Early morning with a teapot clock

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There is a ticking clock. I followed the sound of it this morning as I tip-toed barefoot into the kitchen in a dark that was almost complete, aside from the soft, orange glow of one streetlight in the leafy square down below, filtering through the window. Tick tock. I tilted my head to listen more closely, and groped about in the dark for the object that was ticking. Held up to the faint light of the window, it revealed itself to be small, ceramic clock shaped like a teapot, and it said 5:40am. Good enough for me. I put the ticking teapot down, flipped the real kettle on, and opened the window to let the cooler air in.

With my tea made, I sat down by that window and looked out over the square: there is an old church from which last night a choir of angels filled the air with song; a half-timbered medieval house across the way; and cobblestones around the silent square which, during the daylight hours, is bustling with people drinking and dining and laughing and smoking and talking: talk, talk, talking in snatches of French that I pick up here and there as they waft up to my in my third-floor eyrie, and it feels impossible that I am actually here. 

I think about this as I sip my tea. I want to take this opportunity, before the rest of the house is awake, to let the reality of this new life sink in.  

We have moved to France. Not forever, but for a fair bit longer than your average holiday. It is August right now, and we won't be home until New Year. We have an apartment in a village, and our goal while we are here is to simply and whole-heartedly immerse ourselves in life. We want to explore every inch of this village, on foot. We want to practise the language. We want to make friends. We want to eat the food and we want to learn to cook the food. 

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Our village is pretty. Almost impossibly pretty, like a storybook. I didn't know this when I chose it: I simply googled towns of a certain size in the area we wanted to visit, and shortlisted them according to amenities like nearby hospitals and train stations (the reality of travel with kids). I can't even begin to share the knots of anxiety I had been experiencing in the lead-up to this trip (and oh! the late nights finishing my deadlines!), and the journey here took two days and was genuinely gruelling. Nobody wants to see a four-year-old with bloodshot eyes from exhaustion, and still have to tell them "Sorry, Mummy can't carry you because of the suitcases."

But yesterday as Paris gave way to fields and forests as our train sped on and on through deepening wilderness, my heart began to lift. Our stop: the end of the line. We clambered off and dragged those heavy suitcases and heavy-lidded children over the rough cobblestones, up and down laneways and in and out of crooked little streets, until suddenly we rounded a corner and an antique carousel was just beginning to turn. A hill beneath it swept down over ancient rooftops peppered with terra cotta chimneys, behind a riot of summer blooms. Pedestrians had taken over the road, the one brave car that appeared every five minutes or so being forced to inch its way tentatively through swathes of people eating ice cream. 

Scout turned to me with eyes like dinner plates and said, "Our town is amazing!" and I let out a deep breath I hadn't even realised I was holding. 

Our caretaker met us at the door with smiles and keys and a cornucopia of French bread, eggs, milk and fruit that I had asked her to buy for us. (Ralph bit into an apple and then it was his turn for those bloodshot eyes to turn into dinner plates: "It's a PEACH!" he announced, with the joy that can only be had by a fruit-loving boy who only two days ago was in winter, and proceeded to eat two at the same time, one in each hand). 

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It will take some adjusting. At the moment, we still feel like tourists. The children, with Euros from friends burning holes in their pockets, bought woven bracelets and rings and money boxes and keyrings from market vendors in the streets, and there was no way I was getting them to bed without ice cream first, and a wander through the old streets and through the castle walls.

In two weeks, though, most of the tourists will go home, and we will start to learn what life in the village is like when it is just a village. 

The dawn is starting to lift now, and the first of the birds are singing. A friendly cat just launched itself onto the windowsill and frightened the living daylights out of me. When my heart palpitations subsided I said "Bonjour," and it purred a greeting, before slinking off on whatever mission it had originally had in mind. 

The clock tower bell is tolling (very considerate: it didn't toll throughout the night, or maybe the bell-ringer just needed a sleep-in today). A few introductory higher notes and then a heavier, centuries old message: dong, dong, dong... seven times. And now I hear seagulls, drowning out the sound of the ticking teapot. Seven o'clock. Time to get the kids up. 

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All the sunrises and all the sunsets in all the world

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For the longest time, it felt as though I was alone in a post-apocalyptic world… all empty streets and orange-tinted street-lights and not. one. sound (not even crickets)… as I watched the moon turn slowly pink and Mars shone fiercely bright as only the god of war could do. 

Watching the blood moon eclipse unfold through the lens of my camera, the tall conifer trees at the back of the council building across the road gave the impression that we were somewhere rural, in the south of France maybe, rather than where I actually was which was a bus stop in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia. This impression was helped by the fact that no matter how hard I tried, there was so little light in the sky aside from Mars, which dominated everything, that every picture I took came out blurry, a little like a Van Gogh landscape with all those conifer trees. 

I shivered, adjusted the rug I’d draped around my shoulders for warmth, and moved the camera tripod a little to the right to position the moon between the trees again. 

Blood red. It sounds ominous, but it was the most beautiful sight. The cold moon washed red by all the sunrises and all the sunsets in all the world, happening at that exact moment. My moon, and yours. I stood there no longer alone, thinking about all those sunrises and sunsets and YOU in them, waking to coffee or driving home from work or sipping wine by the beach or making the beds or walking the dog or heading out with friends… all those things you were doing at sunrise or sunset in Auckland or Amsterdam, and everywhere in between. 

Not alone. “Can you see it yet?” a woman in a white dressing-gown and ugg boots raced across the road, face sky-ward, while a man followed after her, calling out. A child and a grown-up, also in dressing-gowns, hurried up the street I was on, pointing to the sky. A car came around the corner and the driver saw us, pulled over, turned off the headlights, and got out to watch. 

