On the Way to Stupid

A friend was driving me round Madrid today and I told him I always used a GPS to get to the shop we were going to. He told me he never used a GPS if he could avoid it as he had always been good at finding his way around, had good spacial/directional awareness and wanted to keep using it.

This struck me as a very good idea. I told him I used a calculator to check my 8 year-old son’s maths homework (I’m talking multiplications like 2,340 x 8), because it was a pain to think about doing it any other way. He was shocked – he does the sums.

I told him I can only remember three phone numbers now – my mobile, the landline, and my wife’s mobile – all the rest are in the phone, so why bother memorising them? He told me he makes sure he can memorise at least all the numbers of his family.

Clearly, all this tech could make me stupid. How are our brains going to be when we are 70 if we don’t have to exercise them nearly as much as we used to? Memory? Calculation? OK, we don’t need to memorise phone numbers any more and never will, but memory is still useful and it wouldn’t hurt to exercise it!

The most challenging thing my brain is doing these days is learning to sight-read music. I was thinking of ditching it as you can get away without it perfectly well on the guitar (at my level anyway), but I think this is one more reason it’ll be worth continuing – to keep my brain challenged! To keep it making new, fresh connections with new, tricky material.

And whenever I can avoid it, the GPS is staying in the glove compartment, I’d rather have fun getting un-lost every now and again using the compass in my nose!

Images of Inspiration

Sometimes I go down to our local church, when it’s open but there is no Mass going on, and sit in the pews for a while. It’s very very quiet, there is often incense burning, and occasionally quiet Gregorian chant over the loudspeakers along the aisles. I’m not catholic, and for the first few times I went I would worry that a priest might approach me and check my religious credentials, but after a while I realised no-one had any interest in my presence, and I could use the church as a temple, a place to settle and find some real peace in that quiet space.

I’m fascinated by the other people that come in, mostly elderly Spanish ladies, 90% women in fact, some younger than me, and one middle-aged man who comes and kisses the feet of the life-size crucified Jesus’s feet perhaps 50 times before leaving by the back door. There is an elderly man too who prepares the alter for the next Mass, then walks around and around the outer aisles, clearly using the near-empty church as his exercise grounds.

Recently I looked up at the alter and was struck by the wooden panels depicting scenes with the Saints. What struck me was the bright golden halo around the Saints’ heads, painted as a thick gold band similar to these (not from the local church, courtesy of wikipedia):

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What was it that these men and women had done to earn that halo? Can you imagine living a life so worthy that an aura of gold should shine around you? The halos seem very real to me and  bring to mind great goodness, kindness, compassion, strength, faith, peace. Not religious qualities necessarily, but qualities of the greatest human potential for good. And those figures with halos fill me with a desire to live a life that embodies these qualities too. They really inspire me.

In our garden we have a statue of Buddha, that I often pop down to see when I’m feeling troubled. He too embodies many of the qualities above, but more than anything he embodies peace and equanimity. He sits in the garden, eyes half-closed, a half-smile, and no matter what happens in life, this composure of his never changes.

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Obviously he is a statue, but I am sure the real Buddha was as peaceful and equanimous as this. When I’m stormy or unsettled by events in life, his peace gets me back in touch with mine. He sits there and says, don’t worry, this will pass, like everything else does. Mountains sit in much the same way, with that same timeless knowledge.

Finally, I received an email recently from a group in Seville that practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Master whose teachings have made such a huge difference to my life. It included this image, below, of Thich Nhat Hanh, and for weeks I was unable to delete the email from my inbox, because every time I looked at the image it reminded me of the qualities embodied by this man, above all an enormous energy of compassion, and a reminder to return again and again to the most important things in life – love, listening, inner peace, and the wonders of the present moment that cost us nothing and are available to us 24 hours a day. I leave you with that image, and a link to a short audio (or video if you prefer) of his that reminded me too of all this, the title of which says it all: Our appointment with life.

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Las Negras – El Playazo

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This is El Playazo, a wild beach not far from the village of Las Negras in Almeria. It’s reached by winding down a sandy desert road past cactuses, ruined houses, and a small, ragged palm plantation, until suddenly the vast beach unfolds before you.

The landscape here is arid beyond words. It could easily be somewhere in the Middle East, and the simple, dry intersecting lines of the landscape are particularly calming on the mind as they offer such simple visual information.

For the first few hours it shocks me, this boy from Green Old Oxford, it seems to go totally against my landscape-DNA, but soon I’m surprised to find I love it. I feel like I’m somewhere special at the far end of the world.

Wandering past a VW camper in the carpark I looked in to see that the owners, a young couple of free-living beach-roamers, had two black and white prints hanging on the inside wall of the van. One was of a chequered courtyard in, perhaps, Morocco, with two men emerging from deep shadow into a pool of light to one side, in flowing white robes.

