2012 Tune-Up

It’s that time of year again.  Time for making resolutions and taking stock before turning over the calendar page and having another go at it.  What will you make of 2012?  How will you put your best foot forward?  What will you leave behind?

Somewhere deep within my dreams, I have often found myself circling the numbers 2012, as if this would be the year for something great.  I don’t want to jinx it but I do feel electrified and ready for adventure.  I plan to start this year in the same way I have started all the rest: with passion, drive, and optimism.

I went for a tarot card reading last week.  The mystic identified 2012 as a year relatively free from planetary obstacles, and said that I would get everything I deserved (and almost everything I wanted) this year.  He also said that I had some hard work to do.  Again?

The same card kept re-appearing in my spread: “The Hermit.”  This card, I was told, means that it’s time for some serious introspection and to determine my true purpose in life.  The tarot card reader also suggested that I look closely at what I was carrying with me in my “pack sack”; to review all of my relationships, habits and belongings, and to determine whether they helped or hindered me in relation to my deeper purpose.

I decided to take this suggestion quite literally, and took a good, long look inside my laptop bag. Even with the “bare essentials”, this bag somehow manages to weigh about fifteen pounds.  I dug deep, asking myself, “What can I strip away?  What do I really need?  How can I do this better?”

Not easy questions to answer when your laptop, iPod, Blackberry, Kindle, digital camera, (along with their cables and accoutrements), are all vying for their rightful place in your purse.  Hopefully someone at the Apple store can help me with this problem.

I really liked this idea of taking a complete “life inventory”, and I found myself thinking about it for a number of days.  I decided to explore the metaphorical “pack sack” as well.

First, I wrote down my top priorities, and what I see as my main purpose or raison d’être.  Then I wrote down the names of all of the important people, habits and things in my life on small squares of paper.  When I was done that, I laid out a scarf and divided it into the following sections:

– That Which I Hold Most Dear

– That Which Helps Me Achieve My Aim Practically

– That Which Helps Me Achieve My Aim Spiritually

– Good Things To Keep Close By

– Friends To Cherish

– That Which Holds Me Back Of Which I Must Let Go

Keeping in mind (and referring frequently to) my list of priorities for guidance, I placed each square of paper in the appropriate category.  “Do crackers help or hinder me in my goal to stay fit and healthy?”   Finally, I chose one or two items to put at the very top of each section, signifying that they were the most important items to focus on for the coming year.

This exercise proved to be hugely helpful and enlightening, much more so than I ever would have expected. With everything laid out in front of me, I could see how the pieces fit together, what I value most, and which items were on the chopping block (sorry, Grey’s Anatomy.)

As I moved through the exercise, I found myself shuffling some of the paper squares from one category to another, and as my focus became sharper, a few of them ended up being removed altogether.  As de Saint-Exupéry once said, “he who would travel happily must travel light.”

I found myself undecided on a couple of items, and that in itself was revealing.  I’ll be thinking about those…

Keeping your priorities in plain view at all times is critical if you want to keep the plethora of daily distractions at bay.  I want to share a couple of tools that I have found along the way that have really helped me to stay focused on what matters most.

1. The Quadrant To Do List – From Last Lecture, Randy Pausch

As Randy Pausch said, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and being given 3-6 months to live, he was uniquely qualified to talk about the importance of time management. He suggests making a quadrant to do list and breaking tasks into 4 categories:

-Important, Due Soon

-Important, Not Due Soon

-Not Important, Due Soon

-Not Important, Not Due Soon

His core message is that we must carve out time to work on the important items, even if they are not due soon.  If you find yourself doing something that falls in the “not important, not due soon” category, stop doing it.  You can watch the complete lecture here.

2. The Weekly Planner – From The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey

Covey’s weekly planner template was built on a very simple premise – “put first things first” – and this unassuming philosophy has completely changed the way I schedule my time.  Each week, I list any confirmed appointments under the appropriate time and day, and then in the spaces at the top of each day I list a maximum of 3 other important items that I want to complete.  That’s right, only three things.