We all stood in companionable silence for a minute or two, and then the sunrise-sunset-moon slipped behind the conifers, and everyone drifted away, back to their warm homes. Somewhere, a magpie started to sing. I took a last sip of my thermos tea, packed up the camera tripod, and turned for my own home, too. Alone in the brightening sky now, fierce as ever, I’m pretty sure Mars shook his fist at me. 

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A walk in the forest

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A walk in the forest is what I'm longing for right now. Somewhere with a gloom that is friendly, like a hug from nature. With fallen leaves and old sticks and bark and soil underfoot, and a green canopy overhead where daylight filters, dappled and maculate, soft as rain. 

Deep, deep down below, the trees will be talking. Sharing secrets, nutrients, nurture. 

I will explore paths long-untrodden, peer into corners and around ancient trees, search for friends from the pages of old stories, and make up new stories in my mind. 

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Thinking of you

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Sometimes do you find that the longer you leave a conversation, the harder it is to have? I'm not talking about "tricky subject" conversations necessarily, even something as lovely as a catch-up with a dear friend. If you haven't seen or spoken to your friend in weeks or months, a quick half-hour catch-up over coffee just won't do it: there's too much to say, too much to retell! And so you put off the coffee until you can plan a dinner, or a whole afternoon. But time races on and you never do find the enough time to do that, and all the missed conversations between you accumulate, and something as ineffectual as a half-hour coffee catch-up seems even more ridiculous. 

That's a little bit how I feel about this blog right now. There's so much I have to say and share that I don't even know where to start. And I don't really have the time to be telling all the stories, but I miss this blog. I've put off writing in here because I feel too busy to tell the full story. But then all I do in the meantime is collect more stories, and neglect this little space. 

Last week I was hunting for a blog post I'd written a while back and, as I scrolled through my own archives, it made me so happy and a little nostalgic to read back through all those stories. I called my blog "Naomi Loves" because I wanted it to document the things I love: things made, discovered and celebrated. I have protected it as my own space, choosing not to monetise or do anything else that would let this blog belong to someone else. It is my happy place, and yours if similar things make you happy. And reading back over it the other night did make me happy. 

So I'm back, even if only for a half-hour coffee chat. A similar equivalent is when I tell my letter-writing students not to always feel they have to write a grand epistle. Sometimes, the weight of writing an amazing letter gets in the way of writing any letter at all. So I tell them, "Write a postcard. Tell the person, 'I'm thinking of you.'" This is my postcard to my blog, and to you. I'm thinking of you! 

Here are some things I've been doing lately... 

* Wrote and launched my Create with Confidence mentoring program and e-course, which is up and running now (I can't wait to share all the amazing things my students are creating. They are the most incredible bunch of women.) 

* Gave an interview to Issue 23 of Flow magazine, and took over their Pinterest board for a month

* Learned how to make pasta properly at a children's workshop (pictured) hosted by Lunch Lady magazine with the lovely Julia Ostro. (Four-year-old Ralph also learned how to pronounce orecchiette to perfection) 

* Visited Orange in NSW for the My Open Kitchen gathering, an entire weekend of wisdom, inspiration and community, and chatted with Skye Manson on the My Open Kitchen podcast about art, books, community, and kindness

* Talked to In Clover magazine (volume 4) about letter-writing and slow living, and how to make mail-art

* Finished writing my book The Art of Mail, finalised the cover art, sent it to design, and am now finalising the last of the illustrations to go inside

* Nervously joined sales coach Jessica Lorimer on her podcast to receive on-air coaching about how to sell my courses with integrity, gentleness and consideration

* Finally convinced my family to go camping with me. We were woefully under-prepared, and froze all night, but the children are still talking about it with joy months later 

* Had the most lovely natter with Miranda Mills on the Tea & Tattle podcast, all about letter writing and forging real connections

* Shared my thoughts about the joys of letter-writing in the family issue of Peppermint magazine  

* Wrote a mini e-book for people who struggle to find the time for their creativity, called Time to Make (it's free for subscribers to my newsletter and you can get a copy here)

It seems like a lot when I write it all down like that. No wonder I'm so tired! I hope you'll share what you've been up to, too. It's time I stopped talking, and started listening! 

 

Talk soon, Naomi xo

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Procrastinating (and the inner critic)

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Today I have been procrastinating like there is nothing else to do in the world, ever.

I have never been busier. I'm getting up earlier than ever and staying up later than ever and giving up all kinds of joys and activities that I usually appreciate, because I'm so excited and passionate about my work right now. It's not even a sacrifice, because I love it!

But today, on only my second day back 'in the office' after two-and-a-half weeks of school holidays (= minimal productivity), I am procrastinating. Here are some things I have done today, instead of working:

  • Lingered after school drop-off, chatting with the other parents
  • Washed up all the dishes and cleaned the kitchen bench 
  • Walked to the shops to buy washing detergent 
  • Walked to the post office to pick up the mail 
  • Walked to a cafe to buy a coffee 
  • Reread and rearranged (probably just shuffled!) all my notes 
  • Two loads of laundry 
  • Let a mentoring call last way longer than planned, because it was nice to chat 
  • Watched an episode of Lost in Space on Netflix 
  • Listened to a podcast 

And it's not even two o'clock in the afternoon. 

It's not like me to be this undisciplined. Normally, I know how to stick to the program. If more than a decade of freelancing has taught me nothing else, it's how to work without accountability, and stick to deadlines. And yet here I am now facing one of the biggest deadlines and most exciting phases in my career, having put my heart and soul and just about everything I've ever learned into launching my new course, Create With Confidence, and I'm spending my child-free hours on laundry and Netflix. Why?

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Of course my brain knows the answer why: I am afraid.

