2017: A space odyssey

There has been so much going on over the last few months that I’ve struggled to know where to start. Normally I find the inspiration for posts everywhere but it feels as if watching in silence (frequently the stunned kind) and listening (versus spouting off) has been the order of the day. Democracy has certainly shown us the power that the disenfranchised and unheard hold in their hands and the last six months has revealed the world to be a much more uncertain place than a whole lot of us thought it was.

Uncertainty prevails closer to home too. Back in June I posted about the changes at work and this week it will be my turn to say my goodbyes. After almost six years, the people and projects that have shaped a large proportion of my life will disappear and while there will be some friendships that endure, I will be left with quite a large space in my life.

(Actually what’s immediately next is a packed two weeks of pre-Christmas catch-ups before a sojourn in Thailand and a family Christmas Down Under…but I digress.)

The saying goes that nature abhors a vacuum and human nature is no exception. We are driven to achieve instead of discover, stillness must be filled with doing and silence is shattered with noise and words rather than peace and understanding.

Space – finding it and holding on to it – is a tricky thing to manage.

design-museum-atrium

This photograph was taken yesterday as I stood on the second floor of the atrium in the Design Museum‘s new home, the old Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington. It’s a great example of the paradox of ‘holding the space’ – the challenges in maintaining the listed hyperbolic parabaloid roof versus the striking effect of the sweeping curves of the atrium ceiling. Is the former really worth the latter?

My journey into this new space is not unexpected and for some time, I’ve had a general idea of what’s next and how I aim to build some different life choices into the next 8-10 years. Over the last year, I have been working on several things that may become pieces of this future but the really specific parts are not yet fully formed. It’s hugely exciting…and uncomfortable.

Space – and uncertainty – is scary.

When people ask me about what’s next, I feel the urge to explain it all, to define it and lay out the way forward. I jumped out of a plane about 15 years ago and it’s that same feeling – perched at the open door, looking out over the landscape sprawled below and questioning whether I was brave or stupid to be doing this. Then leaping out into the void, trusting that the agreed plan I’d learnt in my pre-jump training (as well as the parachute instructor strapped onto my back) would result in my landing on my feet again.

And I felt it when I arrived at Heathrow Airport almost 13 years ago, with nothing before me except the chance to build a new life. In both cases there was much ungainly sprawling and innumerable dents to my ego. But what an education I’ve had.

I’ve learnt that I am resilient and resourceful – over and over again. (They do say that life keeps giving you the lesson you need until you’ve learned what it’s meant to teach you.)

I’ve created opportunities to be generous and inspire others, something that really speaks to my heart.

And I’ve developed a knack for making the space to explore, to reflect, to trust that what I want is okay and to find the quiet moments (mainly during my regular swim sessions) when the voices in my head get opinionated and shout-y.

So as I say my goodbyes next week, I will be embarking on the next phase of my odyssey taking all of these good things with me. Who knows what lessons will be next but when they land and I get a little ‘stuck’, I will take myself back to a lesson from childhood and the immortal words of Christopher Robin to his beloved friend, Winnie-the-Pooh:

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. 

(Please feel free to remind me of this post when things get ‘sticky’…)

Play time

Since my visit Down Under for Christmas last year, I must confess to a renewed addiction for jigsaw puzzles. I’ve always loved them and a big part of family holidays when I was growing up was commandeering some large flat space, spreading out a thousand odd pieces and then hunching over them between sun-kissed beach sorties or for a whole day at a time if the rain was drumming a monsoonal metre on the roof.

But like most things in this day and age, jigsaws have moved on-line and I have developed a bit of a penchant for finding an hour or so to puzzle on my tablet.

I do love a puzzle. As a child travelling between parents and grandparents, a crossword/puzzle book was always tucked alongside my ‘book of the moment’ and these days, between a spot of Lumosity brain training or Words with Friends on my daily commute and a more leisurely pen-in-hand meander through The Times MindGames on a Saturday, it would really seem that puzzling has become the habit of a lifetime – well mine anyway.

This week, in scanning through some business reading at work, I came across another childhood habit that seems to be storming into the pantheon of grown-up amusements – colouring, or more specifically colouring books.

Euromonitor reports that sales of adult (no not THAT adult) colouring books are soaring and no longer content to dip into the annals of their offspring, grown-ups are looking for our own expression of creativity…and a little bit of stress-relief. The Secret Garden colouring book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and with the likes of Crayola, Bic, Faber-Castell and Staedtler coming to the party, Euromonitor postulates that this may become a phenomenon to rival the juggernaut that was – and is – Harry Potter.

And the nostalgic play trend doesn’t end there. Tonight, Channel 4 (UK) will feature a behind-the-scenes look at Lego. Yes those building blocks of childhood are every bit (see what I did there – every bit?) as ubiquitous today and one could argue that Lego’s position at the top of the toy-maker league table has been a result of an ability to extend their appeal beyond the young to the young-at-heart.

There are many studies and opinion pieces out there about the benefits of creative play for kids but as we get older, downtime like this is valued less and less (although one could argue that the absence of it in our lives makes us value it more – just consider how excited we get about going on holiday to ‘relax’ and ‘do nothing’).

But just as we might train physically to improve our muscles, puzzles and creative pursuits build different muscles, those of the brain. Brain training company Lumosity talks about its approach being grounded in neuroscience and more particularly neuroplasticity, explaining how the brain is ‘built’ to rely on previous patterns of behaviour (or neural pathways). Without challenging these patterns, our brain can lose its power to adapt.

I am no scientist but as we’ve already established, I do love a puzzle and luckily at the end of each of my commuting brain ‘trains’, there’s a little top scores list and an overall brain summary to chart my progress and offer any encouragement in improving the lower scoring areas.

One such example is that of spatial awareness. I maintain that Australia has so much space per person that the development of this ability in my early life was somewhat moot but in London I have developed a reputation for falling over (without the influence of alcohol) or pondering when exactly I bumped into something to produce an emerging ‘mystery bruise’.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of dancing and yoga which has helped this but indulging in a bit of sashay step or downward dog on the tube each day will probably raise a few eyebrows…and definitely tread on some toes. So Lumosity’s Penguin Pursuit continues to be my nemesis but as long as my scores improve, I will continue to work on it and enjoy the few minutes of fun that my three different games each day affords me on my commute.

So finding space to play, to ponder, to puzzle appears to be gaining momentum in a society seeking mindfulness and balance. And I think it’s a good thing. The watch out will be if it becomes a chore, another should in the long list of things we should be doing to have a happy and balanced life.

So let’s create, build, run amok, let loose and blow those cobwebs off our childhood…and just play.