The image was so striking – the contrast of light and dark, the beautiful figures, the suggestion of another far-flung part of the world – that I felt instantly enamoured by photography again and ran to the beach with my camera – in this case my phone – to capture the image above of the sea rising up to the shore.

Beginning again

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It’s been a long, hot summer in Spain, the greatest relief from which was a trip up to Sallent de Gallego (drawn above) high in the Pyrenees. It’s a beautifully preserved village where a music festival is held in the last two weeks of July every year, the very best escape imaginable after the rising heat of a Madrid summer.

While walking around the streets of Sallent I came up with a fun sort of meditation practice which was simply to say ‘begin again’ to myself every time I found my mind wandering from the present moment. When I said it I’d clear my mind and look closely at whatever I had in front of me – so that everything was new time and again. I enjoyed this enormously, and it kept my chattering mind a little quieter as well.

It made me think a lot about ‘beginning again’. Can’t we begin again at any moment in life? A relationship? A project? Whether these be new, old or just continued. And just as a person can begin anything anew at any time, couldn’t a nation begin again in its relationship with another country or the rest of the world? Perhaps it wouldn’t take much.

All of us have that ability, to begin anew.

Now, two notes on the present moment. After the Pyrenees we went to Plum Village, the retreat center set up by Thich Nhat Hanh over 30 years ago. We’ve been to the summer retreat there every year for the last 8 years.

At one moment I found myself sitting at the steps of a Vietnamese bell tower rather overwhelmed by various things going on in my mind, looking at a monk I know well and thinking to myself, ‘I want to go over there and ask him if there isn’t some magic pill I can take to melt all these troubles away and put me straight into the present moment.’

At that moment I remembered – ‘but that’s what they’ve been teaching me here for all these years! All you have to do is follow your breath!’ But before I could even do that I just felt the breeze on my neck and listened to a guy playing the guitar a few feet away and there it was, in crystalline perfection, in its absolute simplicity, the present moment in the music and the breeze.

There is no magic pill. It’s just there waiting for us, perhaps all we have to do is to ask to be in touch with it. And when you find it, all the mind-made troubles disappear. The labyrinth falls away to reveal just this – just what’s right in front of you. Pure beautiful reality.

Later this summer I listened to a fascinating podcast about a police officer who had brought mindfulness into her work on the streets, which included an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh. He said:

“My practice is to live in the here and the now, and it is a great happiness to be able to live and to do what you like to live and to do. My practice is centred in the present moment. I know that if you know how to handle the present moment right, with your best [intention], then that is about everything you can do for the future. That is why I am at peace with myself. That is my practice everyday and that is very nourishing.”

How wonderful! To dedicate one’s life to living in the here and the now, and by taking care of the present the best you can, to take care of the future.

But what struck me equally was the phrase ‘That is why I am at peace with myself.’ Can I say that? At the time I took out a pen and paper and wrote down all the things that I thought were keeping me from that peace, and whether I could do anything about them in that present moment.

I was able to resolve the biggest thing on the list with a single phone call to someone very important that very morning, in that present moment, and peace returned for the rest of the day, and the days that followed. It’s true, all we can do is take care of the present. It’s all we’ve got, and it’s alive with myriad possibilities for resolution, peace, and beginning again, in any way we care to imagine, and at any moment we choose.

British Spanish Double Nationality

I have happily signed this change.org petition to allow the roughly 24,000 British people like me who live, work and pay taxes in Spain, the right to double UK-Spanish nationality.

As things stand, the most sensible thing to do now for people in my position in response to Brexit is to take on Spanish nationality, something I am delighted to do as I feel more than half-Spanish after 18 years here, but under current legislation, that means I have to renounce my British nationality to the Spanish authorities at the same time, as they do not allow Brits to have double nationality (they do allow this however to all South American citizens, and a few other countries, so it is quite possible).

To give up my British nationality feels like renouncing a great part of my identity, and allowing double nationality with the UK would solve this serious problem that Brexit has created.

A life well lived

I still read a lot of biographies, mostly on wikipedia, the ‘early life’ section, to see how very talented people got where they got to. I sometimes wonder if this is healthy, but then again 20 years ago it was obituaries that fascinated me, and seeing as a lot of the bios that I read are about people that are still alive, perhaps I’m heading in the right direction.

The answer to how very talented people get where they get to is that they usually started doing what they do very young and did it obsessively for ever afterwards.

So now I’m learning the guitar I read bios of guitarists that fascinate me, always interested to see the path they took, and I discover that they all started somewhere between the ages of about 9 and 15, and were usually very good very quickly.

But why am I so fascinated by this? Do I want to become a famous guitarist? No! Yes! (…says my inner teenager)… No – really, it isn’t necessary.

