo Saw, Milo finds a brother in Al and a father figure in Tripi. In The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells I go much further – I challenge the very notion of biological motherhood.
Ultimately, this is what I mean: our blood ties don’t and shouldn’t define us. We should define ourselves by the people who choose to have in our lives. I have many sisters and many mothers and many aunts and uncles and cousins and fathers, many of whom share no blood tie with me. I’ve known some of them for 35 years – I’ve known some of them for 6 months. They’re my true family: a beautiful, ever evolving, organic entity that gives me roots and wings. You know who you are. Thank you.
(20) Believe in – and be open to – the signs
See my post on this. Life conspires to bring you the things you need to fulfil your calling – you just need to knock on the doors, to keep your eyes open and to keep working at what you love. One of my favourite words is echo: calling out into the cave of the world and waiting for that glorious response that affirms your voice and your existence.
(21) Find and express your voice
Finding your voice is a much discussed and oft confused subject, especially for writers. This is how I see it: it’s about identifying your unique combination of passions, your obsessions, your loves, your values and throwing those into your particular creative cauldron, stirring hard and believing, absolutely, that the magic will bubble to the surface. It took me a while to write my first published novel, What Milo Saw, but the minute I’d written the first draft I knew that I’d found a way of writing about the world that resonated with my values, with what mattered to me. I write from several points of view. I write about issues that reflect the way we live now. I write about old people and children. I write about people who’ve been scarred by life but use those scars to reach higher. I write about ordinary people because they’re far more interesting than shiny people. I write about family in the broadest, richest sense of the world. I write about the funny, quirky bits of life. I write about the sad bits of life. I write about disappointment but also always about hope. I’ve found my voice and the chance to express that voice through the novels I write is the greatest gift in my life.
(22) Don’t follow your dreams, guide them: be bold
Another lesson from Hugh, and another hard one. Whenever I’m scared to do that thing I know I need to do to fulfil my calling in life, to make my dreams come true, Hugh says:
You won’t learnt to swim until you let go of the edge.
Goethe said something similar:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now
I recently took part in The Eagle House Children’s Literary Festival, a wonderful event filled with awesome children and writers. In every book I signed I wrote, ‘follow your dreams,’ because it’s a message I feel the children needed to hear and have written down for them. Dreams are delicate creatures that get scared off easily. But something troubled me about my phrasing. I didn’t like the word follow. I wish I could recall those copies – and I’m happy to amend any that get sent my way- because following is a bit passive for my liking. It’s of the ‘wait and see what happens to you,’ school of thought. I’ve never lived my life like that. I’m a knocker on doors (more than that – I’m a door basher, a thuggish kick doors in type). I believe in taking your dreams by the scruff of the neck and guiding them to where they’re meant to take you.
(23) Eat happy food
Again, a personal and controversial point. Eating sunshine-filled, natural, whole food that comes from the earth, an earth that is loved for and nourished, food that is harvest by people who are paid fairly and treated well, makes my mind, heart and body sing. Eating processed food and eating animals or products derived from animals, prevents me from living fully. Like I said, it’s a personal thing, though I’d recommend anyone to try it.
I often forget to breathe properly. My breath remains shallow, it skims the surface. My body suffocates. My stress levels rise. I feel tired. I stop listening and creating. Every time I take a moment to breathe, I reconnect to the most essential part of who I am. It’s a yogic principle and again, one I struggle to maser, but I know that the more I take time to focus on my breath, the more alive I’ll be to myself, others and the world. There’s a wonderful breathing meditation from the authors of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World here.
(25) Love children, older people and animals
Pretty self-explanatory. They’re the characters I come back to time and again in my fiction, mainly because they’re where the magic hides.
(26) See kindness as a strength, not a weakness
I sometimes come across people who seem scared to be kind. They don’t give praise readily. They shy away from physical affection. They hold their chins at a particular angle. They roll their eyes when they see you trying to do something kind. There’s a school of thought that to get on in the world, to climb up a rung, to get a better job, to be successful, you have to cold, distant and undemonstrative. We all have different characters and we all have different ways of showing kindness, that’s fine. But I have a deep held believe that the strongest people in the world are the kindest too.
(27) Laugh at yourself
That’s pretty easy if you’re me. I’m not very specially aware. I have a habit of wearing my clothes inside out. I have no sense of rhythm. I say things aloud that were probably best left in my head. And there are other more serious things that I get wrong or feel rubbish at. It’s freeing to laugh about it, to see it as part of what it means to be human, to see it, often as being the fall out of a strength I have – I’m curious and open and ask questions so, of course, I’m a nosy parker and put my foot in it too. Hugh’s been great at helping me to laugh at myself – it’s certainly healthier than beating myself up about my shortcomings. And laughing at my weaknesses motivates me to work on them much more than condemnation. Plus, laughing is good us: it taps into every part that heart-mind-body connection.
