On sea dragons, mindfulness and writing in bed

I’m so excited! Well no, I haven’t spotted the Easter Bunny but, even better, I’ve seen a weedy sea dragon. Sea dragons, despite the fearsome-sounding name, are the most beautiful and delicate marine fish belonging to the same family as sea horses. In fact, the weedy sea dragon is the marine emblem of the State of Victoria. I was walking along the beach with Bertie dog (thankfully he was too taken up with his new ball to notice the long-snouted creature washed up on the sand) and there it was. What struck me most apart from its elongated form were the amazing colours on its body: reds, pinks, yellows and oranges. What a wonderful creature to behold!

A weedy sea dragon

A weedy sea dragon

Later that same day I was reminded of the deep red patches on the sea dragon as I was slicing beetroot to roast for a salad. And, for once, I was really absorbed in what I was doing. I noticed the marbling inside the beetroot, the shapes reminding me of the knots and rings you find in wood. There’s something so richly rewarding about slowing down the mind and its incessant chatter so that we notice and really see what’s around us. And our focus and concentration improve dramatically.

Much as we think we’re getting ahead by multi-tasking, research in neuroscience shows that we’re actually creating scrambled wiring in our brains when we do two or more tasks at once. And, apart from damaging our brains, the bottom line is that it’s impossible to give our full attention to two things simultaneously and do them both well. To quote from Mind Gardener (mindgardener.com) the average person has up to 50,000 thoughts and 12,000 internal conversations a day. It’s amazing we manage to get anything done at all!

And so I was fascinated to hear Sir Michael Dobbs, author of the best-selling House of Cards and, more recently, his Winston Churchill novels, telling Phillip Adams on Late Night Live that he does some of his writing in bed. Dobbs described going back to bed in the morning when the family house is quiet and he can write with a pen and paper without being interrupted by flashing icons on a computer screen. Of course, as Phillip Adams reminded listeners, Barbara Cartland was famous for penning (churning out) her romantic novels in bed wearing one of her pink negligees. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia she left behind 160 manuscripts which have now been published as ‘The Pink Collection.’ I don’t like taking to my bed to write as it reminds me of being ill and confined to barracks. However, I like to take a notebook around with me and write long hand in a café or park. I often find it overcomes writers’ block and frees up the flow of ideas. Staring at a screen – especially one with distracting emails and messages popping up – does little to stimulate creativity.

I can fall into the mindless, multi-tasking, rush-rush-rush, go a million miles an hour habit as easily as the next person. But when I tap into a bit of mindfulness, I remember why it feels so good. Although our natural tendency is to speed up to get things done, slowing down actually creates more time and brain space. And that’s when we spot treasures like a sea dragon on the sea shore. Wishing all my followers a mindful and restful Easter. Watch out for the bunnies!


Keeping Creativity Alive

Earlier this week I was forced to watch daytime TV. What else can you do when you’re lying captive in the dentist’s chair with nothing but the overhead screen to distract you from the all the grinding and drilling going on in your mouth? I only go to the dentist about every six months but the morning shows on the commercial channels never seem to change much, whether it’s the airbrushed, super enthusiastic, white-teethed, blow-waved presenters, the endless offers for age-defying creams or the features on new-fangled miracle diets and time-saving household gadgets. But, on this occasion an interesting story caught my attention.

It all started with a 9-year-old boy called Caine Monroy who built an elaborate games arcade out of cardboard boxes in front of his father’s spare auto parts store in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. It so  happened that a film-maker stopped by to purchase a door handle for his car and was inspired to make a film, which was posted online and received over  one million views on the first day. What’s more, it spawned what has now become the Global Cardboard Challenge, an annual competition that invites children around the world to let their imagination run riot and create with cardboard.  To give you an idea, here’s a clip featuring Australia’s 2012 contribution.

I just love this! In our busy, achievement-driven lives creativity often gets squeezed out and neglected. Although technology can be a fabulous learning tool and create community connections worldwide, I feel lucky to have grown up in a pre-digital world where imagination and make-believe, rather than screens and keyboards, were constant companions. I used to make perfume with rose petals, cook up inedible and fantastic concoctions in the kitchen, dress up and put on plays, scribble in notebooks, splash paint on the page and generally muck about in the garden.

It’s the simplicity and accessibility of Caine’s Arcade project that is so appealing: it’s three-dimensional and operates in the real world, it’s open to anyone who can rustle up some old cardboard (yes, it ticks the sustainability and recycling boxes too), is endlessly variable and taps into right brain thinking and inventiveness. Thousands of people have since travelled to Caine’s Arcade, schools have embraced an educational version of the project, and kids around the globe are crafting cardboard constructions of all shapes and sizes. Inspired by this response and with a grant from the Goldhirsh Foundation, the Imagination Foundation was set up to encourage and fund creativity in children.

I’ve often thought what I’d do if I won the lottery – wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have? – and one of my dreams has always been to set up a foundation that would offer financial support to struggling creative types – writers, actors, thinkers, musicians, film-makers etc – who get stifled and bogged in routine, bill-paying 9-5 jobs that crush their creative spark.

Creativity is our birthright and, like any other part of us, needs a regular work-out and room to breathe.  It requires a sense of openness and a willingness to receive ideas and let them simmer until they are ready to be birthed.   When we’re in doing mode and under pressure to meet deadlines or get a job done, it can block the flow of ideas and inspiration. I don’t know about you but my most creative moments come when I get out of my head and into my body. I might be in the shower, walking by the beach, doing my stretches, sitting in a cafe, driving along in the car, picking up a snatch of song or chat on the radio or dropping off to sleep. Inspiration creeps up on me when I least expect it.  Ideas – like good stories on daytime TV – pop out of the ether when you’re not looking for them.