That’s the greatest thing about this template:  it prevents you from having a “To Do” list with too many items on it.  After identifying what has to be done, you only have “room” for 2 or 3 other things each day.  This forces you to be both realistic and discerning, putting only the most important things first.  It’s also helpful to see the week as a whole, so you can see where you have blocks of time available, and which activities could be grouped together.

Another wonderful tool that Covey has made available online is the Mission Statement Builder, which guides you through a series of questions to help identify your priorities and core values.

3. Typical Day vs. Ideal Day – From Secrets of Simplicity, Mary Carlomagno

First of all, bless Chronicle Books for releasing what is definitely the best- looking self-help book on the market.

Illustration by Andrea CobbIn Secrets Of Simplicity, Carlomagno suggests completing the following exercise to help identify exactly where your life might be in need of an upgrade.

Step one: list the activities you would typically be doing on an average day at each hour from 6:00 AM to midnight.

Step two: list the activities you would like to be doing each day from 6:00 AM to midnight.

Step three: compare the two lists, determine what is missing from your current schedule, and brainstorm ways to incorporate those items into your daily routine.  Of course, the “no pain, no gain” rule applies here, and you may find that you need to let go of something in order to clear the path for what you really want in your life.  As the Japanese master Nansen once said, “how can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

I’m ready to let go of 2011.  There are some things I will definitely leave behind me, and a few I will take along on my journey.  I will be sure to completely empty my cup of wine this New Year’s Eve so that I am ready and free to receive whatever goodness 2012 has in store.

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You Have Five Minutes To Smell The Flowers: The United Kingdom

Photo by Amanda Kelly

Chance

My recent trip to the UK left me thinking a lot about time.  How it moves, how our feelings move it, how it can be slow or fast, sometimes both at once.

Einstein once wrote: “the separation between past, present and future is only an illusion”.  If that’s true, that might explain why it’s so difficult to live in the present moment and find our footing in “the now” without worrying about what comes next or forgetting what has happened before.  It’s a bit tricky to seize the day when time is so pliable and elusive.

Something tells me that Einstein was thinking more about scientific facts than he was about spiritual growth when he came up with the theory of relativity.  One fact that I know to be true is this: we can’t erase the past, and we can’t access tomorrow, so it seems to me that we have no choice but to put one foot before the other and be as real and good in the present moment as we possibly can.  Of course there is interconnectedness between then and now, but everything other than this moment right here is a black hole that you can’t quite touch.

Even so, I love trying to bend time in my favour.  My second favourite thing about the UK is getting a 5-hour leg up on everyone in North America.  You wake up fresh, tackle the important stuff, and right around the time that your productivity is waning and the Pimm’s starts calling, those lazy sloths over in the West are just wiping the sleep from their eyes.  From a competitive standpoint, they seem so far behind, and that is so satisfying!  From an efficiency standpoint, absolutely nothing could be more valuable than having those five glorious, uninterrupted hours.

You can gain that kind of head start relatively easily, by getting on a plane and catapulting yourself through the air five hours into the future (the closest thing to time traveling we will likely ever experience).  Be careful though because somehow in the process of crossing the Atlantic, I travelled out of a scorching heat wave and landed right in the middle of sweater weather.  Here’s another universal law: whenever I pack cardigans I need more sundresses, and whenever I pack sundresses I need more cardigans.  It never fails.

Alas, welcome to cold and rainy Poundstock, Cornwall, where one can definitely never have enough sweaters (or leg warmers for that matter).  I counted and the population (including the friends I was visiting) is officially 8, one of which is a horse and one of which is a donkey.  Their names are Nemo (short for Geronimo), and Chance.

This place is quiet; it may in fact define rural.  The house where I am staying is nestled so deeply into the green hills that life seems to pause with each sip of tea, and the stone clock perched on the kitchen windowsill is the only obvious indication of forward motion.  I find myself checking it often, just to orient myself.

After a couple of days, my pulse has slowed to match the pace of the grey clouds passing overhead.  I am swallowed whole by the vast quietude, disappearing into the damp, windy pocket of the seaside.  The old house once served as the town’s chapel, and there are still remnants of its earlier purpose to be found, including a cemetery in the back yard.

From under a heated blanket, I pass time by counting the gravestones outside my bedroom window.  How long have they been gone?  Who was their one true love?  More importantly, where are the people who left those flowers?  I didn’t see anyone come by.

