blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

Experience is overrated

more is not always better

fallow-deer_LubosHouska
LubosHouska via pixabay

When we talk about experience we assume that more is always better. Those impressive antlers tell of years lived and challenges overcome. That’s something not every deer has. It is something to aspire to. And it’s a very good thing, if what you want is to get a set of antlers just like it.

But what if there’s more to the world? What if you aspire to see what’s beyond the forest and the herd, and live a bigger life? Then relying on years of in-forest living is at best wrong-headed and at worst, dangerous.

Years ago, I worked with a man who had big aspirations. He was a few years senior to me and our career paths would diverge after a year on the same team. He was very good at his job, but not the kind of person to invite to dinner; arrogant and insensitive. He said one thing that has stayed with me to this day.

Don’t be dazzled by people with more experience than you. It might be ten years of varied experiences, or one year of experience ten times over.

His words resonated with me as a young professional used to being patronised for being a greenhorn, amongst other things. True experience learns and enlarges itself, rather than treading the same path over and over until it becomes a deep rut.

In every fairy tale set in the woods, the heroine is told to stay on the path and stay safe. She should listen to the voice of the wise elder. But we all know that the real heart of the tale, the real learning experience, only happens when she strikes out to risk the unknown.

When we have some experience, we expect to command respect. Too often, people think that more years and grey hair entitle them to a louder voice. Well, that depends. While you’re growing bigger, heavier antlers, a hunter is fixing you in his crosshairs. You might wish you had listened to the little bird who flew over him, and tried to warn you.

Often creatives are exhorted to do this, or avoid that. Being an artist is flaky, you can’t make money from writing, poetry is old-fashioned, you won’t make it as a musician. Get a steady job (if such a thing even exists any more.) Sometimes these statements are well meaning.

But at their heart is fear: the fear that if you do try and maybe even succeed, the adviser’s own failure to follow their own path will be exposed. They might have had a different, bigger life. But they stayed on the path and played safe. Now they want you to do the same.

So when someone uses “experience” as a trump card in an argument, consider the source. Have they done what you hope to do? Have they lived the life they recommend, or implemented their own advice?  Have they ever taken a risk?

If not, think again.
You may end up growing the wrong skills, in the wrong forest. And the hunter is coming.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

A la recherche du lait perdu

a little thing unlocks the past

milk bottle
glass milk bottle

This object may be unfamiliar to some, now that milk comes almost exclusively in plastic jugs. Or in bags, so I’ve heard, if you live in Canada. But before plastic bottles and supermarkets, milk came in glass bottles, left on your doorstep by a milkman who collected your empties.

We’ve all heard about Proust’s petite madeleine, and how it triggered a memory of his childhood. If you watch the film Ratatouille, there is a lovely homage to this. The sneering food critic Anton Ego, a grey and joyless man, is transported back to his warm, colourful boyhood by a single mouthful of ratatouille like his mother used to make. It is a defining moment for him.

Last year I spent a few days at a cottage in Wales. The owners had left a few basic food items in the fridge, one of which was the bottle of milk pictured above. Yes, I was so amazed that I took a photo of it.

Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and me

Margaret Thatcher was renowned as the first woman Prime Minister of Britain. But before her ascent to be first among equals, she was infamous for abolishing free milk in schools. Every child in infant schools received a bottle of milk daily, around a third of a pint. It was a great honour to be appointed milk monitor, helping the teacher hand out the bottles, each with a straw to be poked through the foil top. This was of course full cream, homogenised milk, semi-skimmed was yet to be invented.

I hated it.

These days I’d wear my label of lactose intolerance proudly. In those days such nonsense wasn’t tolerated. You drank your milk, or else. During the cold days of winter, the paper straw had to be plunged through an ice cap to reach the freezing milk below. It chilled my mouth and sat uneasily in my rebellious stomach, leaving me with a bloated discomfort till lunchtime.

I learned to keep quiet about it. Complaining did no good. Consequently, when other people criticised her, I silently applauded Mrs Thatcher, milk snatcher.

Milk, my mother, and me

 

hot chocolate with cream and cup
Hans via pixabay

Was it just the temperature? Not really. Fast forward a few years. My parents worked shifts, and if my mother was doing earlies (6am to 2pm) she would heat a pan of milk for our breakfast before she left for work. We would wake to warm milk for our Weetabix or shredded wheat, the aroma filling the kitchen. At bedtime, she heated more milk to make Ovaltine or drinking chocolate. It should have been comforting. My siblings loved it.

