Tag Archives: Zen

Cooking therapy


One of the problems I have with editing is that it’s a bit of a drudge. Even stressful. Sometimes you’ll come to a passage that feels clunky and awkward. One that clangs in dissonance, like the sound of breaking glass during a symphony. Something has to be done to smooth out the flow of words and let them sing again, but you aren’t sure what. Normally I perform some sort of displacement therapy. Pace up and down my tiny office. Which isn’t far; three paces and back. Alternatively go for a walk, take a time out and peoplewatch, or if I need to be working like today, split my time between keyboard and kitchen.

This weeks culinary endeavour is cooking up batches of soup for when the weather turns even cooler. Let the batches cool off before decanting into Zip-locks and throwing in the freezer. Carrot and Coriander this morning, followed by Chicken and Leek this afternoon. As I’m also trying and succeeding in losing a few unwanted pounds on a low carbohydrate regime, I’m trying to lower the starch content of my preparations, which means playing a little fast and loose with traditional ingredients. Which also means definitely no potatoes and as little starch in the thickening roux as possible. Plenty of fresh ingredients, and in the words of my forefathers; Robert is one’s father’s brother.

As far as manuscripts are concerned; specifically there’s a story element I’m trying to thread into ‘A Falling of Angels’. To add a little more conspiracy into the second of the ‘Cerberus’ series. A hint at something darker beyond the stories sunlit uplands. Which means repeatedly reading and re-reading the content, correcting as I go before checking again for continuity. Which is very frustrating. In betwixt and between, the onions need sweating, chicken turning and other saucepans need stirring. Which in turn I find very therapeutic.

Fishing day


For the first time in ages I’m going fishing.   Rods and lines are ready. Licences purchased. My Brother in law is coming down for the weekend, and we’re going to do the guy thing down at Ogden Point breakwater if there’s room at the end.  The intention is to cast our lures into the water, talk, drink coffee, set the world to rights. Pick our wives up later for supper at Bubby’s on Cook Street this evening. Nothing heavy duty. There’s a nice little cafe at the landward end of the breakwater, should we tire of casting.

From the sound of it we both need a time out. Ian has had his head down in his educational software project, me in writing. Our respective spouses need quality sister time. Work and family duty has been pretty relentless of late. Too much really. Too much sadness. Time for a little Zen fishing.

I’m quite looking forward to the ritual of wind, line and water. Because sometimes an hour or two casting your cares into the sea is all you need to recharge the creative batteries. It clears the mind, helps tie up loose ends and unravels the kinks in the soul whether the fish bite or not.

As for catching anything worth taking home or losing bait, c’est la vie.

First snow


I’m sitting in our front room, looking out towards the islands, watching a very fine first snow fall. Tiny, uncertain flakes wending their way to the ground. Wandering with air currents, mostly down, sometimes up, but down they come, settling in small crystalline spots, lining up like migrating birds on top of the deck rail, blanketing windscreens in translucent white, but as yet not braving the ground.

Our local Ravens don’t seem to mind the extra crowded air. They sit on the wires as if critically examining each flake, discussing the merits of each ghostly crystal. “That one settle?”, “Nah, won’t last long.” before arguing and clumsily flapping off to some new perch.

So here I sit, dog at my feet, watching the visibility crowd slowly in, daydreaming of sunnier times before I finish my tea and start work.

A paucity of inspiration


I can’t do it. I’m stuck. I’ve edited and re edited. Proofed and corrected, but as for new output, I’m grinding around in a circle like a tank with one track. Endlessly covering the same small circle. Under inspired.

Everything has ground to a halt. Short stories, screenplays, novels, everything. Nothing is working: the ‘what if’ game, the get on with other things gambit, nothing. Fortunately I’ve been here before, and know that if I kind of take a sneaky sidestep, and quit battering my head against a metaphorical brick wall, I’ll see a way around or through. Sooner or later. Just take a time out, use my eyes, peoplewatch, walk, talk, do the Zen thing and the answers should present themselves. I hope.

Life, as seen from my deck


Before I came to Canada, I had no idea about what I now call ‘deck life’. Yet now Summer is here, that is where I find myself living and writing. If it wasn’t for the mosquitoes after nine pm, I’d probably end up sleeping out here as well. Not that there are many mossies around at the moment. They usually arrive three days after a rain shower, and there’s been no rain since last Sunday. Just in case there are any strays wafting about, I’ve lit the mosquito coils and citronella candles.

