Contemplating trees, out walking the dog last weekend, I was struck by a line of them that have been ‘managed’.

And the reason is evident lying on the ground – a great big one that fell last year on a windy day. Without having chunks periodically lopped off them, they’d get too big and too unwieldy for the park authorities.

I was struck by the fact that mighty as they are – each with the same impressive twisted pattern in their hefty trunks – they were all different shapes and had been chopped back in different places. The results were fundamentally not that shapely. They’re impressive and large, but a bit misshapen and not all that handsome in truth. And my eye was drawn to one that visibly had had a big bough lopped off it.

I felt a bit sorry for this tree. What had it done to deserve such a hacking with a chainsaw. And this set me thinking about life… looked at more closely all the older trees were misshapen. They all stood dignified and tall (except the big one now on its back sawn into pieces) but all of them had been trimmed, twisted and bent out of shape by park life.

There were smaller ones which were still perky and largely symmetrical (here’s one with the dog looking on)…

…but the big ones had all had branches which had been cut back and shapes distorted by arrested growth and long life.

And so with trees it seems to me with people. As I looked at the first tree that caught my eye, with its circled chopped bough, it made me think of my own career and life.

Lots of things I have branched out into have come to an end. Jobs and projects either outgrown by new activities or chopped off by life’s ever-active lopping shears. The odd big life branch has even been hacked off against my wishes like that chainsawed bough. My tree is getting more and more twisted and gnarled – but above all distinctive and different with the passage of time.

Big old trees are products of their environment; and when that environment includes people they get shaped, pruned, lopped, frustrated and ultimately felled. But the individual branches matter less over time.

Old trees stand as evidence of perseverance in all conditions. We may be less pretty as we age, but our many years of adaptation and growth, and the storms and setbacks we have weathered ultimately make us much more interesting.


What a remarkable vegetable the onion is…

As I learnt on an Indian cookery course a few years ago, it’s one of the few ingredient which can bring nearly all the flavours permutations, depending on how and how much you cook it.

Is starts sharp and astringent when raw, softens to sweetness, browns to umami and burns to bitterness.

One of my favourite discoveries has been the Burmese way; half an onion softened at the base of a stir fry and then the other half sliced and added in the final 90 seconds, for some late-breaking crunch and kick.

Today I took my onions slow and sweet with gently bubbled chicken and chimichurri, then later caramelised with celery and carrots as the soffritto base for a main course pasta.

And as with onions, so my moods these last 24 hours… Thoroughly sweated and ultimately browned-off yesterday, after overcooking my week of work. But a sweeter day today, culminating in a golden evening of good food and family board games.

Turn down the burner, and savour and sweetness returns.

Ok is ok

I was talking to a nice chap last evening at a 50th birthday party, and found myself sharing some of the many horror stories from jobs I’ve had.

He was laughing and asked me what explains all the changes in role, sector and subject matter in my career? I said it was pretty simple really – in most of my jobs I’ve been like a cat walking on hot bricks looking for the first credible opportunity to jump!

The problem is it has often been from frying pan to fire!

Still, as we chuckled I did say the one advantage is I’m pretty much unshockable these days. Given the number and sheer variety of car crashes I’ve been part of in working life, it’s much harder to knock me out of equilibrium now.

And then I rather amazed myself, by saying I think I’ve finally lost my imposter syndrome… a previously constant companion throughout my working life! Having done a bit of almost everything, (and often having it go wrong on me) I realised I have achieved a greater balance between my expectations and my reality.

Of course the trick is to adjust your expectations – not to try to transform reality. That way madness lies.

In accepting who I am, what I have done and what I can do, I realised last night that a greater sense of equanimity has broken out. It’s not that I don’t care or don’t try – it’s just that I’m a bit more realistic about what I (or anyone) can do about all the things which go on around us.

I suppose I’ve accepted that I may not be amazing at everything that work throws at me; but I’m ok at most of it. And that’s all you really need to be. Ok is ok when you’re in your fifties, it mostly gets the job done.

Of Hope, Mules and Mindfulness

A friend sent me this yesterday, on the topic of hope:

Ah, hope! You probably know the old story. A farmer throws his old, decrepit mule down a well. And starts shovelling earth onto it to bury it.