Actually I'm not afraid, I'm terrified. Terrified that I have thrown everything I've got into something that nobody will want, despite the fact that I made it because they told me they wanted it. That I'll be rejected (which, in my fear, equals unloved). And on and on my brain spirals: my course will fail (depending on the exact moment of my fear, "fail" means nobody signing up, or it means people signing up but hating it, or goodness knows what else), my business will fail, my family won't eat, my children will live with an uninspired and unfulfilled mother, and the entire Internet will hate me. No biggie. Thanks, brain. 

During the past week I've been doing mini-mentoring calls with people from all over the world, talking about their creative dreams and what's stopping them. I have loads to say about this. In fact the blog post that I really wanted to write today - the one that I procrastinated myself out of writing - was about rediscovering the pure joy of creating, just for the sake of joy. So many people I've spoken to long for this: to go back into that childlike experience of making for no other reason than because it's fun, and without critiquing ourselves. I call this "reigniting the spark," and I really will write that blog post sometime soon, because it's super important, and exciting, and fun, and just a wonderful gift we can give to ourselves. 

But that will have to wait for another day, a day when I'm not busy doing Very Important Things. Like laundry. 

One of the other things I keep hearing from people on the mentoring calls is some kind of self-critical statement that equates lack of creative productivity with personal flaws. "Why do you think you haven't been able to reach your creative goals?" I ask them, and the answers come back... "I am lazy." "I am uninspired." "I am unfocused." "I am not good at finishing things." "I lack self-discipline." "I am not creative." "I procrastinate." 

And while I realise this is a gross generalisation - we all have our own unique sets of feelings and experiences and beliefs that influence our ideas of self-worth - I believe most of those people are telling me a version of the same thing: "I am afraid." 

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I spend a lot of my time on these calls trying to encourage these people to be kinder to themselves. To help them investigate why they think these things about themselves. And I'm no therapist, but often the answers are not too far from the surface: chronic illnesses, grief and loss, stressful events, unkind words from others... there are so many reasons why we struggle to work on our creative projects or can't seem to commit the time we know we want to commit to make our creative dreams happen, and very rarely - if ever - is it because we are less than worthy as a person. 

I remind these people to be kind to themselves. To own what is going on in their lives - to voice it out loud - because naming it sometimes takes away some of its power. I give them creative exercises to do that are designed to silence the inner-critic, or reignite the sense of play and joy in creativity. I give them mindfulness activities to do to reconnect with that sense of inner peace that allows space for creative thinking to come in (if you've ever had a great idea in the shower or on a solitary walk, you'll know what I mean). I help them start habits that make creative expression as integral a part of the day as brushing their teeth - so that they can do this even when they're feeling afraid. I point them to tribes of like-minded people who can support and encourage them on this journey. 

They say, "This is so simple. Why couldn't I see this or do this for myself?"

And today I face the same question. I know what to do, so why can't I do it for myself? I guess the answer is that sometimes, we just need to turn to our tribe, the people who understand us, because they can provide the perspective that we, in the midst of everything, just can't find. 

So I'm writing this blog post today, dear friend, instead of the other one I'd planned, because I can't seem to push through this fear on my own. Maybe in writing the fears down for you, I'll be able to internalise the truth for myself. To stop hiding from my fear in Netflix, and get on with it and do the thing I know I love.

What are your creative struggles today? Shall we encourage each other?

Naomi x

ps. I've made a printable list of techniques to use in case you need some help silencing that pesky inner critic (hint: in writing this blog, I'm making use of tip #7). Download it here:

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If any of this resonated with you and you want to take this journey with me, I'd love you to join me in my new course, Create With Confidence, which is open for enrolments right now. 

We use fun, habit-forming activities that actually train the brain to think in a more creative way; we tackle a lot of those self-doubt, motivation and focus challenges (as well as the big one: lack of time); and we start and finish a fun art project (of your choosing). This all happens though a combination of creative activities, a welcoming community, one-on-one mentoring calls with me, and close, step-by-step support, over an eight-week period starting 14 May. 

Because this is the first time I've offered Create With Confidence, you can join in for a significant discount. Payments can also be spread across two or three months, depending on what suits your budget. There's loads more information here. If you're curious but would like to discuss your creative goals with me in person and see whether this course is right for you, I'd love to chat! I've opened up my calendar and you can book a discovery call for me here

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"If you have an idea, you can learn how to make it" Nick Olson

Just a little story to share with you today, to remind you that if you yearn to make something, large or small, not to let the fear of failure hold you back. Just give it a try! 

And also... "Never try to fit the sunset into just one little space." Lila Horwitz

 

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Creativity, kindness, and the Internet

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So, this is one of the most beautiful stories I have ever had the pleasure of sharing. A few weeks ago, I shared a photograph of this mail-art on my Instagram account: a painted journey (kind of a map for the postie) of the route my letter will take, from my home in Melbourne, out through the suburbs, past vineyards and the iconic Hanging Rock (remember?), all the way to Pippa's house in a country town at the edge of the Macedon Ranges.

A day later, I received a message from a beautiful German lady called Fine. She had used my mail-art as inspiration to write a short story about a different sort of journey, the slow unfolding of an old man from retirement and grief to openness and adventure. She wrote the story "just because," and sent it to me as a gift. With her permission, I have reproduced it for you here (I gave the story its title, but the rest of the words are Fine's own).

Fine's gift of this story left me slightly breathless. I am always telling people that writing a letter (as opposed to, say, an email or Facebook message) is extra special because you are giving someone the gift of your time. I feel the same way about this story, because she took the time to think about my painting, and through it brought an old man to life with her words.

The next time social media algorithms or online bullying or targeted advertisements on the Internet weigh you down, think about Fine, and this story, and how people all over the world are making the Internet work for them (not the other way around), using it to spread creativity and kindness as far as they can go.


