Are you sitting comfortably?

Are you sitting comfortably?

The sun is streaming in through the lounge window and the sky is an unbroken summertime blue. It looks like a beautifully warm spring day and yet when you step outside it’s hard to believe how cool it is. It might be disappointing to discover that winter hasn’t quite lost its grasp but it reminds me that we need contrasts like warm and cold or winter and summer, to make sense of the world.

The news is full of horror stories about war, economic crisis and climate change while social media is awash with tales of human endeavour, extraordinary acts of kindness and a genuine feeling of people fighting back against social injustice. The world seems to be full of differences that conflict with each other but we need both halves of the picture to form a whole. There is no good without evil, no kindness without self-interest and no reward without sacrifice. On a personal note everything seems to be falling into place; we love our new home, I have found a job I really want to do and we have exciting long term plans that look more feasible with each passing month. So why do I have this nagging feeling that something isn’t right? It must be something to do with that old chestnut, the comfort zone and how it can sometimes make us feel strangely uncomfortable.

Life is all about contrasts; it’s the way that we measure things, one against the other. From something as simple as flopping into a comfy armchair after hours standing on your feet to stepping out into the unknown from a cosy secure lifestyle, it is the difference between the two sensations that enable us to measure them and it’s the difference that creates the experience.

Gill and I couldn’t be more in the comfort zone right now. No financial worries, a simple but comfortable home, good friends, a happy marriage, good health, what more could anybody want? I’m enjoying the option to simply wallow in comfort for now but I know it won’t last. There will come a time when I have nothing to contrast the safe and cosy lifestyle against other than the fading memories of another very different one from two years ago. We do this quantifying thing on many levels from the micro, shifting in a chair to get more comfortable and saying, “Ooh, that’s better”, to the macro; moving house, changing jobs or packing our world into a few bags and taking off travelling. We are doing it all the time at one level or another, it’s our way of ‘tasting’ the world.

Sometimes life deals us a blow that turns our comfortable world upside down and reminds us to appreciate what we have. Of course nobody actually wants to lose their job suddenly or suffer an unexpected illness or accident but in the aftermath of these awful experiences people often talk of the positives that can come out of them. These things may be out of our control but they are another way that we can see and measure one part of our lives against another. Like it or not, I think we need these upheavals now and again to stem the rot of stagnation. Obviously though, it is so much better if we can create the disruptions of our own accord, and in a good way, rather than through some terrible misfortune.

Alastair Humphreys published a book called, Micro Adventures, all about fitting short exciting experiences into busy lives when ‘packing it all in and taking off’ just isn’t an option. (That’s covered by his new book, Grand Adventures.) He advocates such things as climbing a hill after work and sleeping out under the stars in sharp contrast to the normal pattern of commute home, have tea, watch telly, go to bed, repeat. The thing about doing something a little bit crazy and maybe uncomfortable like this is that it can actually make the tea, telly, bed thing quite appealing. Contrast; it’s all about contrast.

I like Alastair’s idea of the micro and the grand adventures but I would quibble over the exact terminology. I would suggest that his micro adventures would be better described as mini ones and the term micro could then be reserved for the really tiny but important things like watching the stars rather than the telly or getting up early to see the sunrise.

Worth getting up early for

Worth getting up early for

I would like to think that the next few years of our lives, assuming we can predict anything of course, will be cosy and comfortable but I also know that it won’t be enough. It’s going to take a whole load of micro adventures and a fair number of mini ones if comfortable is going to remain satisfying. Maybe there is a lot more to the phrase, “make yourself comfortable”, than you might at first think. I think that it is something that we have to work at constantly and it never comes alone. There is no such thing as comfortable without uncomfortable.

Somewhere between all these contrasts and differences there lies a rich vein of reward that is just waiting to be tapped.

Wishing for the moon.

I have just read an article by micro adventure advocate Alastair Humphreys. As usual, it got me thinking.

Reflection on a long wiggly line

Reflection on a long wiggly line twelve months on

It is one year today since we got home from our long cycle tour around the coast of Britain. The anniversary brings with it a lot of reflection on what the trip meant to us and how it changed us. These challenging thoughts are accompanied by big decisions as we get closer to the time when we are in a position to stop working should we choose to. Right now, my thoughts are like a collection of washing tumbling backwards and forwards in a drier. Complex, tangled and not yet ready to be folded and stacked into neat organised piles.

