5 things I learned in 2015

Beware the barrenness of a busy life. ~ Socrates

Epiphanies and moments of clarity can be simple and, on reflection, obvious. The following list of ‘5 things I learned in 2015’ may seem like statements of the bleeding obvious. They are nothing new, and yet this year I’ve seen new refractions from, and noticed more minute details of, these simple truths. They have been affirmed for me this year through my experiences of being and becoming. Of teaching, leading, parenting, coaching, being coached, researching and writing.

local café wisdom

local café wisdom

1. Doing many things at once can work, but it’s also important to take breaks.

In the last few years I’ve been working 0.8 of a teaching and leadership job at a school, parenting two pre-schoolers and working on my PhD (now submitted – woot!). While I always had a sense that this was working for me in its strange busy way, it wasn’t until my first writing retreat this year that I understood how much. On my retreat, I found it difficult to stay on my one task – editing the PhD thesis draft – for a full weekend. I realised that my routine of intense short bursts of PhD, in among the other many things in my life, worked for me. These short, regular, time-constrained bursts of energetic PhD work were intensive and focused. They felt like an indulgence, some intellectual ‘me-time’ in which I could luxuriate, a brain-bending haven from my other responsibilities. It helped me to love my PhD, while also appreciating the specialness of my teaching, leading and parenting roles.

Yet, as I discovered, relentless busyness is not sustainable. Breaks are required. Real, curl-your-toes-in-the-sand, unplug, breathe deeply and love abundantly kind of breaks. Nourishment for wellbeing. Care for self and others. Time to breathe.

2. Welcome resistance & engage in respectful disagreement.

On my blog, which is now 16 months old, as in Twitter and in my professional life, I have been becoming more comfortable with, and encouraging of, disagreement, although I prefer dissent to be served in a respectful, articulate and reasoned manner. And I prefer disruption which emerges from deep purpose, rather than trendy buzzwordification. Last year I completed the Adaptive Schools Foundation course, which champions graceful disagreement as a key element of high-performing groups. I’ve written a few blog posts which err on the side of controversial. I’ve engaged in Twitter debate. I’ve experienced my first peer review comments from academic journals, and attempted to take critique as an opportunity to strengthen my work. And in my role leading and implementing a school coaching initiative for teachers, I have welcomed the contributions of those who are resistant to the change.

I’ve found those individuals who might be dismissed as ‘resistors’ or negative voices, to be important ones worthy of close listening. I find myself asking those who disagree to take the time to explain their view to me. I listen intently, wondering, ‘What can I learn here? How might this help me to make what we’re doing better, stronger, and meaningful for a wider range of people?’

I am reminded of this line of Richard Bach’s from his novella Illusions:

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.

It is often in engaging with those who disagree with us, that we are taken to new places in our own thinking, helped to consider alternate perspectives, or are able to find solutions which we may otherwise not have reached.

3. Trust individuals. Believe in their capacity. Choose empowerment.

Punitive accountability measures which promote fear and compliance can only undermine teachers’ and school leaders’ professions, identities and practices. Through my experiences of coaching, my PhD research into school leadership and organisational change, and my observations of systems of teacher evaluation around the world, I have become increasingly convinced of the need to focus on empowerment and growth, through support and trust. It’s the belief upon which my school’s coaching model is based.

4. Connections with others are powerful.

We know that connecting with others is powerful. One of my ‘three words’ for 2015 was ‘sharing’ and another was ‘presence’, both words which speak of connecting with others and being present in relationships.

This year, not only have my personal and face-to-face professional relationships been impactful, but so have connections I have made online. For the first time this year, I began to meet ‘in real life’ individuals I’ve connected with on Twitter and through my blog. Catching up over drinks, breakfast or the conference room had been a seamless transition from tweet, blog post or Voxer message, to in-person banter, support and inspiration. I’ve engaged in wonderful blogging conversations. I’ve become bewitched with the potential of our interconnectedness and the ways in which technology might help us grow support networks and knowledge webs.