GUS AND THE YELLOW BICYCLE 

by Fine Winkel

The elderly white haired man with his old and rusty yellow bicycle (that squeaked with every step on the pedal) had long ago stopped dreaming. Had stopped caring, and had stopped doing anything wholeheartedly.

When he woke in the morning, he allowed himself to wince for just a second, glimpsing at the empty pillow next to his, where he used to see Erna’s red curls and her beautiful, warm smile first thing every morning. As the red had faded into white Erna had begun to fade away herself, somehow getting smaller and in the end with her, all the laughter, the friendly chatter, the music and the delicious smell of apple cake had disappeared. After she was gone, the house felt empty and cold, and the lines on his face were no longer from smiling but from cruel scribbles of grief.

His light-blue mailman uniform was still pressed and the remaining strains of his white hair were neatly tucked under his dark blue cap, but he avoided looking into the mirror over the bathroom sink other than to shave, because he could hear Erna’s frail voice making him give three promises on the last morning they had woken up next to each other… and he could practically see her disappointment reflected in his own eyes.

The promise to call their son every week, the promise to harvest the crunchy and juicy apples from the tree they had planted together when their son George was born (so he could make apple cake with Molly, their granddaughter, who had inherited her grannie’s red curls and twinkling green eyes), and the promise to go to the pound and adopt a deserted old dog who would trot alongside his bike on his daily delivery routes.

He had tried the first year, he really did. But he wasn’t good at putting his feelings into words, so he had stopped calling George after a few stilted conversations with increasing periods of silence. He couldn’t find Erna’s recipe book so the cake had been a disaster, and Molly seemed to be afraid of the haggard-faced old man who had instead served dry-as-dust cookies from the rear end of the kitchen cupboard, having forgotten to buy milk and ice-cream, so he had stopped inviting her. He had made his way down to the pound several times, but just couldn‘t bring himself to walk into the sterile, rectangular building that crouched at the bottom of the hill just outside the village, for fear that even the poor creatures inside would sense his grief and plainly refuse to come home with him. 

So when old mailman Gus stepped into the red-brick Post Office for the last time, the day before his dreaded retirement, he didn’t expect in the least that his life would be going to be turned upside down in a heartbeat. He didn’t mind that there wasn’t any bon-voyage bunting over the door, or a cake in the break room, or even a card on his small desk to bid farewell to one of their own after 49 years of doing his duty and unfailingly delivering each and every letter to his destination. He had become solitary, and his sendoff would be a silent one.

Still, he would miss slipping into his uniform and feeling his life still had a small purpose in this world. 

Gus began to re-sort the few letters addressed by hand that couldn’t be read by the machine that by now did all the sorting. To make out the flowing handwriting, Gus had to put on his glasses, which he knew would have made Erna giggle with delight at her husband’s vanity and tell him, “Honey, maybe it’s a good thing you’re as blind as a bat without your glasses and you refuse to wear them. Your eyes have a built-in Gaussian blur to hide all my imperfections.” He briskly shoved aside this sentimental thought and concentrated on the task ahead, just now noticing an envelope at the bottom of the pile. 

During almost twelve hundred days of delivering mail, Gus had never seen a letter more beautiful, and was instantly reminded of the most exquisite illustrations in an old children’s book Erna had loved to read to little George and later to Molly. The kids had spent hours discovering small details and oohing and ahhing over tiny maps depicting the magical village surrounded by woods steeped in legend. It made him sad to see all this elaborate drawing on the letter, knowing it would never arrive at its destination behind the densely wooded mountains. His replacement Kevin, though much younger and stronger than Gus, wouldn’t care for the extra work and would just mark it return-to-sender or, even worse, put it into a folder and forget it ever existed.

Once again Gus could hear Erna’s voice, but this time it wasn’t frail or sad or disappointed: it was strong and energetic, and it reminded him of all the adventures that he, George and their dog Albert had planned while studying the cherished illustrated map. More than once they had packed their backpacks and taken their bikes to start on an adventure, coming home sweaty and with messy hair, but with enormous smiles on their faces, to breathlessly tell Erna everything they had seen, while eating cake fresh from the oven.

No, he wouldn’t let this envelope that had, as if by magic, replaced his wife’s sad mutter with joyous incentive, just sit in a folder gathering dust. He would – and he couldn’t quite grasp his own boldness – deliver the letter himself, and start on an adventure once more. Quickly he glanced around, making sure no one saw him slipping the envelope into his pocket. 

He hadn’t felt this alive in years, as the warm fall afternoon turned into night, and he made his way home from the pound on his squeaky old bike with a new faithful companion by his side.

For now he would call George and ask him to come over for apple pie next week (the handwritten recipe book had been found lying in a box with Albert’s old bowl and collar, clever Erna). But first thing tomorrow, Gus and the chocolate Labrador, Hamilton, would embark on an adventure. And he couldn’t wait... 

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Mindfulness walking

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Recently on our morning walks to school, Scout and I have started practising what we call 'mindfulness walking'. Essentially, it is paying attention to our senses while we walk, rather than allowing the path to roll away underneath our feet, unnoticed.

It starts when I ask a simple question: "What can you see?" 

We get all the obvious things out of the way first: trees, cars, houses... but then slowly we start to really notice what is around us. A man carrying what looks like a very heavy stack of metal poles, on his shoulder. The way the wind makes the leaves on a gum tree in the middle of a roundabout sway like a dance. A cloud that looks like an elephant wearing roller-skates. 

I ask, "What can you hear?" We walk a little further, hand in hand. 