Given my hankering for recreational divination, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that I was only four miles north of Bude, where the artist Pamela Colman Smith is buried.  Smith is half of the team who created the world’s most famous and widely referenced tarot card deck (the Waite-Smith tarot) in the early 1900’s.

In Smith’s honour, I pulled a few cards from my travel-sized tarot deck while I was in Cornwall.  My own reading had a very clear and unmistakable message: “NOT YET”.

Southwark

I had a number of opportunities to practice patience on this journey.  One day, my hosts and I packed a picnic basket and walked to Millook beach and this was, to be sure, the longest walk I have ever taken in my life.  Thankfully, I had ample warning of the magnitude of this trek so I was mentally prepared for the five-hour hike.

We crossed endless fields, picking blackberries and passing no one along the way, except for a crusty, old man who bristled past us quickly with his walking stick.  We continued on for miles, chasing the distant glint of blue on the horizon as my companions and I became tiny specks in the rolling countryside.

At the halfway point, we stopped and devoured an entire lemon drizzle cheesecake, stuffing every morsel of yellow and white cream into our mouths with our hands.  Clearly we were now at one with nature; connecting to our wild, animal roots.

We crossed a small wooden bridge, and followed a trickling stream along a shady path that led us to the water’s edge.  When we finally arrived, a heavy wind bullied us back from the massive waves that were thrashing against the rocky shoreline.  We took shelter near a lone, dilapidated boat, shouting inaudible words at each other as our voices disappeared into the salty, howling air.  We huddled there for a few minutes before turning around and heading back towards home.

On another day, we ventured into Padstow, a sleepy fishing village on Cornwall’s northern coast.  The cobbled streets were lined with gourmet ice cream, tea, and confectionary shops intermingling with an array of touristy wares and handmade crafts.  After indulging in some white chocolate Malteser ice cream and trading in our pence for some tiny trinkets, we escaped the sudden downpour by ducking into a cavernous pub where we passed the rest of the evening doodling and philosophizing over plates of fish and chips.

I was hurtled out of this slow, easy world via speeding train into the frenetic activity bubbling over London’s Paddington station.  It almost seems as if Big Ben’s ominous presence casts a spell over all of London, making the city restless and hungry for swift and steady progress.

Having lived in Montréal for most of my adult life, a city where leisure is highly revered, I guess I am used to being surrounded by people with a more laissez-faire attitude.  Unfortunately, this attitude can sometimes manifest itself in the form of unruly facial hair, cycling to pick up a baguette with a baby in your bike basket, or spending an entire Sunday sitting in the park listening to an amateur hand-drumming circle.

Granted, I did arrive in the wake of the recent UK riots, and a recession, but there does seem to be a heaviness that hangs over the heads of many Londoners that is impossible for someone from my background not to notice.  I have not yet decided if my overt positivity stems from my cultural upbringing, or if it is simply part of my genetic makeup.  Optimism is definitely a very Blake trait.  I used the word Blakeness recently as an adjective to describe the unstoppable perseverance and twinkle that exists in all of the members of my family clan.

I’m not judging English stoicism harshly here.  Brits have a slightly less emotional and more realistic approach to life that in some ways I really admire.  We could even say that Londoners are highly evolved because they are capable of living with an intense focus on the demands of the present moment (or millisecond).  I just find myself wondering if anyone ever really stops.  Do they ever make time to lie in the grass and do nothing but dream?  If they do, how long will they allow themselves to lie there before they are overcome with the fear of missing something important or being left behind?

I did not lie around in the grass in London, or buy any heart-shaped rocks (but that was just because my suitcase was full).  I didn’t want to feel or look like a tourist so I took a cue from the locals and busied myself immediately upon my arrival.

First I checked into the stunning 3000 square foot loft near London Bridge where I had the amazingly good fortune of staying.  The crown jewel of this loft is its rooftop hot tub where you can soak up spectacular views of three of London’s architectural highlights: The London Shard, Tower Bridge, and The Gherkin.

I took a short walk along the Thames in and around Southwark, exploring the delicacies at Borough Market, and then made my way to the Urban Physic Garden.