5. Teeny regular steps add up to a long journey.

My PhD was the thing that brought home this truth to me. Over three years I plugged away with little step after little step, finding stolen moments of doctoral time in the cracks in my days and nights. Regular, persistent effort. Sometimes forward; sometimes back; but maintaining forward momentum. And then I looked back along the path I’d walked and found that it added up to a thesis. So my big lesson was, just put one foot in front of the other. Keep going!

sunset, Gnarabup

sunset, Gnarabup

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Travel and presence: doors to clarity and joy in life and work

offerings, Canggu, Bali, by @debsnet

table of offerings being made

Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe. ~ Anatole France

In 1964 Baudelaire described the flâneur (or for my purposes, the flâneuse) as “lover of universal life” who “enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.” He describes flânerie as the mirroring of crowd and environs, in which the flâneur is a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding … and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

Oh the places you'll go! Canggu mural

Oh the places you’ll go!

As the édu flâneuse, then, I am mindful of channelling this notion of the reflective mirror or refractive kaleidoscope, of being an absorber of words, worlds and wonders. While I try to find awe and gratitude in the everyday, travel is the perfect opportunity for practising the flânerial mindset of intense attentiveness and expansive wide-openness.

Tanah Lot, Bali, by @debsnet

Tanah Lot temple

My recent trip to Bali, in which I gave myself permission to take a break from work and PhD study (and also blogging and even engaging professionally on Twitter), was the perfect opportunity to embrace flânerie and presence (one of my 3 words of 2015). As well as unplugging from constant mental and physical engagement in work and study, I was focused on the travelling mindset, defined by Alain de Botton as being about heightened receptivity. As Adriano di Prato writes on his blog ‘Permission is Triumph’ we must each say ‘yes’ to living our lives in the way we choose.

offerings on Echo Beach rocks

offerings on Echo Beach rocks

While I left home in a flurry of jumbled thoughts, to-do lists, marking piles and thesis pages, I have returned almost delirious with relaxation, centeredness and acute awareness of the present moment. The act of travel, and its immersion in people and places, has allowed me to re-ground myself, reflect and practise receptivity, allowing me to (hopefully) return to daily life, work and research with renewed clarity, purpose and joy.

Ayana Resort infinity pool, Bali, by @debsnet

infinity pool at Ayana Resort, Jimbaran

My experiences away included those with my husband, children and friends. But they also included solo flânerial entanglements in environment. Early morning walks often provide these moments for me. In the past I have watched the sun rise above iconic landmarks including Venice’s St Mark’s Basilica and Prague’s Charles Bridge. There is something magical about being alone in the first quiet golden light of day, watching a city wake up, before it is caught in the throes and machinations of its daily grind. This trip was no exception.

Tumpek Wayang ceremony, Seminyak, Bali, by @debsnet

Tumpek Wayang ceremony, Seminyak

One morning, as I wandered through the streets of Seminyak at dawn, I happened upon a Tumpek Wayang ceremony in which three individuals were led by a holy man in ritual. I was first drawn to this small ceremony by the sounds – the pealing of bells and the twittering of a small caged bird. I drew closer and sat nearby to watch as the ceremony continued, with prayers, offerings and sacred rites conducted with grace and in luxuriant colour. I have since discovered that Tumpek Wayang occurs every 210 days and that its purpose is to honour the god of art and artists, Sanghyang Iswara. After it had finished I was able to talk to the people about the ceremony, its significance and what it meant to them, such as the use of holy rice (bija) for blessings and to bring their god to themselves by placing the rice on their forehead and also by eating it.

basket of petals, Bali, by @debsnet

basket of petals

Another morning, wandering through Canggu rice paddies at sunrise, I encountered a Balinese man, or he encountered me, and we began to talk. He asked me if I was a spiritual person, and we spent the rest of the walk discussing spirituality, blessings, meditation, music and love. ‘Love,’ he said, ‘is when the heart smiles.’ We talked about the meaning of Engelbert Humperdinck’s lyrics ‘there goes my everything’ and the role of music in life and self. I don’t speak Indonesian and this man’s English was limited, but we connected at a moment in time and managed to communicate across cultural and language barriers.