A drill from a nearby building site, passers-by talking to one another. A flock of birds that swoops past, screeching. We continue walking. "I can sort of hear the wind pushing past my ears," Scout says. I say, "I can just hear our footsteps." We start to notice other things: the hum of an air conditioner on a building, a helicopter in the distance, the clanking of unseen dishes inside someone's house, the soft whoosh of bicycle tyres as they pass us by. 

I ask, "What can you smell?"

We smell car exhaust and the tinder tang of fired metal on the building site. Fresh coffee. A garbage bin. We stop and crush leaves between our fingers. "Lemon!" cries Scout. And then of another, "Um, kind of herby?"

Mostly we are at school by now but if there is time, I ask, "What can you feel?" The way the ground under our feet changes from smooth footpath to uneven cobblestones to sand to spongy grass. The warm sun on our faces. The cool breeze making goosebumps rise on our arms. The fabric of our clothes: is it soft? Or scratchy? A pebble in my shoe. School bag straps chafing shoulders. 

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Of course this is more than a pleasantly curious way to pass the time. What Scout and I are practising on these walks is mindfulness in its most basic and simple of forms. We are simply paying attention, without passing judgement. And there is something rather special to be said about paying attention, being present in the moment, and indulging in some good, old-fashioned curiosity.

There are loads of benefits to practising mindfulness and I'm sure you've heard them before. Things like reduced stress, improved memory, better focus, and less emotional reactivity. But what these walks are also doing is giving our brains some exercise in the area that houses the 'salience network,' a network of brain circuitry that helps us decide what to pay attention to, and what to ignore. This process is called 'latent inhibition' and it just so happens to have a big impact on creativity, an area in which I work and teach. 

Latent inhibition is our subconscious deciding what, from the cacophony of sensory stimuli that we are exposed to in any given second, to take in, and what to ignore. Imagine if our brains gave equal weight to everything we saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted, at the same time, all the time. The world would be almost unbearably loud and bright, something I imagine akin to standing in the middle of the traffic in the middle of New York Times Square during rush-hour (and possibly just as deadly). I've heard that some research studies have linked a reduction in latent inhibition to psychosis, and that doesn't surprise me one bit. 

On the other hand, a conscious, deliberate, mindful reducing of our latent inhibitions, during something like a mindfulness walk, can be powerfully beneficial. A research study of individuals with high IQ scores found that those who were also classified as "eminent creative achievers" were seven times more likely to have low, rather than high, latent inhibition scores. As the researchers put it, people who were less likely to classify sounds or objects as irrelevant were at an advantage when it came to producing creative, original content.

So by the simple act of paying attention during a walk, Scout and I are exercising our brains, and giving them permission to notice and give relevance to our surroundings. This in turn leads to more creative thinking in all areas of life, from artistic expression to problem-solving and innovation. 

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(Side note: speaking of paying attention, here is something I have noticed in the picture above. Because of the time of day, the shadows were right in front of this gardener and you can hardly see them. Look at her feet. Does something seem wrong? No shadows! It kind of looks like I have photoshopped her in from some other picture, and failed to add in grounding shadows. I didn't, this shot is unedited, but it is driving me crazy. For people who ask me about painting tips, this is why shadows - even soft ones - can make a big difference to a scene.)

After my mindfulness walk with Scout this morning, I decided I would write about it, so I kept my iPhone out to take some pictures of things I noticed, too, during my solitary walk to pick up the mail and get my morning coffee. At one point, I leant across a fence to photograph some beautiful, peeling paint on a brick wall (something I had walked past more than 100 times before and never properly noticed) and, as I leaned, I accidentally crushed some rosemary. The honeyed, herbaceous fragrance instantly lifted my spirits, so I picked a sprig and carried it with me the rest of the way.  

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What to do on a mindfulness walk 

The next time you take a solitary walk - or a walk with the children if they are willing - take at least some of that time to try a deliberate mindfulness practise. Here are some ideas to get you started: 

1. Bring a piece of paper and pen with you, and start recording things. List 10 things you can see, 10 things you can hear, 10 things you can smell, and 10 things you can feel. There probably won't be 10 things you want to taste, but don't let me hold you back if that's your thing! I have made a pretty worksheet for this exercise that you can download here if you'd like it. 

2. Take a camera and go for a walk to see what you can see. I have been recommending this as a tool for overcoming creative block for years. There is something about the combination of exercise, a change of scenery, and exercising creativity in a different kind of way that can often be just the break your brain needs to unblock whatever was stopping you in your project. Walking with a camera can also be a beautiful way to practise mindfulness, because you are more likely to notice things. Really pay attention, and make the effort to capture what you see. Think about light and shadows and details. Crouch down to get a different perspective. Zoom in closer for some detail. Look for unexpected shapes in building angles and white space. 

3. Make a mini-movie by recording one-second videos every minute or so on your walk. Then when you get home, edit them together. You will be amazed, once you start recording, the sounds and sights you hadn't noticed until that moment. Possibly when you watch your edited movie back, you will also realise there were other things going on at the time (a woman pushing a pram on the other side of the road while you were filming a letter-box; a bus starting up from around the corner while you were filming a bird singing) and that will help you be even more mindful the next time you go walking. 

4. Just before you go for your walk, use your phone (or any other device) to make an audio recording of your walk. You don't need to do anything with this recording - you can even delete it as soon as you're done - but the very fact that you are recording will heighten your awareness of the sounds around you, and help you to pay attention. The bang of the front door as you pull it shut (even the click of the lock), a magpie warbling, the squeal of car tyres somewhere in the distance, bees on a bush, a baby crying, snippets of conversations. 

I would love to know if you find these ideas helpful, or if there is anything similar that you do in your own life, that others could benefit from knowing. What do you think? 

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Tea at dawn

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This is when I do my best work. In the pre-dawn, while most of the world sleeps. 