Angie is off at her yearly conference in Squamish, so until tomorrow it’s just me and the Dog, chilling, drinking beers and getting dive bombed by Hummingbirds on their way to the feeder. Watching the glorious British Columbian daylight fade from blue through a dusky violet into broad indigo bands around the horizon, and the 8:40 flight passes overhead from Vancouver. The dog in next doors yard, a curly haired mutt, barks sporadic greeting at the world, and a tiny cooling breeze strokes my feet therapeutically. Et in Arcadia ego.

It’s not all fun because there are hard choices to be made. Do I get another beer from the fridge? Or do I simply sit here listening to far off conversations, watch the odd boat go past and let the stress drip from my bones. Choices, choices. Would I like some tea and a Digestive cookie before I reluctantly go to bed? Well goodness me, so I do.

Have hardly written a thing over the past week, barely two thousand worthwhile words, but after all the travelling, I’m having a little private time out.

What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? #WritersLife


Picked up poet Mary Oliver‘s question via LinkedIn this morning, and it very much resonates with what’s going on in my life at the moment. Well, not just mine but Angie’s as well. We’ve been pottering around looking at lots to build a house on, and finding that everything eventually devolves to suburbia. The whole work-eat-sleep-mortgage thing, which we’ve already done. So why on earth are we planning to anchor ourselves down to a plot of land for the rest of our useful lives? Nail ourselves to one location? Chain our souls to real estate? Go down the suburban road once more? Do the networking thing? Cultivate contacts to further our ‘careers’? Sell our souls to the machine again? We’re both over fifty and pretty active, I don’t see the point.

Would we do it for Laura and Jo? Not really, they’re all grown up and making their own lives half way around the world. As for me, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, if there were a club especially for people like me, I wouldn’t let me in. I’m not a social animal. The Bear is my totem.

So after drifting around plots and lots with various enchanting views, we ended up in the Genoa Bay Marina Espresso Bar down past Duncan. Down at the end of one floating jetty was a 60′ Gin Palace, registered in Edmonton, Alberta of all places. A gleaming monstrosity of fibreglass and stainless steel. Very palatial. A million bucks worth straight out of the yards. Beautiful lines. It looked fast and graceful, even just moored at the floating dock gathering algae next to all the houseboats.

All of a sudden, Angie gets all upset, which bothered me as it was a gorgeous day and we hadn’t a care, apart from looking at various interminable building sites. She confessed to me that this whole looking for houses process was making her unhappy, and she didn’t want to do it any more. She expressed a wish to live on a boat and cruise the coast and gulf islands for the next ten or twenty years. So as we wound through endless Canadian suburbia, we talked it over. I expressed surprise as Angie tends to suffer from motion sickness, and her on a boat? To be honest I never even thought about it as a life option. She said no, she was willing to give it a try. Life on the water. We joked about her having a ‘mid-life crisis’, well why not? Without crisis and adventure, life is dull, dull, mind strangling routine. The morass of souls, the slough of despond, a round of endless quiet desperation.

I reflected that some of my early years were spent playing around on British canals on cabin cruisers. This brought up memories like being at the wheel of a fishing boat following a gyrocompass bearing back into Looe after a days deep sea fishing out near Eddystone. Force four south westerly freshening to six. Dirty green sea under grey skies, bucking the restless horse of a Lochin 38 Hulled fishing boat at fourteen knots. Five foot swells slamming at the bows. Slewed at twenty degrees from the line of travel in the cross wind.

I have my BC pleasure craft license, know the basics about R/T drills and have a modest understanding of basic seamanship. Angie is a quick learner, and both sides of the family have more than a little salt water in their veins, so why not? We don’t really ‘belong’ anywhere, and would only be stifled by life in one place, regardless of how nice the views or people are.

The sheer chutzpah appeals. The thought of Island hopping, following the weather around the world while working online has a certain appeal. Phoning the kids from Southampton or some other locale. “Hi love, fancy a weekend off?” Hire cars when need arises, not buy them. Move our money around the globe, spread the risk, take a chance. I have more than a couple of ideas about that. Yes, so we’re having a radical rethink about how we live our lives, and today we are going to talk to boat brokers.