Echo Beach sunset, Bali, by @debsnet

Echo Beach, far away in time

These experiences, as well as other small moments like watching the sunset colours change or talking to a woman as she made the morning’s offerings from baskets of soft petals, allowed me to connect presence, self and world, experiencing it in open, receptive and reflective ways.

Vue Beach Club, Canggu, Bali, by @debsnet

beach club sunset

I have returned from my trip hopeful that I can hold on to this feeling of openness-to-noticing and use my flânerial Spidey senses as a tool to keep me centred on my axis. I am considering how I might bring the idea of paramaterising my commitments to work and PhD into my weekly existence. How might I make attentive noticing and openness to unexpected conversation a daily practice? How might I take more regular self-care breaks in order to restore clarity, increase productivity and protect wellness?

When you take your attention into the present moment, a certain alertness arises. You become more conscious of what’s around you, but also, strangely, a sense of presence that is both within and without. ~ Eckhart Tolle

Canggu rice paddies, Bali, by @debsnet

Canggu rice paddies

 

Giving ourselves permission for a break: time away as self-care and strategic productivity

“What day is it?” asked Winnie the Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh” ~ A.A. Milne

Villa Artis, Bali by @debsnet

Early tomorrow morning I will be on a plane to an island destination for a holiday with family and friends. I should be dreaming of silky cool pool water, fire-coloured sunsets over the ocean, meandering rice paddies reflecting blue skies, the sizzle of seafood on the beach and the clink of ice blocks in cocktail glasses.

Canggu beach, by @debsnet

And yet I have been thrashing around trying to decide whether or not to work or study or blog while I am away. Or whether I can leave it all behind and take a real break, despite ceaseless deadlines. I wonder if this is a common phenomenon in a world in which we are constantly connected to each other, constantly available to our workplaces and constantly curating, creating and sharing vignetted content of our lives and work. While flexible working hours can allow us to make adaptable life choices and social media can allow us to connect with others, do they also contribute to a cycle of relentlessness which we find difficult to break away from?

rice paddies, Umalas, by @debsnet

I have decided that I need to take a full thinking, writing, marking, everything break from my worlds of work, research and writing. One of my three words of 2015 is ‘presence’, so partly this break is about a commitment to being present with my children, husband and friends during our trip. But it is also about being ok with taking an actual break and with a commitment to self-care. I am someone who sees blogging as a break from PhD writing. Or PhD writing as a break from marking. So the idea of a break from all-of-the-things is foreign and has taken some self-convincing.

offerings, Bali, by @debsnet

There are others who have reflected on the importance of self-care, even as we catapult ourselves towards our goals. Raul Pacheco-Vega wrote on self-care in academia and the importance of privileging your own health and wellbeing. New Zealand author Celia Lashlie, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speak about her work, died in February after releasing a statement which read, “My wish is that others will learn to stop before I did, to take into account the limitations of their physical bodies and to take the time to listen to the yearnings of their soul. It is in the taking care of ourselves we learn the ability to take care of others.”

Seminyak sunset, by @debsnet

I love my work and my research, and most of the time I find a tenuous work-family balance. I wrote on the PhD Talk blog about the way that normally it works for me to have many things on the go, as doing any one of them feels like a holiday from the others. I also spoke there about the importance of quiet in-between times. That is, often I make the most cognitive or creative progress, on my PhD thesis or a strategic work problem, when I am walking, or driving, or taking time to be quiet and still. So luxuriating in a full, unadulterated, brazen break is also a strategy to vacation, to vacate the demands of everyday life, in order that I might return with some mental clarity and physical energy to tackle the rest of this year, which includes for me, finishing my PhD thesis and successfully implementing the professional learning and growth model at my school.

So give yourself permission for a break, small or large. To unplug from emails, tweeting, writing or planning. To take care of yourself, curl your toes in the earth and immerse yourself in somewhere, somehow or someone that gives you joy.

(Photos in this post are from a previous trip.)

(How did it go? The post-script to this post can be found here.)

Sea Circus, Bali, by @debsnet