I'm not a masochist, nor a particularly motivated person. It's just that I'm a morning person so I wake early naturally, and of course it makes sense to get as much work done as I can while the children sleep. My brain is rested, and rejuvenated, and I can do my best work at this time. I wrote my book The Art of Mail almost entirely between the hours of five and six in the morning. I write most of my blog posts at five, and that's when I research and craft most of my courses. 

Last month I put out a survey in my newsletter, asking people to share with me the biggest challenges they faced when it came to being creative. I gave them a list of choices, based on previous conversations I'd had. Hurdles they faced, like needing accountability, lack of confidence, and too many distractions. I received hundreds of responses to this survey, and the number one reason - in fact more than 80 percent of people ticked this box - was this:

"I want to be more creative but I don't have enough time.

A lot of them felt super frustrated with the popular 'wisdom' that is often spouted about finding time: "If you want it badly enough, you'll make the time." They felt disempowered by this statement and, personally, I think it is cruel. It's one thing expecting people to take responsibility for their own lives - which we all should! - but it is way too simplistic to say "You don't want it badly enough" to someone who struggles to make time for the things that give them joy. 

I have a job, and that takes time. I am trying to build a business, and that takes even more time. I have a husband and two small children. They take a LOT of time. My husband works 80+ hours a week so I essentially run our house on its own. That takes a good whack of time too. I don't have a car, so even getting from A to B if I need to do something like buy milk takes more time out of my day than it otherwise might. This list could go on, as I'm sure yours could too.

And it's not as though I could drop any of those other responsibilities, even if I wanted to (I generally don't want to). I need to work because my family relies on my income. I need to look after my children because my husband is at work and, while they have school and childcare on some days, they also need their parents! I need to cook and clean and otherwise run the house because if I didn't, we'd be living in a pile of rubbish comprised of dirty clothes, lego pieces, dust bunnies and food scraps, while eating takeout for every meal. 

But where in my busy life - or in yours - is the room for creating? For making just for the sake of making? For learning something new? For playing with art? For self-improvement? 

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Right now I'm working on a short course made specifically for all those lovely people who responded to my survey, about how to find (or make) time to be creative. It is about guilt-free ways we can use more of our time for the things that spark joy, and train our brains to be more creative, without feeling as though we need to drop our responsibilities or small pleasures. 

That will come very soon (if you happen to be awake at 5am Melbourne time on most days, you'll be able to picture me sitting at my desk with a  hot cup of tea, writing it). In the meantime, today I thought I'd share something else that several people in the survey asked for: an idea of what a typical day looks like for me. How do I divide up my time, they wanted to know, to fit in all those things. 

The short answer is, of course, that I generally fail in one area or another. I'm not super-human and I regularly feel as though I'm playing catch-up, or having to reshuffle priorities. Also, my day - just like yours - is never typical. So, bearing that in mind, here is a rough idea of what my days look like on one of the three days a week that my children are in childcare. 

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The day always starts with tea

5am: I make a cup of tea and take it into my office (a tiny, windowless room that is actually a converted wine cellar. It is always more cluttered and messier than I'd like it to be). I work on a key writing project, such as course material, book copy, blog posts. At some point during this time my husband usually gets up, showers, and leaves for work. 

6.30am: The children get up. I close the computer, we have cuddles, then get breakfast ready. We put on music (the children call it "calm music" and generally it's classical music at this time of morning), and we sit at the table together to eat. I try not to rush this and I try not to have my phone in my hand. We talk about the day ahead. What's on at school or kinder, any reading they've been doing, events that happened the day before (often they are too tired and their heads are too busy to talk in the afternoon, but it all comes out over breakfast). In Scout's case, there are often elaborate discussions about what she will wear for that day.

7am: While the children are still eating and chatting, I make their lunches and pack their lunch boxes, then check they have everything they need packed in their bags (hats, sunscreen, lunches, bottles of water, tissues, readers, library books, signed permission slips, and a change of clothes in case of over-enthusiastic water-play). At this point I often also realise I have forgotten to let the cat out, so I open up the little outdoor room where she sleeps. 

Honestly, mornings are mostly lovely. Last year they were hectic, but now we are in a rhythm, and most mornings we have fun. Sometimes we change up the "calm music" for something more lively, and take a moment to dance together around the kitchen. 

(At some time after breakfast, I aim to post an Instagram picture. I choose this time because I find that for me, a lot of my tribe are also online at that time, so we can chat and be engaged. I don't post unless I am relatively confident that I can respond to comments, and comment on other people's posts, during the next half hour. That's why if you follow me on Instagram you'll notice that I've been quiet lately. I don't feel it's fair to post a picture and then walk away, so I haven't been posting all that frequently of late, since mornings have been quite busy). 

7.30: The children play or read books while I go upstairs and make the beds, shower and dress, pick out clothes for them to wear, and water the upstairs plants if they need them (it's hot here right now and upstairs is like an oven, so they need watering almost daily). 

8am: I get the children dressed, brush their teeth and my teeth, do Scout's hair, and hunt for their shoes (generally at least one of them has lost at least one shoe). We need to be out of the house by 8.20am on two of the three days. On Tuesdays, all of the above still has to happen, but we need to be out of the house by 7.30am at the absolute latest, so imagine everything occurring at double speed. 

8.30am: Drop Ralph at kinder, settle him in, then walk Scout to school. 

9am: Say goodbye to Scout at school, then walk home, picking up a coffee on the way to bring home, and sometimes checking the PO Box for mail. 

9.30am: Finally I sit back down in front of my computer in the little windowless office. There are four core activities I do in my business. I always try to maintain a balance of these four in my week (preferably even in my day) because if I spend too much time on any one of these, or neglect any one of these, my business suffers. 