I ate toast.

Even writing this recalls the smell of boiled milk, and my stomach shifts. Years after that, I would flee from people making hot milk. These days, I don’t mind hot chocolate, as long as I don’t have to smell the milk heating.

But I see a glass milk bottle, and I’m five years old again, dreading morning break and the forced drink that grown-ups said was good for me.

I might have been young, but I knew my own mind. The milk bottle taught me that I didn’t have agency and shouldn’t talk back to adults.

Today, the glass milk bottle reminds me that the world has moved on. Thank goodness.

 

 

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This ordinary world we live in

helping-up_sasint
sasint via pixabay

 

The world is wonderful, crazy, ugly, cruel, beautiful, hostile, trusting, tiny, enormous. The world is a million different things, all of them contradictory, just like the people in it. And it can be hard to pick out the good, filter the bad, and stay positive.

It’s even harder to make a difference. What does that mean, really? Perhaps to pass through this life, have some fun, and leave it in better shape in some way. Yet most of us cannot write a classic, paint a masterpiece, build a monument, or earn a star on the Walk of Fame. All we have is everyday acts in mundane lives. But here’s the thing.

We can’t change the whole world, but we can change people. We can’t change people, but we can change their minds. We can’t change their minds, but we can change their experience.

When we change their experience, they change their own minds, their own behaviour, and their own worlds.

 This happened to me

Early one Tuesday morning, I parked in a distant corner of a windswept station car park. I rarely used the train, but I had a conference to attend, and driving wasn’t practical. I also knew that parking was expensive, so a few days before I’d changed some notes for a handful of one pound coins. I waited my turn to feed the meter behind a smartly dressed woman, my bag of coins jingling like treasure in my pocket.

The woman dug through her purse, then wailed, “Oh no.” She searched her handbag, muttering to herself. “I don’t have time,” she said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“No, no, I have to catch the 7.47 and I’m out of change, there’s no time.” She glanced over to the ticket office, and I made the calculations with her.

Three minutes’ walk there in heels, wait in the queue, buy something, get some change, three minutes’ walk back. Assuming she had her ticket already. It was already 7.30 and the timing was tight.

I checked the price list, weighed the money in my hand. “How much do you need?”

“I’m £3 short, but—”

“Here.” I passed her three coins, and her mouth dropped open. “Take it, I brought extra.”

“I’ve got a £10 note, I’ll give it back to you,” she said. She sniffed, and blinked rapidly. “Thank you so much. Which train are you getting?”

“Same as you, but don’t worry about it.”

We bought our tickets and she skipped back to her car. Some minutes later, as I waited on the platform, she brought me the money with a smile.

“You saved my life,” she said.

Maybe it was synchronicity. I had extra coins and she needed them. Neither of us knew that our chance meeting would change our lives, if only briefly. Was she going to an interview, a vital meeting, a date? I’d never know, but I knew I felt better, and so did she. My boring conference day was lit by the soft glow of knowing I’d made a tiny, but important difference.

This also happened to me

Traffic crawled slowly in the rain-lashed evening dark. I tried to calm my breathing, but couldn’t stop my leg bouncing. We had booked this concert not knowing the venue, rushed to drive up after work, and now we were going to be late. The queue inched forward, and when we finally got into the multi storey it was full. Up and up we went, eventually parking in the furthest corner of the roof level.

I grabbed my coat and purse, and queued again in the cold. It was more expensive than I thought, and I’d brought all the change from the car. I could have wept. At least no-one would see my tears, on cheeks already wet from waiting without an umbrella. I exhaled, and someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Are you short? Take what you need.” He held out his hand, full of coins. Right then they were more precious to me than treasure.

I looked at him and smiled. “Thank you, I just ran out of change.”

“No bother, pet.”

I fed the meter, ran back to the car with the ticket, and we made it to our seats just in time. I blessed my unknown saviour for his generosity, and my tension fell away, ready to enjoy the evening.

Did he feel virtuous? I hope so, because he turned my whole day around.

Maybe it was synchronicity. Our good deeds send positive vibrations into the universe, and just sometimes it echoes back in our own time of need. We already live in a world that is supportive, helpful, encouraging, and loving. When we see it that way, we can all change our corner of the world, one generous act at a time.