The Physic Garden

The truth is, I went to see this living art installation partially by accident because I thought it was called the psychic gardenAfter visiting, I still think that would have been a much more appropriate name for it.

When I arrived at the garden, I entered tentatively, mainly because it was very weird, and also because I felt like I was trespassing on some sort of hippie cult’s private gathering place. To my right, some longhaired folk were playing ping-pong amidst a slapdash collection of potted herbs and plants.  To the left, people were gathered around a picnic table drinking herbal tea next to a rusty, deserted ambulance (“The Rambulance” aka “Rambling Restaurant”).

Collections of wild, renegade plants were grouped together into “wards” based on their medicinal properties and the specific types of ailments they could cure.  I spent some time studying the plants in the cardiology ward, and then left rather abruptly after passing a sinister looking row of poisonous plants, which I thought emitted a spooky, evil vibe.  They were profoundly creepy and you’ll have to take my word on that because the garden was open for a very limited time only.

I finished my walkabout with dinner at Village East, a trendy restaurant in Bermondsey.  While it may be the perfect place to host a 25th birthday party for hipsters, it is not perhaps the most appropriate place to sit alone reading Michel de Montaigne’s essays on solitude.  I decided to finish my reading elsewhere…back at the loft in the rooftop jacuzzi.

It always amazes me how easily I can slip into a joyous state of calm anywhere in the world, even in the most unlikely scenarios: all I need is a glass of wine and a hot tub.  Throw in some of The Sanctuary’s sandalwood vanilla body butter and I am really on my way to heaven.

It was four years ago that I first discovered this delightful cream, and I will never forget the bliss that overcame me in that Boots drugstore when I took off the cap and inhaled its spicy, sultry scent.  To this day, I am literally overcome with happiness and excitement each time I apply it (and don’t even get me started on the Sanctuary’s hot sugar scrub).

Sanctuary’s products have earned a coveted place on my “favourite things I can only find in the UK” list, and are in very good company alongside: Waitrose’s Rhubarb Champagne Yogurt, Kettle brand’s Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar Crisps, and Boots’ Moisturizing Nail Polish Remover Pads.  The UK has some superior commercial goods, and they know how to sell them to you; this cannot be denied.

I wanted to go straight to the source of my greatest pleasure and see where the body butter magic happens, so I booked myself an appointment at The Sanctuary spa in Covent Garden.  The staff at Sanctuary (a women’s only spa) did have a few good tricks up the flowing sleeves of their blue kimono tops.  First of all, the massage therapist asked me if I wanted to wear any “paper knickers” during my massage, or if I’d prefer to take off my “swimming costume”.  Um, sorry, does that mean get dressed, or undressed, or are we getting ready to do a puppet show with dolls made out of paper?

This masseuse had some intensely good moves; maybe that’s why she thought she could get away with a “less is more” approach.  I am a huge advocate of efficiency and I like to apply it with force in pretty much all areas of my life, but not when I’m having a relaxation massage.

I swear, the oil on my back was just starting to warm up under her hands when she suddenly turned off the pan-flute solo midway through and said “all done”.  Not yet, I thought.  NOT YET.   I’ve never even seen a twenty-minute massage on a spa menu before.  Is that even enough time to lie down?

Another thing about this spa: there are no cold dunk pools.  Yes, there were saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, and two full-sized swimming pools on the premises (one body temperature, and the other cooler, for exercising), but what I really yearned for was a freezing cold, ice water pool.  After spending time in a sauna or steam room, a cold shower just doesn’t cut it.  Remember, Canadians are like polar bears.

Don’t get me wrong, the Sanctuary is a veritable oasis of peaceful calm spread over five floors, and the spa definitely earns its name.  Virtually no sound penetrates the soaring white archways, save for the gentle swish of vines swaying from the sky-high ceilings, or the faint ripple of majestic, white fish gliding across a pool past euphoric women swathed in towels and robes.

I find this kind of quiet much more comforting somehow than being deep in the countryside.  I think it’s because I know that noise does exist just outside the walls and that I am actively choosing to escape from it.  I am lavishly content to escape on this particular Monday afternoon, sipping tea amongst a handful of serene, silent strangers.