1. COMMUNITY: That means responding to comments and emails from my students; responding to questions on Instagram; replying to other emails; and caring for the Me & Orla community (I am a TA/VA for Sara Tasker) by responding to comments and questions from her students. This is also when I'll work on questions, strategies and responses for the people I mentor on a one-to-one basis. 

2. PRODUCTS: To make money in my business, I actually need to be constantly making things that I can sell. Writing courses, writing books, making colouring books, establishing master-mind groups, painting stationery designs for Boots Paper (I am the in-house illustrator for Boots), writing paid magazine articles, painting privately-commissioned pieces.  

3. PROMOTION: By this I mean all the things I do to share my work and my business with my tribe. This blog, updates to my website, my newsletter, Instagram, unpaid magazine articles, magazine and podcast interviews, pitching story ideas to magazines, and guest blog posts. A lot of people have asked me to create video tutorials and this is definitely something I'd love to start doing, but (as you can see) I have a lot to fit into three half-days already, so we'll see!

4. RESEARCH & LEARNING: My business is less than five months old, and I started it without planning or strategy (I wrote about that here), so I have a LOT to learn. I listen to podcasts a lot because I can do that while I'm painting. I research and read material online, I read books, and recent courses I've done include two on Instagram with Sara Tasker, one on Pinterest with Melyssa Griffin, some smaller courses on selling without being sleazy with Jessica Lorimer, and I've joined the Soulful PR community with Janet Murray. I also booked a one-hour coaching call with Jen Carrington that helped give me a lot of clarity. 

Depending on what is going on on that particular day, I prioritise COMMUNITY first, because I don't want people to wait too long to hear from me. Then the balance of PRODUCTS or PROMOTION will depend on what I have going on. For example right now I'm working on that "Time to Create" course I told you about, so I might prioritise that a little more heavily. When I'm ready to release it, or my book comes out, I'll move more into PROMOTION mode.

But to maintain some balance, I try to spread things out. I spent an hour on emails and comments this morning, now I'm writing this blog post. Afterwards, I'll dig back into writing the course. Last week, I spent the bulk of my time painting the artwork for the cover of my book, and the week before that I was editing the copy. Because of all those things, I've fallen behind on the promo side - this blog has been woefully neglected, as has Instagram. So I'll be working on redressing that balance soon.

I like to do my painting and drawing work in the afternoon. My brain is getting tired (remember I've been up since 5am!), so after lunch I'll sit down to paint, while listening to podcasts or audio books, so I can combine my PRODUCTS tasks with my RESEARCH & LEARNING tasks. 

3.15pm: I leave home to pick up Scout from school, then we walk back together, just in time to pick up Ralph from kinder.

4.15pm: We all arrive home and the children have some afternoon tea. We sit at the table again, and pull out any homework that Scout might have (she is only five so it's just readers, and school is so new - we started at the beginning of Feb - that she still enjoys them). 

While the children play, I clean up a bit. Clean the kitchen from meals cooked during the day (my grown-up step-daughter Em is living with us right now so there are several meals going on), empty and wash up lunch boxes, pick up clothes and toys that got scattered about that morning but which I didn't prioritise because I wanted to get straight to work, put on a load of washing, vacuum. Those kinds of things. 

5pm: The children have either a bath or a shower. If they shower, I sit in my windowless office which is right next door, and answer any 'community' questions that have popped up since that morning. If they have a bath, upstairs, I use the time to respond to any comments or questions on Instagram while supervising them as they play. Or I fold the laundry.

5.30pm-6pm: Sometime around this point, the children have dinner. It's only light: normally salad with some kind of protein like tuna or ham or egg or cheese, followed by fruit. On school days they are never particularly hungry but are always exhausted so they just want to go to bed. Then we brush teeth, and go upstairs to read stories. 

6.30pm-7pm: The children are in bed. I come back downstairs and clean the kitchen again after the children's dinner. Normally this is when I'd start to cook dinner for the grown-ups.

Lately though, we've been trying something different. I was finding I'd start cooking this late, so the food wouldn't be ready until 8pm, and often Mr B would then be in meetings or functions and so he wouldn't want to eat at all, and the food would be wasted (plus I'd be exhausted and then have to do even more washing up). Instead, we've started ordering "clean foods" meals from YouFoodz. I can see myself getting sick of them but right now, I like that they are fresh (not frozen), and come in recyclable containers so while not ideal, at least they don't go into landfill. I grab one and either eat it cold, pop it into the microwave, or stir-fry it on the stove-top. I miss cooking, but this certainly saves me at least an hour a night! Once my business gets through this intensive early-growth stage, I look forward to cooking again. 

7.30pm: After dinner, I settle in to work. At this time of night I'm not at my best for crafting words or retaining research. Instead, I do most of my painting at this time. If I have PRODUCT work to do (painting for Boots, or a client, or my book etc), I do that. This is also when I create the templates and paint the samples for my newsletters. If I don't have painting to do, I use this time to write letters to people, edit photographs for Instagram, and make mail-art for the joy of it. If I'm painting or editing photographs my brain is mostly free, and Mr B and I like to binge-watch whatever our new favourite show is on Netflix while he signs thousands of letters. I do sometimes laugh at the incongruence of painting a beautiful, peaceful botanical illustration while people slaughter each other on Vikings, but that's just how I roll. 

10.30pm-11pm: I do the final round of washing up (a lot less since YouFoodz), feed the cat and lock her up, hang up any wet washing from that load I put on earlier, and generally ready the house for the next day. If things are quiet I go to bed. If I'm busy or on a deadline, I can stay up much later, although I don't think I've worked past 1am more than a few times. After a few late nights, I'll often give up and go to bed earlier - about 9.30pm - to catch up. I have to be up again at 5am the next day, or 6am if I'm tired and need a sleep-in, to do it all again. 

