Neil Gaiman  is one of my favourite authors. I find his stories captivating, and the audio versions – read by him – are a delight. So when I came across a memoir/manifesto by Amanda Palmer, I bought it simply because she and Neil are a couple. Yup – fangirl – I admit it.

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The other reason I bought the The Art of Asking was that the title caught my attentionIt’s catchy and I was curious as to what this punk-cabaret, folk singing, ukele-playing, quirky artist had to say.

In order to relate to Amanda and her story more personally – and order to hear her voice and her music – I got it as an audio book. I also tracked down her very popular  Ted talk  (as have about 7,732,843 other people!), and gained the following insights from the combination:

  • Amanda is a great story teller, has worked hard to be a successful artist, and has a strong fanbase.
  • I’m not crazy about her music, but find the lyrics thought provoking and often very moving.
  • Audio books are fabulous – especially when read by the author 🙂
  • Direct interaction between the fanbase and artists, with fans deciding how much they’re prepared to / able to pay for merchandise of various sorts is the way forward. To quote Amanda, “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, How do we make people pay for music? What if we started asking, How do we let people pay for music?”  Whilst no longer new, this a terrific (although underutilized) concept and one with which I wholeheartedly agree – but more on that another time.
  • Finally, the core topic of the book: it’s important to learn to ask for help – not demand it or expect it to magically arrive.

Amanda’s story of the difficulties and successes she’s had in this area is an excellent vehicle to get this last point across. She talks about the ongoing struggle with allowing herself to be helped and, more specifically, with asking for help as a constant negotiation between ego and need.

Her solution is to trust, both in herself and others, and to allow herself to “give and receive fearlessly”. It’s sound advice – but it still left me pondering why I often find asking for help so darn difficult.

mumMy siblings and I were raised by an uber-Mum. We loved, respected and, to some extent, feared her. She was a strong woman in a time when being a strong woman meant survival. She never asked for help, she just got on with things and bent the world to suit her. She didn’t acknowledge fear and  appeared completely invulnerable.  At least this is what our childish perspective led us to believe, and this belief shaped the people we became.

Years later it occurred to me that my mother simply didn’t have the leisure to allow herself to sit back, or the opportunity to seek out emotional support. She worked hard to make our lives comfortable, navigating her way around an unreliable spouse, frequent upheavals as he changed jobs/towns/directions, a gaggle of children, an alienated extended family, a full time job and a very limited income.

Unfortunately, what it took far longer for me to understand is that never asking for help tends to make people appear unapproachable. No-one wants to risk offering help if it’s going to be brusquely rejected. And no-one wants to ask such a person for help for fear of being judged as inadequate in some way. It effectively isolates people from one another.

As a society we are enculturated to believe that asking for help reveals weakness, neediness, incompetence – or all three. We fear being perceived as selfish. We fear that asking for help might result in us incurring a debt that we will be called on at some future date. We fear loss of control. We fear.

We meander through life, sometimes directionless, sometimes with a plan. In many instances we really could do with a helping hand, a willing ear, a visit from a friend, a small kindness to ease the load we carry. But we don’t ask. We soldier on – fearful, or not wishing to impose a burden on others, or too proud to show our vulnerabilities.

Mum did eventually lean on us a little when she became too ill to manage alone. It was only then that she allowed her vulnerability to be glimpsed. Did she think we’d see it as weakness, that we’d think less of her? This was so very far from the truth. Instead, my admiration and respect for my mother grew exponentially. Every shadow brought her more clearly into focus, allowed me to get to know her a little better.

Nevertheless, my mother’s carefully controlled vulnerability has continued to influence my choices. Fortunately I’ve had the leisure to make different choices and to make them far earlier.  It comes down to being acknowledging the baggage and then setting it aside,  a bit at a time. Then work towards falling into trust by asking for, accepting and offering help graciously when it’s needed. After all, who will ask me for help if I allow fear or pride (ego) to – actively or passively – send out the message that asking equals weakness?

It’s my hope that my children find this process of allowing people to help them, to care for them and to share with them a less complex one than I did. It’s also my hope that my siblings have managed to find their own way through this shared socially constructed minefield. It’s never too late to learn to ask for help – in big or small ways.

This week a lot of my thinking time has been done whilst weeding our very overgrown verge garden. I find weeding to be an exceptionally tedious task, with virtually no redeeming features. The only upsides I’ve come up with are: (a) the outcome = tidy garden = satisfaction, and (b) my mind is free to wander around and trawl through ideas that have been lurking just out of sight.