 

First published in The Creative Cafe on Medium, 9th March

 

 

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After the storm, new beginnings

tree-stump-stones_niederrheiner
niederrheiner via pixabay

A huge storm blew through here yesterday. On my way back to work, I was stopped by an enormous oak tree that came down, taking part of an old stone wall with it and blocking the road entirely. Along with many others, I had to turn my car around and find another way.

Today, I see the tree surgeons have done their work. Vast trunks and branches lie sliced up on the side of the road, never again to see in the spring with green shoots. The weather now is cool, but bright and calm. If not for that pile of lumber, you’d never know the drama that unfolded here.

I think life is like this.

You spend years, decades even, building something strong and vital. It gives you comfort, protection, meaning. Then you watch as the storm grips that impressive canopy, rocks it and, finding it unyielding, overcomes the roots and the stem and all its strength. It shrieks, and cracks, and topples ungracefully.

You shout and rage and cry.

Someone, who hasn’t seen the storm, says it’s better this way. It was probably rotten at the roots. At least no-one was killed. You want to scream at them. They don’t understand.

You weep, for a while.

Then, you roll up your sleeves and clear away the fallen limbs. And something shifts. Once dark places are now light. In the ground, hidden life stirs. Daffodils push up through the soil, long forgotten seeds take root. There is space now, space to fill with new, exciting things.

And look, here is something you can use. Destruction begets creation; a table, a chair, a sculpture. Small branches make kindling for a fire. Fantastic fungi appear in autumn, and snow dusts the last crumbling branches with a veil of white.

Our creations, like our lives, are not meant to last forever.

Relationships, careers, structures are built, destroyed, mourned, and built anew. There is no escaping change. It is often resisted, and all the more painful for it. And it sweeps away the old, the rigid, the unexamined elements that are not as solid as they look. Once we dismantle our misconceptions and assumptions about what is permanent, the way ahead becomes clearer.

In the calm after the storm comes a chance to regroup, rethink, rebuild better and stronger.

At least, for now.

blog, garden, Pat Aitcheson writes

It’s time for something completely different

sprout-1147803_1280
skeeze via pixabay

We are creatures of habit.

We do, eat, read, and watch the same things. My supermarket online order page has a feature called ‘Your Usuals’ because apparently, 80% of my order is the same every week. If I don’t pick these items, it reminds me before I reach the checkout. Strange that in a world dominated by the latest new thing, we cling to the tried and tested. Maybe that explains the dominance of the movie franchise, the re-imaginings and remakes and tired sequels. Much less risky than something completely new, but ultimately not very interesting either.

A new challenge

When you have worn a rut following the same path, strike out elsewhere. It’s often best to start small, that way the risks are less, but the payoff is still worthwhile. It could be the start of something really worthwhile and rewarding.

To use an example from gardening; I grow or make something new every year. This was easy in the early days of the garden, when it was a blank canvas. However, I had no money, and so it was often seeds rather than plants. I tried different seeds, and found out what worked with minimal outlay.

I grew things that were almost impossible to buy, like the red leaved castor oil plant Ricinus communis carmencita. I grew things that were so easy, the prices charged for small plants made me angry. For example, Verbena bonariensis proved easy and beautiful, and as a bonus seeded itself. Since I raised many seedlings, I could afford to dot them around the plot and see what worked, and where. I tried plants that were said to be too tender for my garden. I still have Geranium palmatum, which tolerates my clay soil and also seeds itself, against the odds.

It would have been nice to have the money to just buy whatever I wanted, but it would not have taught me much. Time and money are always inversely related, if you lack one you must put in more of the other to get results. I grew sunflowers with my children when they were young, but I used the opportunity to grow more interesting cultivars as well as the skyscrapers they loved to measure. The time investment paid off several times over.

Last year, I made wine with a heavy crop of rosehips from my Rosa glauca bush. This year, I planted Musa ventricosum maurelii (bought from the supermarket for £10). It did very well, and has just been lifted to overwinter in the porch. Well worth taking the chance, and it should be even better next year.

dsc_0730
early leaf growth, Musa ensete v. maurelii

Cultivating the beginner’s mind

Maybe you’re quite good at something. Not at the level of mastery, because who has 10,000 hours to commit to something?  (Even if this pop theory has been debunked.) But pretty good, and it’s started to get easy. We want easy, we don’t want difficult. Maybe it’s not any one thing that’s well within your capabilities, but life’s activities in general. Problem is, it can also get boring. We start to lose interest. At this point, you can go one of three ways.