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So... that's what my day looks like three days a week, give or take afternoon kid activities like ballet or karate or French lessons or swimming. On the other two week-days I have Ralph at home with me, so there are no big blocks of working time. I do my early-morning work, then after school drop-off he and I usually go out to the park or somewhere, but he goes down for a little nap after lunch and I work then. I prioritise COMMUNITY during that nap hour and then, if there is still time, I pick from either PRODUCT or PROMOTIONS, depending on what's on that week. After Ralph's nap we pick up Scout from school, and the afternoon progresses in pretty much the same way. 

On the weekends, I'll still work in the early mornings, and again at night on painting, if we don't have to go out, and occasionally in the afternoons if the children have naps. But mostly, I try to make those days about family time. Because Mr B works such long hours, we prioritise the time that he is home to spend time together. Sometimes that has to involve cleaning the house, but we get out and about as much as we can on at least one of the weekend days. 

One last thing... 

I realise my hours are long, and not particularly sustainable. Please don't think I will be encouraging or expecting others to do the same things when I teach my Time to Create course. I'm at a point in my life where I'm building a brand-new business, and my time is extremely limited, so I'm squeezing every last morsel out of it. I don't intend to do this in the long term, and I don't expect anyone else to do this. 

What I do love about my busy life right now is that I have, by trial and error, managed to block out specific times for specific things. For example, I'm not working while supervising the kids. I used to do that and I felt doubly guilty: guilty that I wasn't paying proper attention to my children, and guilty that I wasn't paying proper attention to my work. I don't look at social media while I'm with the kids (except when supervising bath times), nor do I answer (many) emails in front of them. I sit at that meal table and we chat, actively listening to one another, and making eye contact. Then when I sit down at my desk to work, I'm all about the work. My phone is on silent and often in a different room. 

It's not perfect, but as someone who has freelanced for the better part of 15 years, I feel like I'm finally getting into some kind of workable rhythm, even while having small children around. 

How about you? I'd love to know how you balance your work / family / fun time. 

  (Everybody sing together: "You can't hiiiiiiide / Your tired eyes....")

(Everybody sing together: "You can't hiiiiiiide / Your tired eyes....")

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11 platonic love-letters to write for Valentine's Day

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Whether or not you are feeling in a romantic mood, a love letter can make somebody's day, week, month or even year! Valentine's Day is coming up on 14 February, but if that's not your piece of cake, there are plenty of other reasons to write something kind and loving in the coming weeks*. For example: 

- Sunday 4 Feb is "National thank a mail carrier day" in the US, and I think we should all celebrate a day like that, no matter where we live (think wild weather, scary dogs, cranky customers, and you'll understand why)

- Monday 12 Feb is the start of "Random Acts of Kindness Week," and sending someone you care about a surprise letter is a truly wonderful act of kindness 

- The entire month of February is InCoWriMo, during which thousands of people from all over the world pledge to write a letter a day

- Thursday 1 March is World Compliment Day, a perfect day on which to write a letter, card or even post-it note to someone in your life to tell them what you admire about them 

- Sunday 11 March is Mother's Day if you live in the UK

And that's just for starters! Is there someone in your life who would appreciate a thoughtful letter from you today? I call that a love letter, and Valentine's Day is as good an excuse as any for you to actually get motivated and spend five minutes writing that letter. 

To make it even easier for you, I'll start you off. All you need to do is fill in the blanks! 

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11 platonic love letters you can write today

1. Dear Mum, I love you because you do / say / make this thing, and it makes me feel... 

2. Dear best friend, thank you for being there for me through thick and thin. Remember that time we... 

3. Dear stranger, I'm sorry you are going through a tough time. I want to encourage you in this specific way... (go to the More Love Letters website to write this letter) 

4. Dear postie, thank you for always delivering my letters, even when it's raining / snowing / a heatwave / the neighbour's dog is out. (Write this on a postcard and pop it in the nearest letter-box. You can be anonymous if you want to, or leave your name and house number. You could also write this note on the back of a letter you're sending to someone else)

5. Dear Grandpa, I really like doing that thing with you. I miss you, and I want to come visit you and do it this weekend / next month / on this specific date

6. Dear mentor, I want to thank you for the advice / guidance / help / support. It has enabled me to do that thing / mature that way / take that leap, and I will be forever grateful

7. Dear child, sometimes life gets busy and we forget to say the most important things. Here is a list of 10 things I love and admire about you... 

8. Dear flatmate, thank you for the Friday-night-pasta-while-watching-The-West-Wing tradition / your great taste in music / letting us all use your couch / being thoughtful / being fun to live with 

9. Dear asylum seeker, there are people who are thinking of you and fighting for your freedom. Please don't give up hope. You are loved

10. Dear brother or sister, I just wanted to take a moment to tell you I love you. Here is something I truly admire about you. Remember that hilarious time we...

11. Dear 13-year-old-me, here are some people in your life who love you, even though they don't seem to show it very well. Hang in there, in a few years, you will meet your best friend / mentor / lover. Also, you will figure out how to de-frizz your hair, and your pimples will clear up. 

* Note that this post was written in 2018. If you are reading it in the future, the dates above may shift ever so slightly, so check your calendar for the year you're in

** If you're wondering why I've used scenes from Picnic at Hanging Rock for this blog post, the events of both the book and movie versions of Picnic at Hanging Rock happened on Valentine's Day in the year 1900, and it has entered into the Australian psyche as the story for the day. (Also the book is a favourite of mine, I live near the Rock itself and it is genuinely mysterious and magical, and the film is beautiful!)


ps. Need more help with letter-writing or reaching your creative goals? Here are some things I've made that might help you

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