One of the best days I had recently was up in the mountains above Madrid on my own watching butterflies in the woods, thinking they live for only a day and look how well they spend it. Fluttering amongst flowers and grasses. Relaxing on sticks or tree bark. Finding a mate. Then they’re gone.

They just live. And in fact they live from between a week to 9 months or more, the one day thing isn’t true, but still, not long. And unless there is a butterfly Jimi Hendrix or Mozart or Shakespeare which we have no idea about (who knows!), I’m pretty sure they aren’t comparing themselves to famous butterflies and just fly about, enjoying the flowers, being outside, and consider that a life well lived.

I’d have to agree with them.

The Internet Buffet! All You Can Over-Eat!

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This is self-art-therapy. All that’s missing from the image above, is my own arm reaching up to operate the pump! Because I’ve only got myself to blame for my recent Youtube indigestion!

The Net is so immense, such a vast all-you-can-eat buffet these days that I really have to take care when I sit down in front of a screen. First, years back, I managed to kick Twitter, fed up with it sending me all over the place for half an hour every time I checked in. Then Facebook, which tipped me over the edge when the autoplaying videos got added, but Youtube? I thought I was safe there!

No! With my new interest in guitar playing I now have twenty seven quintillion 2 to 15 minute videos to watch! Want to learn a Simon and Garfunkel song? Here are 423 people to show you how! Want to find out about a new amp you want to buy? 735 reviews are ready to watch right now!

And I sit and watch them all, and stuff myself ’til I’m dizzy and nauseous and swear I’ll never do it again… until the following morning! But I’m learning, slowly. This human body isn’t up to opening the great Internet Tap and sitting thirstily underneath, senses wide open, gorging and gorging.

So here’s to internet self-control, to ‘consumo responsable’ as it says on bottles of booze in Spain. The internet is incredible. In the right doses. These days, I’m better off outside.

What Spain Has Given Me

This morning I was walking back from dropping my son off at school with a Spanish dad, talking about food in the north of Spain – how incredibly good it is, and what insanely abundant portions they give you.

A ‘menu del día’ in Asturias might involve a light soup for starters, followed by a mighty ‘fabada’ (bean stew with chorizo, black pudding and ham – and the serving bowl is left on your table so you can serve yourself as much as you want), then comes the main course… I usually, prudently, go for fried eggs and chips, though there’s usually a vast steak on the menu.

Then pudding, often a home made ‘flan‘, egg custard. All for ten euros, bread and a bottle of wine included. The trick is to leave not feeling completely overwhelmed from overeating.

When I first got to Spain 18 years ago, I couldn’t understand why the Spanish talked about food so much. I couldn’t eat olives either. Or start a night out at 9 or 10pm (“what am I going to do until then?!” I used to think). And now having lunch at 2pm, chatting about food for hours, and eating every kind of olive under the sun, is the most natural thing in the world.

18 years in Madrid… after I decided, aged 26, that I couldn’t face another winter in London. So I jumped on the Eurostar, then an overnight train from Paris to Madrid, and, intending to do a TEFL course for a month then head on to the coast, have been here ever since.

I’ve got a Spanish wife, children, have been an English teacher, a travel writer, a translator, and for the past ten years my wife and I have run Notes in Spanish, an online business teaching Spanish via podcasts. I’ve helped run mindfulness retreats round the country, and am on the committee for the school fete.

Increasingly I feel sort of half Spanish. I never feel that there’s any barrier between me ‘the foreigner’ and the other parents at school for example. There are occasional jokes about English habits, and jokes about the Spanish from me in return, but I feel absolutely accepted here, and absolutely part of the fabric of school and family life. That took a while. The first five years I kept catching myself walking around Madrid and thinking “what on earth are you doing here?! How on earth did that happen?!”

Someone suggested I write about what living in Spain has given me, to encourage people to see the benefits of the UK staying in Europe. After so long away I admit that I feel very disconnected from the whole debate because my life is now so centred here. It did occur to me that if the UK leaves the EU I might one day need a visa or something to stay here, which seems a bit crazy and unlikely, and is purely a selfish concern.

As a foreign person living in a close-knit school community, and benefitting enormously from that, it also seems a bit mad to want to leave the support a community provides, even if the other members drive you mad sometimes and do things you don’t like. But that’s about as far as I get with the politics of the whole decision.

But certainly I can talk about what being an Englishman living and working in Spain has give me. It’s given me everything. Work, family, friends, food, landscapes, olives, the streams and forests of the Sierra de Madrid, the joy of running the school fete, a whole new language, a sort of surrogate Catalan family in a small village north of Barcelona that I visit often. Spain has enriched my life more than I could possibly have dreamed when I wandered over here 18 years ago, and I’m immensely grateful for that.