Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Simple Pleasures

I bought this book for a friend's birthday but slightly wish I had a copy for myself: it's just such a good idea! Edited by Ivo Dawnay, it's a collection of short essays that celebrate "the small, often unconsidered things that make life worth living."And even though I haven't read it, just the concept itself has been enough to motivate me to be on the look out for the simple pleasures in my own life. It's a habit worth forming.

Today I want to celebrate travelling. Not back-packing or big adventures, but getting from A to B on coaches and trains. Alone, off-peak journeys of maybe an hour or two are my favourite: sitting next to a window, watching the scenery change, transitioning from towns to fields and back again, seeing the urban jig-saw of buildings and backstreets from new angles, skies shifting, all the while with some kind of soundtrack that speaks to my mood in the moment... it just makes my insides soar. I am literally transported. It's almost an out of body sensation - I feel like I'm flying.

And it's a treat. I don't close off like that all the time: I try not to overuse music to entertain and isolate me when I'm out and about because it can take away the chance to interact and make me dangerously unaware of my surroundings. But the times I do let myself be cocooned in a sound wall and watch the world rush past my window are...exhilarating. Definitely simple, but such a pleasure.

Simple Pleasures is a series celebrating everyday joys. 
Inspired by the National Trust book "Simple Pleasures: little things that make life worth living" edited by Ivo Dawnay

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Art of Smiling at Strangers

Image created by artandwords on polyvore.com

Last Friday's Evening Standard Magazine ran an article called "How to Live Forever": a  light-hearted list of twenty healthy habits to adopt for enhanced living based on a bizarre mish-mash of research findings. It made for entertaining - rather than revolutionary - reading, but there was one throw away comment that stayed with me:

Londoners aren't exactly known for our warmth (smiling at a stranger on public transport? Just creepy), but if you want to live longer you might want to rethink.  

The article then moved on to talk in brief about the biological benefits of altruism, but it was the assertion about the weirdness of smiling at strangers that I found interesting.

Today a member of staff at my local tube station complimented me by saying that they liked the way I smile at them as I come through the barriers each morning, and I'm convinced that most people appreciate being on the receiving end of a little bit of warmth and personality when they're out and about in a crowd. Even so, there are definite cultural norms to navigate and I've realised that over the years I seem to have honed my skills in this area.

Smiling at strangers began as a personal project in my teenage years. I decided I wanted to interact a little more with people. I set about trying to be friendlier, but almost immediately realised I was indeed coming across as "creepy". I have a big smile, and on closer analysis I realised that grinning at people for no apparent reason makes them uncomfortable, is perceived as mockery or leads to unwanted sexual advances. Over the years I've also noticed that smiling whilst maintaining eye contact with someone seems to imply that you want to interact with them in some other way. It can make some people suspicious.

These days I generally make eye contact with most people I pass at close range, giving a small, fleeting smile at the point I begin to look away. Sometimes I see them smile back. Sometimes I get a blank stare. Sometimes I'll see them again and get a repeat smile, perhaps leading to a regular hello, maybe even a "how are you today?". I get told things: mundane things, grievances, stories. I get asked for things: directions, money, dates, to be in people's photographs (...which is, I'll admit, incredibly strange).

But I also, increasingly, get asked why I'm so happy. I have my reasons. I try and communicate them as appropriately as possible. And I've realised this is probably the most important aspect of what makes smiling at strangers a bit more socially acceptable. It has to be authentic and agenda-free. Perhaps being singled out for the attention of a stranger is odd, but just being encompassed by someone else's sense of well-being can be a welcome boost: happiness by osmosis. So far, I haven't met anyone who has a problem with that.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Magpie Moments

I've been luxuriating in a few days of free time and, now that it's winding down, it's humbling to sit back and reflect on how many life-altering things I've gleaned from in such a short space of time. Life-altering in lowercase: the kinds of things that allow someone else's genius or gift or perspective to rub off in a small way and spark or confirm an interest for me to carry forward.

In amongst a lot of eating and sleeping and that kind of conversational dreaming where I get to bounce ideas around with someone wonderful and be excited for all that could/should be, I've also been to exhibitions, watched documentaries, witnessed great art in at least three different forms. And I've finally organised a backlog of articles I've been building on-and-off over the last five or six years: articles on business, politics, women, social attitudes - things I agree with, things I don't; things I want to know more about, things that horrify me into remembering.

Sometimes I feel (probably too acutely for the tender age of 25) that life is too short for all the living it deserves. In that context it's encouraging to remember a Leonard Bernstein quote relayed to me recently by a good friend:

"To achieve great things, two things are needed:
a plan and not quite enough time."

I'm definitely giving it my best shot! It helps to have an abundance of examples to learn from.

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