The mule gets a shovelful of earth in its hair and at first is resigned to be buried alive. Then it notices that if it shakes its head, the earth falls to its side, and that it can step up onto the new soil.

And that’s how it lives (and eventually gets out of the well) – shake it off, and step up. Shake it off, and step up!

And as I replied just now:

A great deal to like here. And the mule is excellent – very much what I think mindfulness is; shaking off the earth one shovelful at a time! 

It’s quite a nice way to think about it really. Especially as we continue to be showered by debris from despots, demagogues – and own goals from our own democratically elected leaders!

Hand Sanitiser

That pandemic favourite – hand sanitiser – has been on my mind this week…

Once touted (with hand washing) as the indispensable saviour in COVID infection control, we all stocked up by the gallon. But as respiratory transmission became more and more commonplace, the question arose: what to do with all this HandSan?

Noticed first by my partner, and then rapidly adopted by me – we discovered HandSan does a terrific job on spots and blemishes… Happy days! Dab a blob and spots give up the ghost, and both the HandSan and the the spots quickly disappear without a trace.

But not just bacteria and facial blemishes – HandSan does a steady job of battling our fungal friends too. Athletes foot, whilst not eliminated, is certainly curbed by high alcohol goo. One of my toenails is telling testament to this, improving week on week with twice daily applications in the bathroom.

But the bigger reason I’ve been thinking about hand sanitiser is as a metaphor for life. Last Friday was the memorial service for a friend who died – probably due to COVID – in the spring of 2020. Blood clots and a brain haemorrhage were the final killer we suspect, but COVID was a likely trigger for both.

A family man and senior civil servant, perhaps in some ways it was better for those closest to him that some time had to pass before any significant number could gather in memorial. It felt like we remembered him with an unbridled wave of positive feeling, not the more tentative eulogies sometimes offered in the face of the raw anguish which follows a sudden death.

Everyone who spoke for Steve – and there were many – reminded us of his warmth, endless positivity, kindness, ready smile and total absence of gratuitous ambition, edge or sharp elbows. Notwithstanding this (and one hopes because of it) he rose to a very senior position; whilst impeccably contributing to the raising of three lovely children into their teens and young adulthood.

I don’t think anyone could have achieved more in the rounded service of family, friends and the wider public or have been appreciated more for it. Taken in his prime, we remembered him as a simply great person in every sense of the word.

After the event, talking to my partner, we both said (and she said another of our friends had also quietly mentioned) the thought had crossed our minds: “how could my funeral ever match-up to that”. Not that it’s a competitive business, just that with the memories of him so bright and large, we felt a little small and monochrome in our achievements and ongoing lives.

Because he left us in his prime everyone’s memories were fresh and his colleagues and friends all were able and wanted to be there. But what will it be like for those of us who might live another 25-30 years…

The audience will be much different. Probably fewer, and at much later stages in life, children will now themselves be in their 50s (the age of the friends at Steve’s memorial). And we will be remembering a life through a different prism. Much more like my father-in-law’s funeral last winter, where he was remembered by his bookseller not his work colleagues. In fact we scarcely touched on his working life at all.

So why does this lead me to HandSan? Quite simply because having experienced my father-in-law’s passing – and sifted through the many objects, possessions and general detritus of his life as part of clearing his house, I’m clearer on my end game. My aim is not to match Steve. My objective is to disappear at my passing, like a small blob of hand sanitiser.

Pouf (as the French say). One minute you’re there, the next you’ve disappeared into thin air. I’m aiming to have the fewest possessions, the smallest footprint and the simplest end. I’m thinking let go of the memorials, the legacy, any pressure to be remembered or fear of not being; and just settling for the the last volatiles of my final breaths floating off into the ether. Pouf, gone. A life lived, the job done.

Letting go of the memorial service lifts a burden from the mind. Having seen one of the best, I’d be surprised if anyone will ever top Steve’s. So my plan is to keep my life simple, and to seek to simplify it further all the time. Wanting less – including less of a parting fanfare – is the way to go, literally and figuratively. No fanfare equals more freedom.

Here’s to being like hand sanitiser: one minute here; the next gone.

: )