I finish the day with a visit to the Sanctuary’s signature “Sleep Retreat Beds”, where I am told that in just thirty minutes, I will experience a total body revitalization similar to getting a good night’s sleep.  The sleep retreat beds vibrate the skin using low frequency sound waves that resonate in harmony with the body’s cells, coaxing the body into total relaxation.

Five women are lying in a row, silent, and as the beds start to hum, a woman’s soothing voice emerges from the darkness to guide us.  She asks us to leave our cares behind as we enter a garden, and to watch the clouds pass by overhead.  She describes the garden, the sound of a fountain, and the feeling of the soft, green grass under foot.  Someone in the room begins snoring, and my meditation is disrupted for a brief moment while I marvel at how anyone could fall asleep so quickly.  Out of curiosity, I press a few buttons on the bed’s remote control to see what will happen, but it just keeps whirring at a steady, languid pace, lightly rocking my legs side to side.

I close my eyes and go back into the garden.  I can feel the sunshine on my face, and I am just starting to make out shapes in the clouds, when I hear our guide say, “Now, prepare to leave the garden”.  Am I the only one laughing, because surely this lady has to be kidding, right?  She may as well have said, “Come to the garden and relax deeply, you have five minutes to smell the flowers.”  Couldn’t I stay a little longer?  I think I was just about to get somewhere good.

Before I know it, I find myself folding time as I traverse the ocean, hours and days turning back and the dark sky changing to light.  Part of me is neither here nor there, and I feel as though I exist in a temporal void between then and now.  As I crawl into bed the blurry edges of my jet lag close around me and I wonder how it can feel both like I have been gone too long and like I left too soon.

New York, New York: The Land Of Milk & Roses

Fireworks Over Williamsburg Bridge

A few years ago, I decided that Sundays were going to be a day free of rules, with one exception: that I could not work.  On Sundays, I do whatever I want, eat whatever I want, and blow off any and all responsibilities I don’t feel like dealing with.  This generally means that on Sundays I am found surrounded by pillows, reading and drinking tea (or wine) in some beach-y, stretchy clothing with my dog napping on my lap.

In my mind, a vacation should feel like one really long Sunday.  It absolutely has to be characterized by quiet, delicious lazing around (even better if it involves a pool or beach) or else I end up feeling robbed of my hard-earned right to relax.  The problem is that when you’ve invested money and time to transport yourself somewhere, you feel obliged to, um, see and do things.

I need to solve this dilemma once and for all and buy myself a beach house in the middle of nowhere so there is nothing to see but the sunset and nothing to do but read, eat, swim or nap.

The fact of the matter is that I had specifically chosen a sweltering, urban landscape as the backdrop for a summer getaway, so damn it, I was going to get spiritual and use this as an opportunity to find my sense of inner peace.  It was a good challenge.

Whereas being in nature is naturally rejuvenating, navigating the complex, cramped subway system in New York while choking back the smell of sweat wafting on waves of 30-degree air is not.  The whole city smelled like four-day-old Big Macs rotting in garbage bins.

I wanted to find something to do that was uniquely New York, but still kind of relaxing.  Where could I sit and do nothing, yet still take the city’s energy in?

I gave Blue Note jazz club a whirl, but the mirrors and décor were far more “cheap resort” than “world renowned jazz club”.  I have been known to get on board with shabby chic when it’s done right, but this place was an outright tourist trap.  My advice: don’t order any food, or many drinks – both were terrible and disgustingly overpriced.  We probably would have considered the $35 tickets a rip off as well were it not for the surprise appearance of flautist Dave Valentin.  Never before have I seen anyone so desperately in need of being in the spotlight; he twitched and scuttled from side to side uncomfortably whenever the audience’s focus shifted away from him for even a moment.  You forgave him for being so needy though because he was really good.  I have now seen two woodwind shows in one month (I also saw a solo gig by saxophonist Colin Stetson recently), so I may be evolving into someone with sophisticated musical taste.

