Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Next Thing: Kindness

If you spend any time at all on Facebook, or Twitter, or Pinterest, you'll know that there's an awful lot written about the importance of planning, and varied advice offered on how to go about it.  I'm the pits at planning and always have been, so I read these posts with interest. 

Looking back, I realize that most many of my life decisions have been made in reaction to my circumstances rather than anticipation of what the future might bring.  I've always found it almost impossible to imagine where I might be in five years time or what I might be doing, and the idea of setting a distant goal is nothing less than overwhelming for me. 

I mean, seriously, how can any of us have any idea what the future will bring? If there's anything my life has taught me, it's that life in general is just one big long series of surprises.

But I'm turning fifty-five this week, and clearly I'm at a place in my life where some decisions need to be taken.  Plans need to be made.

So I'm reading about planning.

(lol!  Anything to avoid the actual task!  ;^)

All of the planning posts I read tell me that in order to make a successful plan you must set a end goal towards which you will strive. 

I ran through goals in my mind: 

Not being homeless or hungry in my old age?

Not being lonely in my old age?

Having plans in place for when Alzheimer's takes my mind?  (With our family history, this is likely to happen.)

They're all things that must be dealt with, to be sure, but they're about practicalities, not about passion or about joy.  If I'm to work towards a goal with enthusiasm, it must have a positive place in my heart.

So I sought out posts suggesting how I might identify my goals. 

Several suggested making a mission statement - like businesses do - as a means of defining values and clarifying priorities.  

Good thought!

Surprisingly though, when I set out to make a mission statement, only two words came to mind:

Be kind.

That's it. 

I'm sure it's hardly the sort of mission statement the bloggers I was reading had in mind. A person couldn't build a successful business on the idea, or use it as a basis for concrete plans, to be achieved in quantifiable steps.

But here's the thing:

A few years back, when I was at a very dark place in my life and ready to give up hope altogether, I sought a simple goal to work towards; one that would lift me out of my place of despair and give me the means to move forward.  A two word mission popped in to my head then too:

Be grateful.

I took those two words as my mantra and began to make a conscious effort to recognize and acknowledge the blessings in my life. 

In recognizing those gifts, I found within myself the strength to move forward.  Things got better and they are improving still. Not only does my life seem better to me now because I recognize and am grateful for what I have, but it really is better.

Over time, gratitude became a habit with me and it brought more gifts my way than I might ever have anticipated. Opening my heart to gratitude opened my heart to other things too, like optimism, and friendship, and creativity, and sharing, and - in opening my heart to those things - I made new social connections, learned new things, and found new work.

Perhaps "be kind" is simply the next logical step on my journey.

It's entirely possible that this next step may bring me no tangible benefits at all, but it will, at the very least, help me to have a happy heart. 

And for now that's enough.

I'll continue to work on practical day-to-day stuff too of course but, just now, and for the foreseeable future too, my two word mantra has been expanded to four:

Be grateful, be kind.  Be grateful, be kind.  Be grateful, be kind...

As a mission statement, it works for me.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Horse Chestnuts

These are horse chestnuts, so named to distinguish them from the chestnuts we like to eat in fall and winter. They look similar but are very high in tannin, making them bitter tasting and difficult to digest.

Horse chestnuts are valued shade trees here.  Their smooth grey trunks, towering pyramidal shape, and dense foliage make them a stately addition to large expanses of park land.  They were planted along the boulevards of many of our older streets and now, perhaps a century later, their branches form a shady bower under which both cars and pedestrians find shelter from the summer sun.  

In springtime, horse chestnuts bloom, the tips of their branches bearing upward-growing pyramidal racemes of white, ivory, or dark pink blossoms like the ones shown here.  They're beautiful.

As small children, though, my friends and I treasured horse chestnuts most in the fall.  

The blossoms that decorate the trees in spring transform over the course of the summer into formidable looking, spine bearing, green drupes and inside each of these husks are hidden three or four silky smooth chestnuts, usually about an inch and a half or two inches in diameter.  

As kids, we greeted those chestnuts with delight. 

Even as a child, the beauty of horse chestnuts spoke to me.  I admired the swirls of reddish-brown and dark brown that dressed them, and I loved to gather them up, enjoying their weight in my coat pocket and the pleasure of running my thumb over their smooth skin.  They were my worry beads.

For the boys in the neighbourhood, they incited a flurry of young warrior games.  

Horse chestnuts were gathered as ammunition for sling shots, and they were pierced through and strung on old shoe laces.  

Some were strung with a chestnut and either end of the lace and hurled like bolos at targets marked on tree trunks or fences. (Or school walls.  Sssshhh!  Don't tell!)  

Others were strung singly so their owners could face off against each other, swinging the chestnuts in arcs at the ends of their laces so that they collided with as much force as possible. "Cobbers" would be swung at each other again and again - with poorly aimed chestnuts imperiling unguarded knuckles - until one or the other of the chestnuts shattered.  The owner of the surviving chestnut would be declared the winner and eventually, by means of a complicated tournament structure that only the participants understood, a grand champion would be declared.

These games may seem silly now, but as children they engaged our attention as completely as any computer game might engage a child today.  They helped us learn to derive entertainment from the materials at hand.  Contests were taken seriously, and through them we learned a lot about competition, chance, and fair play, all the while having a great deal of fun.  

Although I can't resist picking them up myself, I notice that the children in my neighbourhood no longer seem to gather horse chestnuts.  Their attention is taken up by other things.  They are busy with organized activities, with cel phones, and with screen time.  Not that these things are necessarily bad; they're part of modern life and our kids need to be proficient with them in order to succeed. 

Still, it makes me sad that the free play games children have improvised for centuries, from the materials nature provides, seem to be on the wane.

Perhaps there's a way to strike a balance?

Perhaps if we let, or even require that, children have a certain amount of unstructured outdoor playtime each day - time with no cel phones, no electronic games, no rules other than those pertaining to basic safety and courtesy - it would be a good thing.  

Kids learn a lot important life skills from free play.  Free play builds social skills and problem solving skills.  It fosters creative thinking and independence.  It helps children to understand and appreciate their environment.  It prepares them to be successful adults by enabling them to find their own ways of interpreting the world around them.

That's a lot from a handful of horse chestnuts isn't it?

What do you think?  Do kids need more free play time?  Would you like to see your kids (or grandkids, or students) spending more time at play without structure or screen time?  

Stop by my Facebook page or Twitter feed and share your opinions. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.