  • Spend less time and effort, and probably give up after a while.
  • Spend more time and effort, challenge yourself to improve with a new goal.
  • Put the thing aside, and do something different.

Any of these could be a valid option, depending on the activity and how important it is. Above, I talked about the second option. I’d like to argue here for the third option. Why? Because starting from scratch is liberating, fun, playful.

Beginning without expectation or judgement is freeing. At the start of school, we’re eager for knowledge, full of questions and ready to make mistakes.
We are willing to fail.
We end school downcast and oppressed by expectations, testing, targets and curricula.
We cannot afford to fail.

In the process, all the fun of learning is stripped out, all our enthusiasm squashed.

How about starting again?

It could be a return to something you did before, or not. It could be learning a new language, fixing a car, making bread or curries or furniture. For me, it was art. I needed something completely new, but it was also a return to the girl who used to design clothes and matching shoes in a sketchbook. I took a life drawing class, and picked up a pencil for the first time in decades.

Having made the conscious decision not to judge my work, nor compare with others, I relaxed and concentrated. How to show a three dimensional object on a two dimensional page? How to shade the folds in fabric? Which softness of pencil? What kind of paper? I asked questions and enjoyed the novelty of knowing nothing, learning from ground zero.

In short: I played, and it was good.

We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

George Bernard Shaw

Adults can learn. Our brains are much more adaptable than we think.
Adults should learn. It keeps us energised and interesting.
Adults must play. It keeps us young and puts a smile on our faces.
Adults benefit from play. Our newfound energy will boost the rest of our activities.

Letting go of outcome, focussing on the process and the journey, could be the best thing you ever did.

creative writing, from elsewhere

Long story short

I found this wonderful piece by Jake Lira on Medium. Enjoy.

 

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-16-16-41

Life isn’t a fairy tale. Hell it’s not even a book. If it were, the cover would be bent and sentences would run right off the page. Most chapters would wander and fail to pick up where the last left off. The plot? Heartbreakingly thin more often than not. No, life isn’t a book. Much more a collection of short stories fervently scribbled on whatever happens to be on hand. Sometimes a bar room napkin or a stolen post it. Perhaps penciled in a calendar or permanently penned on a bicep. And if we are lucky, from time to time end up etched in kindred spirits.

– Jake Lira

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

From one human to another

dsc_0075
Bellis perennis, the common lawn daisy

What does it take to brighten your day, restore your faith, ease your suffering, or make you smile?

It might seem that only the biggest things can turn a rotten day into a better one. One scratchcard win, one £50 note discovered on the ground, one declaration of undying love, one letter of acceptance for that thing you’ve been hoping for and dreaming about. These things would certainly make you feel better.

They’re also almost certain not to happen.

What are the odds, right?  But consider this.

Even the smallest candle can light up the dark.

Work has been difficult, and then last week I caught a horrible cold. Think congested, feverish, head stuffed, can’t breathe, can’t sleep misery. Well, still gotta work, so I slogged on. After surviving one long morning in which all I wanted to do was run away home and hide under my duvet, there was a knock at my door. I expected another claim on my time and fading energy, and my heart sank.

Instead, the receptionist brought in flowers. A pink bouquet with a card that read ‘your (sic) in our thoughts’. It had been left by someone I had seen earlier. Well, I was so moved by this, I could have wept.

I work in a so-called caring profession. I have colleagues, family and friends, some of whom knew how ill I felt. Yet this came from a near-stranger, who went to some trouble to help me feel better. And, as I type this, I look at my flowers and I still feel better.

patient-bouquet_sep16
pink bouquet

 

It takes so little to shine a light, and you never know who needs it most. It need not be flowers; it can be any small, authentic kindness. Eye contact and a smile, a sincere enquiry followed by active listening are often missing in daily life. If we can supply them, and if we can be genuine then we connect on a basic human level, and that’s what we all crave.

Even a humble daisy would have been enough to let me know she cared. And yes, I will be sending a thank you card, to let her know I appreciated her gesture, more than she knew. It made me smile on a tough day, and that can be the greatest gift of all.

Maybe something I write will do the same for a reader one day. I hope so. In the meantime, I will look for an opportunity to pay it forward.

Remember, when backed by action, the thought really does count.