Shadows between rainbows


A great rainbow watching day today. Especially down in Dodd Narrows. While I was preparing supper there was one full bow that was almost so bright it hurt the eyes. Then I looked to the right, there was a fainter but definite arc about eight or nine degrees away from it. A double bow.

Mostly at this point we switch off. Double rainbow, isn’t that pretty? Yet this afternoon I took time out to look more closely and discovered for myself the dusky but distinct bands of colour between the two bow shapes, faint and very smokey but most definitely real. A pity I haven’t a camera good enough to record them.

I know a rainbow is only a trick of angle and diffraction through falling rain, but to me there is something magical in these arcs of disassembled light. They tell us that no matter who we are or what we do there is always wonder to lift hearts from the sameness of the day to day. A Te Deum against tedium.

To notice these vague coloured shadows was something of a minor revelation to me, and just to check that my mind wasn’t playing tricks, while we were having supper, I asked Angie what she could see. She gave me an odd look, concentrated for a few moments and then the light of revelation shone in her eyes. “I’d never noticed that before.” She said.
“Well that makes two of us.” I replied. “Shadows between rainbows, who would have thought?”

Up until then we’d both been a bit crabby and not our usual cheerful selves, but that simple act of observation lifted the mood of the dinner table. Amazing what a simple trick of the light can do for the human soul.

Moments of perfect stillness


Friday was a good day, despite a couple of hitches. The only Triumph dealership on Vancouver Island has no sales demo models of the type of sports tourers I’m looking at, and we had to go rushing around for an ATM at the Brentwood / Mill bay ferry, as they only take cash or prepaid tickets. No credit cards.

The majority of the day was taken up with an unscheduled side trip to Butchart Gardens, a gorgeous 55 Acre flower garden and Arboretum created in an old limestone quarry. Most of the blooms are typically North American, big, a trifle blowsy, but nonetheless quite wonderful. The air subtly scented except for the heady, musky sledgehammer between the sinuses that is the fragrance of a lily.

Angie and I continued one of our philosophical conversations about how to find what I call “Moments of perfect stillness” and their use in aiding the creative process. We walked barefoot on grass, simply stopped and looked, took pictures, and in between noisy knots of people tried to explore this notion. I feel the flowers helped her understand my occasional silences are never a rebuff, merely preoccupation.

For my own part I’ve always been concerned that the need to talk incessantly reveals a deep inner insecurity. A need for constant reassurance indicating that all is not well with them. For the interrupted, it breaks the flow of ideas, and can scatter the creative thought process like a thousand startled pigeons. It’s what I call being ‘Porlocked’ after Coleridges eponymous ‘person from Porlock‘.

When I feel sure of my territory, or need to test concepts out, I share them with friends, but not before. I’m also pretty careful who I share them with. There’s nothing worse than saying what’s on your mind when whoever you talk to isn’t in the mood, doesn’t take you seriously, and / or has a mind so closed it visibly clanks when the cogs start turning.

In seeking a ‘moment of stillness’, my way of ‘getting there’ is simply to focus on a sound or smell and close my eyes, or focus on a vague point in the middle distance. Then concentrate. What does your chosen sound or smell mean? What are its associations and how do you feel about them? There are a number of self help authors who recommend this approach, but I always found the superficial Mnemonics they recommend a little too flimsy for keeping stories about whole worlds in my head. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great for small stuff, but not so good for mentally bookmarking extended storylines and the ever branching tree of character development. I have to be able to see, hear, and almost touch these thought-avatars for this mental anchor to function.

What really works for me is to add layers of ideas until the base concept of the focus object / memory feels solid in my mind, and then use that specific memory as a kind of mental mooring post. From that point it becomes relatively easy to concentrate on other things because the moment centres your thoughts, not letting them drift aimlessly and lose the truly important stuff you wanted to think about in the first place. It’s a form of self hypnosis. One which seems to work when heavy duty cogitation is required, and especially in unknown or uncertain mental territory. An occupational hazard when trying to write speculative fiction.

Take this blog post. I started it on Saturday, and picked at it through multiple interruptions, my over excitable dog, a couple of domestic dramas, a heavy duty conversation about email functionality, impending flights, other peoples preoccupations, travel plans for the next five years, a reorganisation of my kitchen and telephone calls from friends, family and various automated autodiallers. Using the moment of perfect stillness that I constructed as an anchor point, I can still flip up the memory of Butchart Gardens. Amongst other things; including story lines and character trees.