(28) Surround yourself by people who love you into being the very best version of you
This is linked to my family point. And it’s a really important one. Surrounding ourselves with people who bring us down is dangerous form of self-harm. We know when we’re with someone who knocks us down, who makes us feel low, who saps our spirits and our energy. Sometimes there’s not a great deal we can do about it – they’re our boss, our colleague, a father or mother, even. Though even then, I’d argue there’s scope for change if we’re bold and courageous. But even if we can’t get away from them, or can’t get away from them yet, we can make sure that for every person who clips our wings, we can surround ourselves with ten who lift us up. And we can live out Victor Frankl’s philosophy of not letting them affect our reactions and our choices. Freeing ourselves from people who make us unhappy isn’t selfish, it’s what allows us to be ourselves, fully alive and so able to create and give back to the world.
(29) Break your habits
This is another mindfulness principle though I hadn’t realised that until I started the course I’m currently doing with .b. I wrote about it a while ago in my ‘kick – and keep – a habit,’ post. Habits are vital to a happy, productive life. I know how important habits and rituals are to my little girl’s wellbeing, how it allows her to eat well and sleep well and enjoy her play and her relationships. But they can be constraining too. They can narrow our vision and our experiences. If we always take the same route to walk, always sit on the same chair in the classroom, always eat the same food and go to bed at the same time and wear the same shoes, we’re not allowing for those shifts of perspective that allow us to see more of life – and ourselves. That’s why I’m resolved to breaking one habit a week because I know that breaking habits, even tiny ones, is vital to keeping creativity alive.
(30) Let go of material things
Again, a real struggle for me, not because I like material things, I don’t really, but because clutter just accumulates. The fewer things I have the happier I am. Material things tie me down, make feel anchored rather than free. A few things matter of course, they form part of our identity, our memories, but the lofts and garages and wardrobe and drawers and boxes of our lives usually do nothing but weigh us down. I can’t tell you how liberated I felt when I sold my car. Or every time I give a bag of things to charity shops. I think of Gandhi and how he walked the earth with nothing but a robe, his glasses, his candles, a soup spoon and his pencil. Having fewer material possessions lightens the soul. I’ve been inspired by books like Suffocation: Living More With Less, and The Life Changing Magic of Tidy. I’ve also read of a challenge people have taken on in the US to reduce their material possessions to 100 objects – maybe I’ll try that sometime.
(31) Be your own kind of beautiful
A really hard one for me, especially as I grew up with huge insecurities about my appearance, mainly because I was surrounded by skinny, tanned, blonde French girls and a French relatives who see being beautiful as one of life’s most admirable talents. I’ve come to understand that having a healthy body, one the glows from the inside out and one that reflects your character and values, is what matters most. How women sees themselves, especially girls and young women, is one of the most pressing issues of our age. I want my little girl to grow up understanding what true beauty is and that it’s not about being able to fit into skinny jeans. I’m working on it.
(32) Look up
A few years ago I noticed how I spent most of my time looking down. At my feet when I walked. At the pavement. At my phone. My shoulders were stopped and I missed half of the beauty of the world. Looking up at people and buildings – and the sky – is one of the most restorative, nourishing, enlightening experiences you can give yourself. It gives you a certain dignity too, a straight spine, a level gaze, a clearer view of the world.
(33) Fast from technology
As for diaries, they’re about keeping your own narrative going. I used to write long entries every day. I don’t have the time for that now but I still write a few lines every day, mostly in the form of the gratitude journal I mentioned above. It’s also a way of marking the moment of each day and showing gratitude and focusing on the present. It’s about valuing the story of your life.
(35) Do the thing you love most every day of your life.
This is about asking yourself what means most to you, what makes your heart sing, and making sure that those things dominate your days. Or, if they can’t dominate a particular day, make sure you do them at least a little. I make sure that I write for at least five minutes every day – no excuses. There’s an awful lot of noise out there clamouring for our time and attention and energy. We get bogged down in answering emails and getting through chores. Some of that is necessary and inevitable but sometimes we let whole days go past without doing those things we love and, after a while, that begins to erode our soul. Besides the people I love, what matters to me most is writing. It’s what I was born to do. It’s what gives shape and meaning to my life. And there’s a funny thing that happens when you prioritise what matters to you: the other things get done too, though, inversely, when you focus on the trivia, the things you love most rarely get done. It’s about trusting that when you do what you were made to do, the rest will fall into place. A philosophy I exposed in My Jar Of Stones post. It’s an apt place for me to finish my ’35 things I’ve learnt in 35 years’ because it’s maybe the most important lesson of all: that finding and living out our vocation is what it means to be alive.
What Milo Saw paperback publication day – a gift from Hugh to mark the moment.