In one sense we certainly got what we wanted from our break. It shook us up and gave us the thrust we needed to break away from whatever shackles every day life had tied us down with. We hoped that it would lead us in new directions and in some ways it has. We just aren’t too clear on which direction yet. Having a taste of adventure leaves you hungry for more, whatever form it might take.

We have made a decision recently that both excites me and worries me at the same time. We have been talking about the idea of living on a narrow boat and having weighed all the pros and cons we have come to the conclusion that it might be better to wait until we are in a position where we can do it without having to work. That’s fine except that it is probably at least five years away and that is where I am struggling. You see before we went away, and to some extent the reason we went away, was because we were really starting to understand the importance of living in the present. Making a five year plan feels like the very antithesis of ‘carpe diem’, or ‘seize the day’. In that sense our current idea seems like an abandonment of everything the trip taught us.

The plan I am talking about is to buy a cheap park home by cashing in some savings and to live rent free whilst clearing a mortgage on a house we own. That house produces a rental income and is part of the retirement plan. At about the same time that the mortgage is cleared a small private pension matures and we could then sell the park home, buy a narrow boat and sail off into the sunset free from the burden of earning a living. It sounds great when written down like that but for the small matter of wishing away those five years. So there lies our challenge. How do you maintain two focuses, one on today and the other years in the future, the second of which we have no guarantee of even reaching.

It doesn’t help that I happened to talk to a couple on a boat last week who live on board and manage to hold down part time jobs. Conversations like that fill me with doubt over whether we are doing the right thing. Maybe we should just throw caution to the wind and go for the narrow boat option now rather than wait. Who knows, we might not even like life on board. We might be waiting for five years only to find that actually, it wasn’t worth waiting for. I doubt that somehow though.

The challenge now is to seize the day, every day, just in case that distant dream, for whatever reason proves to be beyond our grasp. It’s a tricky one and it’s a good reason to set the alarm for 2am tomorrow and to get up and look at a giant red, eclipsed super moon because there wont be another one until 2033. By then, if we survive, we will know if we did the right thing waiting five years to do the right thing.

Moon

Risk and uncertainty

Well that’s the dry January challenge out of the way. Giving up alcohol for a month definitely felt like it had two sides to it. It was a challenge, no doubt about that and I am enjoying the sense of achievement, but alcohol and its potential for addiction and damage lent a certain gravitas to that particular trial and now I am looking forward to something a little less serious. And maybe easier.

I came across the concept of a thirty day challenge about a year ago when I listened to this TED talk and it has intrigued me ever since. Having set about doing the dry January thing I listened to the talk again and I am fascinated by the potential change it can bring about.  It feels like it might be a voyage of discovery and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you will know I like that kind of journey.

Amongst outdoor types there is a lot of talk and excitement right now about ‘micro adventures’. It was started by adventurer and blogger Alastair Humphreys and seems to have taken on a life of its own. There are Micro Adventure Facebook groups springing up all over the place. People will typically climb a hill and bivouac out under the stars for just one night.

Just the place for a cosy night's sleep

Just the place for a cosy night’s sleep

They try to capture some of the excitement and sense of risk that adventures bring without having to commit to weeks or months away from home. I love the idea but I really don’t think it has to stop at ruffty tuffty outdoor stuff. If you look up ‘adventure’ in the dictionary you get various different definitions but I particularly like this one; “the participation or willingness to participate in things that involve uncertainty and risk”. There is no mention of mountains, freezing temperatures or frostbite. Nothing about physical endurance or working through pain barriers. Which brings me back to this thirty day thing.

The idea is simply to do something different for thirty days and see what the outcome is. When I say different, it might involve giving something up or it might involve doing something you don’t normally do. Either way it will certainly involve uncertainty and it may involve some kind of risk. (Such as discovering that you are an alcoholic after all.) This suggests that by definition it must be an adventure. Or at the very least a micro adventure.

My own thirty day challenge this month is to write something every day. I’ve set a lower limit of three hundred words per day and depending on the outcome I may publish some of them here or I may store them in my overflowing digital waste bin. It isn’t necessarily about writing a blog every day, just the discipline of practising the writing process and honing a skill that gives me a lot of pleasure. There is an element of testing myself which I like. It’s also an adventure.

Writing something every day definitely fits the definition. Goodness knows what kind of drivel might ensue (uncertainty) and publishing could expose me to any amount of ridicule (risk). I’m quite excited by this February challenge. I love a good adventure. Now where do I buy an expedition grade armchair to work from?

Oh, and thanks to my friend Sue for the wonderful hashtag of #writesaidfeb.

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