I’ve even managed to keep up a consistent 1 – 2000 words per day on ‘Darkness’ and ‘Cerberus’. Rugged.

A quantum of zen


The past few mornings, Angie and I have been having one of our philosophical conversations. About who we are, where we are going, what we really want, and about how to find the answers to these vexatious questions. Having made time to think about it for a few days I said; “There’s a one word answer to all of what we’ve been discussing.”
“What’s that?” She asked.
“Discrimination.” I replied. Which seems a bit glib until you actually put it in context.

One of the things I practice now and again is a little something picked up from Lyall Watson’s ‘Gifts of unknown things‘. Lyall described what some might describe as paranormal abilities displayed by the islanders he lived with at the time. He wrote about fishermen who could stick their head underwater to hear where the fish were, by ‘listening between the sounds’. As Lyall observed, the sea is a very noisy place, and understanding what each sound means is a complex business. Essentially what he described is an old hunters trick, which is to simply stand absolutely still and listen. Letting the consciousness spread. Paying attention to what can be heard, putting it in context. Applying a where, what and when to each individual noise.

For a city dweller, who hears mainly Traffic noise, the art is the same; to dissect and recognise sounds from a tumult. The bass rumble of a truck, the snap-snap-snap of a loose cargo strap in a vehicles slipstream. Shouts, horns, voices, snatches of conversation. The grumble-whoosh of the subway, grunt-squeal whistle and whine-thump of buses as they stop and their doors open. Snatches of sounds from open windows and shop doorways. The noise gravel stuck in tyre treads makes on ashphalt. How far away is it, what direction is it in? Which way is it going? Does it pose a threat? The same principle of listening applies. Hint; it is wise not to try this on pedestrian crossings at first until you can listen on the move and still pay attention to your immediate surroundings.

This is only some of the music the world makes all around us, all of the time. Like single melodies in an orchestral score, it takes an educated ear to separate them out. Where the uneducated can only hear the overall sound, the trained ear can pick up a dissonance in a heartbeat. At first, to be able to do this seems insuperable, the wall of sound is too high, too wide and deep. Yet to eat this metaphorical elephant simply requires a slow but sure ‘one bite at a time’ approach.

The good news is that people come with this ability built in as a feature, courtesy of several million years of evolution. The bad news is that like all vices, it takes practice and patience to perfect. Some people will never learn because they are afraid of silence, impatient with the enormity of the task, failing to appreciate is that there is no such thing as absolute silence. Others will pick up the skill without a thought and look surprised when others ask “How do you do that?”

All that is required is the motivation to sit quietly and open oneself up to the world, to drink it all in, take pleasure in learning a new ability. Learn that there is no such thing as silence. Even in the quietest moments your pulsing bloodflow thunders in your ears, breath rasps in your nose and throat. A leaf falls ten, twenty, thirty feet away. Air flowing makes noise, anything moving makes a sound, a tiny careening of air molecules spreading out to trigger a response. Caught by the pinnae, transmitted to inner ears via the tympanum and malleus, incus and stapes, tiny little bones forming a linkage to the inner ear and sensory nerves. So incredibly delicate and sensitive is this apparatus that anyone can train themself to hear all manner of things in the sounds between the noise.

Where to begin? With your favourite piece of music, your most loved sounds. Which bit do you like most? focus in on that one musical phrase. Which notes does it contain played on what instruments? How is it played? Now what are the surrounding musical phrases harmonies, beats and melodies? Once this is learned, moving to more complicated listening becomes easier. All it takes is practice.

The same principles can be applied to the other senses. Smell and taste can be similarly trained. Even sight. Being observant takes practice and time, but these are skills well worth developing, no matter what your time of life. Plato wrote in his dialogues that Socrates said; “the unexamined life is not worth living”. To examine life, we must practice sensory discrimination, like Lyall described in his book. This is the process I call ‘a quantum of Zen’, and oddly enough, anyone can do it. Anyone at all. No Zen master required.

We can all learn to discriminate, and in the process find out what we really want from life. I suppose you could call it part of the art of becoming truly human.