So far (a) has not been achieved – but I’ve spent a good many hours working towards that goal and am past the halfway mark. Satisfaction is within sight. Meantime various items under (b) have received a good deal of my (spare) attention. The issue that’s surfaced to the top of the contemplation pile is… procrastination… probably because the seemingly endless weeding I’m ‘enjoying’ is a direct result of just that.

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The following questions have been buzzing around in my head as I weed:

  • Why do we procrastinate? (…and don’t kid yourself, we all do it!)
  • How do we resolve it?
  • What motivates, inspires or drives individuals to get going on a project or task in the first place, i.e. what kicks people into getting stuck in and doing things?
  • And what makes them see it through to completion?

No doubt there are many and varied answers to all these questions – and no doubt those answers are slightly different for each individual. My starting point (in the hunt for some answers) was to try to categorise people into groups. I came up with three broad categories:

  • Self-starters: people who seem to walk to the beat of their own drum, a neat little rat-a-tat-tat that (to an onlooker) just seems to keep on going.
  • Pleasers: respond actively to motivation in the form of outside encouragement, rewards, etc. – or to a combination of reward/punishment.
  • Resistors: seem not to be swayed by any form of persuasion, from any source.

Once I had all that clear in my head, I boldly put myself into the self-starter category. Then I realised that I actually fall into each of the categories at different times or for different types of tasks. Sometimes I just get cracking and get something done – but other times I do things to please others or to avoid negative outcomes. I confess that there have also been times when I’ve actively (and stubbornly) resisted some tasks completely.

Reflecting on this I see that my own procrastination isn’t just because I don’t want to do things. Sometimes it’s because the task is tedious (weeding), or overwhelming (a lot of weeding!), or I feel uncertain (perhaps because I don’t have the skill to effectively complete a particular task). There are some things I have procrastinated over starting because not starting seems less stressful than doing it ‘wrong’, or because other things take priority, or when I simply fall into the trap of watching TV / social media browsing / email.

Plodding through all this – particularly whilst doing something I don’t really want to do (but do want done) – has made me realise that the first step to getting things done is to consciously acknowledge that I’m procrastinating. I had a think about what I do with my time instead of getting on with whatever it is that I’m avoiding (weeding!), then tried to figure out how much time I do actually fritter away on time-fillers (rather than on things I’ve theoretically actively decided to do). It turns out to that I manage to fill rather a lot of time with useful, but essentially directionless activities.

Later on I did some reading (yes, internet browsing…) and found that there are numerous websites that provide suggestions on how to manage procrastination. The tips that make the most sense to me are:

  • Motivation. Finding something that will get you going is often a tough ask, but you could consider giving some thought to Future-You. Or, as with the weeding, sometimes you might need to simply accept that you’re doomed and just need to get started in order to produce sufficient motivation to complete the task.
  • Chunk the task into bite-sized portions. This helps to make even the most overwhelming task less implausible. The verge garden as  whole seemed insurmountable last week, so I decided to chunk it. 1 – 2 hours of weeding every morning this week left my arms and back aching, my nails broken and provided me with no enjoyment it at all. But… rather to my surprise, it’s almost done…
  • Beat your own drum. Fear of failure / being judged by others is a fact of life – so acknowledge it and then set your own standard. In this example, the garden will really only be mostly weed free when I’m done – and I’m okay with that. Progress = success, even if it’s not perfect.
  • Reward yourself. My reward was that I set a time limit  for each session (more than an hour, less than two) and stuck to it. Tottering away from the garden was such a relief each day that I actually didn’t need more reward than that – although I did indulge in a very nice cup of coffee and a cookie afterwards anyway.

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I reckon two more sessions in the garden will see the weeding conquered. My reward at that point will be to go to the garden centre to choose some new plants. Perhaps a fig tree… or some pumpkin seedlings… Meantime, a surprise harvest of one perfectly ripe pumpkin this morning. Win!

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xmas treeI’ve been wondering whether, at some point, ‘festive spirit’ becomes something one hears tinkling over the speakers in shopping malls, but is somehow unable to relate to. Does the jollity gradually begin to ebb, leaving us with comfortable memories of Xmas-past and no overwhelming desire to try to replicate them?

Perhaps context is a key element…

If one is a churchgoer, for example, then the religious symbolism probably provides its own kind of build up to the event: an always-already-there bye-in, as it were.

If one has children (or grandchildren), then there’s usually a certain frisson of excitement around the notions of decorating the tree, finding the right gifts for the littlies and, of course, visits from Santa.

Then there are those who spend time with extended family (or adopted family), where the drivers might be the fun of planning menus and of exchanging gifts and reconnecting with loved ones.

I imagine that any or all of these tend to make the endless carols in shopping centres just part of a greater whole.