I am ashamed to say that I missed Canada Day celebrations for the first time in my life, but I guess I made up for it (sort of) by participating in a sparkling and festive rooftop 4th of July party.   If only there had been a little less blue mixed in with the red and white…

I was hoping to design a relaxing picnic plus fireworks experience, but I soon discovered that there is no such thing in Manhattan on 4th of July weekend.  All of the green spaces along the water were closed thanks to the citywide Americana and holiday hubbub.  I had tried to scout out some nature in the form of a “lake” in Prospect Park a couple of days earlier, but after spending hours trying to manoeuvre the stuffy, cramped subway, I stood in pained disappointment before a cesspool of fleshy, floating garbage lapping against gravel and tar.  All I could think was, we’re not in Canada anymore, Toto.

Blessed am I that I have friends of friends with a rooftop patio right on Broadway in the heart of Williamsburg.  From there, we could see not only Macy’s dazzling array of 40,000 fireworks, but also the other smaller fireworks displays crackling on the horizon above Brooklyn and Queens.  It was a truly magical night, and I left with a newfound appreciation for all of the possibilities a city like New York offers.  The glittering skyline was endless, unapologetic, and triumphant.  On that particular evening, it seemed to be daring me to achieve something equally huge and magnificent.

But first, let’s get back to delicious, cozy lazing about.

Milk & Roses

One of places where I felt most at home was Milk & Roses café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (look for the unforgettable tuba hanging outside).  The walls behind the bar are lined with books and fine wine, and the café’s centerpiece is a well-loved grand piano.  After spending a couple of afternoons there, I realized that perhaps I felt so at home because this place felt strangely similar to my living room.

The café was opened just over a year ago by a husband and wife team (Tommaso Mazzoni and Helena Yelovich, from Italy and Pennsylvania, respectively) who met on a New York subway train.  The design-savvy pair transformed what was once a dingy kitchenette into a whimsical, lavender-scented library bar complete with a lantern-lit garden (where you will even find outlets for your laptop).  It’s true: there was once a rule posted on the door that laptops were not allowed after dark, but owner Tommaso has given in to the pleading eyes of creative work-at-homers like me who couldn’t possibly find a better place in the city to attempt productivity in public.  When I ask him about the missing notice about the laptop ban (which I had seen on a visit there last year) he throws his hands up and says, “Do as you please, and God bless you!”  For Tommaso, the café has always been about socializing.  Guests who understand this are treated like friends, greeted with his signature Italian hospitality and sometimes, even a little cheese and prosciutto.

Speaking of edibles, there are two other tasty treats in Brooklyn that should not be missed.  First off, the Peruvian chicken with flaming green chili sauce at Pio Pio Riko (it was so good, I actually ate it twice in one week), and secondly, People’s Pops which come in scrumptious flavours like blueberry chai and rhubarb chamomile.  These artisanal popsicles can be found every Saturday at Brooklyn Flea (Fort Greene) and are made with fresh, local fruit.

I didn’t just eat on this trip, I swear.  I tried to explore some historic and literary sights in the city as well, including Dave Eggers inspired writing centre, 826 NYC .  I don’t want to start a sibling rivalry here, but 826 Valencia in San Francisco is way better.  The Brooklyn branch sells “superhero supplies”, but the displays were just a bunch of boxes (you couldn’t see what was inside), whereas 826 Valencia’s pirate supply store was interactive and much more fun to visit.  826 NYC did have a secret passageway leading into the kids’ writing room, though, and a wall of photos of all of their members wearing goofy glasses, which was pretty awesome.

My visit to Library Way was meant to lead me straight to the New York Public Library, but as it turned out, universal forces pulled me on a detour to have my future told by the mystical Julieanna. Aside from answering her cell phone multiple times during our session (which, even given her snazzy crystal collection, made me question her overall cosmic-ness), she was one of the best psychics I have ever met.  She was highly opinionated and specific, which are risky traits for someone trying to appeal to anyone and everyone walking in off East 41st street.

Julianna Palm & Tarot

I  cannot reveal the many wonders that she expressed during my palm and tarot card readings, but I will say that the term “soul mate” was used.  I hope her prediction that my life will be very long is an accurate one, because I will definitely need to go back to New York someday to see more of its many sights.

One important mission in particular remains incomplete: singing Alicia Keys at Papacito’s karaoke night.  We will definitely have to meet again, New York.