So why did I find myself singing ‘I need a little Xmas, right this very minute…’ under my breath en route to the city this week and feeling not the slightest bit jolly? After all, I fall into two of the three categories, my (now adult) children, (quasi) grandchildren and extended family the very essence of what makes Xmas for me.

The festivities generally rotate between our house and that of Sibling#2. Given that this year it’s our turn as hosts, I would usually have crossed most things off my inevitable lists by now. Xmas stockings and other gifts would have been organised, the menu planned, the annual family letter would be underway and a number of handmade cards completed and waiting to go out in the mail.

All that I’d have left to do is to decorate the tree on December 16 (a family tradition), a flurry of last minute baking and some shopping for perishables, drinks and the like a few days before the event. At a push I might also need to make the odd foray for a couple of oh-my-gosh-extra-gifts if extra people end up invited to lunch.

But not this year…

This year I’ve found myself feeling more like an observer than a participant and have had to do some soul searching to figure out why…

… and I eventually got it! For the first time in forever (well, since I moved out of home at the age of 19) I am an observer. I’ve actively stepped back from all catering and hostessing arrangement for Xmas day – despite our house being the venue for the family gathering.

After the festivities last year, I suggested to the offspring that 2015 might be time for the baton to be passed on.

It went something along the lines of, ‘Perhaps you guys could organise the menu and sort out catering and so forth for me next Xmas… what do you think?’

Fair enough,’ was the response. ‘We’ll sort it out between us.’

In due course (about six weeks ago) they convened a meeting and, between them and their respective partners, decided on a menu and timeline. A couple of weeks later they issued invitations to all the usual suspects (including Himself and me) and roped their cousins et al in to help with the catering. Clever munchkins!

The upshot of all this is that I don’t need to be particularly organised this year! I can use this last two weeks to shop for gifts, pretty up the tree and get Himself to string up heaps of coloured lights.

Once I realised all this, I suddenly felt quite Xmassey! It’s not that I’m not in the mood or that the jollity has ebbed; it’s just that the mood’s been on hold.

After this little epiphany, I got stuck in and made my cards, bought a few gifts and have arranged to trot off to a family carols evening. To paraphrase Johnny Mathis, I seem to have found a little laughter, found a little singing, found a little Xmas-time 🙂

Puppy’s first Xmas, 2014 – it’s all about the wrapping paper 🙂

Every household has a list of mundane tasks that need attention each week. These are the ordinary, every day things that are repetitive, usually pretty tedious, appear unproductive, are largely thankless – and yet are necessary. They’re the time consuming little tasks that move our lives along, such as grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, writing reports, vacuuming, blitzing the shower, laundry, making appointments & paying bills, feeding & exercising the dog, updating spreadsheets, cleaning the pool… The list seems endless once you start and, whilst no one activity takes up all your residual enthusiasm and (notional) free time, they do sneakily combine to eat great chunks of it. Sometimes what’s left is a you that’s simply run out of available energy resources or, as my family calls it, ‘spoons’.

flynetSadly, there’s no magic fix to the list or to the probable exhaustion – not unless you have staff that will see to your every whim. I don’t – so I was out in the noonday sun last week, mower and edge trimmer to hand, sunhat and fly net in place – this is Australia, so the last two are mandatory. Weeks of ignoring the lawns had left them shaggy, unkempt and potentially dangerous for foot traffic (we have a dog). It was well past time for action.

Despite the ultra-light electric mower, trudging up and down behind it across the ankle-deep grass and then thrashing the trimmer around to tidy up the edges was hot, sweaty work. The combination of a 30-degree day, dry easterly winds and puppy that, unable to get to me to save me from the apparent horrors of mowing, took to impersonating an entire pack of howling hounds, was mind-numbing. Thank goodness for the fly net, since that at least kept the bomb-diving flies at bay!

Like many repetitive tasks, however, mowing the lawn doesn’t require much active attention, so my mind was free to wander around and consider plans for my rapidly approaching dog-and-lawn-free holiday.  I started listing the things I needed to do, to get, to pack, to arrange before I leave and to slot those into my mental schedule. Doing so provided the following epiphany with regards to more mundane chores:

  • Make a to-do list
  • Don’t ignore it
  • Prioritise the tasks
  • Chunk them into things that can be done at more or less the same time
  • Schedule as many of them as you can (Monday is often my mundane-day)
  • Set calendar reminders so that you remember what needs to be done when
  • Remember that even if you only do one small thing on the list it’s one less thing still to do
  • Stop before you’re exhausted
  • Out-source where possible – to family spouse, kids or hired help
  • Accept that not everything will get done every week

It’s actually surprisingly sensible advice and I’m going to try to follow it myself from now on, which goes to show that doing mundane tasks can have unexpectedly good results. There is one more thing I’d like to add, though, and that it to remember to acknowledge the tasks you conquer. Tick them off your list and allow yourself to feel satisfied at having completed whatever it is – no matter how long your list may still be.

I must admit that ticking ‘mow and whipper-snip lawns’ off my list felt pretty good and, once I’d cooled down and settled the howling hound, it was gratifying to note that the (quite tiny) front and back lawns actually looked darn fine!

 

On Sunday we headed off to Gidgegannup to enjoy the annual Small Farm Field Day. It was a day of talks and demonstrations on sustainability, an opportunity to try some local produce and to see our friends Tim and Bronwyn in action presenting a Punch & Judy show. With various kinds of goats and poultry, lots of beautiful alpacas, a camel train, llamas, working dogs, ponies in abundance and a petting zoo, it was definitely my critter-fix for the month. I was quite captivated by a baby pig that snuffled around in a very friendly sort of way and considered – however briefly – the merits of getting a tiny little piglet of my own…

Despite that brief lapse, however, the real win in the animal department was the Dexter cattle. They’re a delightfully small and placid breed (averaging about a metre the shoulder), making them a viable option for a small property. If I was in the market for a cow, I think a black Dexter would be at the top of my list. It’d be rather nice to have a reliable known source of fresh milk and a Dexter kept as a ‘house cow’ apparently produces about 5 litres of milk a day, which is a plausibly manageable amount if you like milk and are into making your own yoghurt, cheeses and so forth. The milking might be an issue, but I imagine it’s a skill that can be learned much like any other… or done auto-magically by a cunning milking machine… or, in my case, by simply waiting for daughter-dearest to get one and then enjoying it all from a comfortable distance!

We also chatted to burly men about machinery, ate tasty food, drank bad coffee and went to a number of talks. The first of these was by Eric McCrum, well known naturalist and wildlife expert. He appears regularly on ABC radio, where he generally expounds on some or other wildlife related topic and then answers flora/fauna questions from the public. His segments tend to be both entertaining and informative, and this one was no exception. We heard all about enjoying flora and fauna on small landholder properties, although Eric did tend to get side-tracked onto one of his favourite rants – feral animals and their impact on native fauna.  It was the first time in ages that I’ve attended a talk where the presenter has chosen to be low-tech and the bizzzt-click of the slide projector slotting slides into place added to the general enjoyment of the session.

Another very interesting talk  was one on slow food by Vincenzo Velletri, who  augmented his presentation with tastings of a wide range of delicious preserved foods he’d prepared. The pickled aubergine was particularly good, but then so was the strawberry jam (sweetened with quince instead of sugar), the bacalhau (dried and salted cod fish), tomato relish, olives and pickled zucchini (recipes provided). So much yum in one tasting session!

Vincezo’s very passionate about good, clean and fair food – the slow food mantra – but also about minimising food waste. It was eye opening to be confronted with statistics on just how much food is wasted worldwide and how little is done to address the problem. France has just introduced new legislation to try to combat some of the food waste there, but nothing comparable appears to be on the horizon here in Australia at present. Instead, we were told, about 25% of farmers’ crops are going straight to landfill, either because of oversupply or  because the product isn’t ‘beautiful’ enough for the consumers, supermarkets & restaurants bin ridiculous quantities perfectly useable foodstuff and individual homes throw out about 20% of the food they purchase.

Like me, you’re probably thinking ‘surely that can’t be right, can it?’ It seems implausible that families would waste that much food. To answer that, simply look around your home and think about your personal food use and that of your family and friends. Do you (they) regularly bin food instead of using it? If so, why is that? Is it perhaps that we’ve grown up in a time of relative plenty? Or because so many of us are jumping on the celebrity chef bandwagon and purchasing recipe-specific ingredients, of which only part gets used and the rest gets wasted? Whatever the reason, in a world where increasing numbers of people are going hungry and the price of food continues to climb, this simply can’t be considered a sustainable practise.

My take-home message from the Small Farm Field Day is that we should all try to take up the challenge to actively minimise food wastage. We can start to do this in our own homes by checking the pantry and fridge before doing the grocery shopping and then buying just what we need. Next might be trying to use leftovers instead of binning them. If you’re not sure how, you could always think of them as a starting point to creating Tapas. Yup – tapas, the tasty little morsels we pay top dollar for at trendy restaurants. Try making one night a week ‘tapas night’ and re-purpose your leftovers as small plates of random tasty tidbits. If that doesn’t work for you, try cooking smaller quantities, invest in a compost bin and/or think about getting a couple of chickens to feed your scraps to. Bottom line is that  you’ll save money and will feel good about reducing waste cutting down on pollution.