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A friend gave me a book a while ago with the words: “You need this. Read it.” I thanked her, then put it on the window sill in my office (aka The Graveyard of Random Notes and Lists of Things to be Done), where it continued to live for the next eight or ten weeks. A couple of days ago I finally picked it up. And I must say – she was right. I needed that book and it’s coming at a perfect time as well. Thank you Ilona!

The book in question is “Wishcraft: How to get what you really want” by Barbara Sher. I was sceptical at first. I had a period in my life where I got self-help books by the dozen out of the library and usually didn’t manage to read past the first five pages before I gave up in disgust. They always seemed to be written for other people, not for me. People who cared about career, how to manage a family, how to earn a lot of money. None of which applies to my life. However, Barbara Sher had me by the first page.

Her tone is so warm, so human, so down-to-earth that I immediately felt welcomed. And when I read on and realized that this book is not someone lecturing me on what I ought to have and ought to do to be a valuable member of society, but rather a book written by someone who tells me that everybody has genius inside them and reservoirs of talent and passion, whatever that passion may be! – and then goes on giving me exercise upon exercise for finding out what my passion is and what’s keeping me for living it and how to go about dealing with the things that stand in the way…  then, I think, I have found a new friend. That’s what it feels like. Someone who encourages me, shows me my strengths, believes in me.

I think that I already had a pretty good understanding of who I am and what my strengths are and in which direction my passions lie. That’s not to say the exercises weren’t useful to me – far from it, I found it very useful to really sit down with pen and paper and make lists and think things through, but what I mean, is that there hadn’t been any huge surprises (so far).

However, this morning as I was sitting in the weak spring sunshine that came through the living room window, I did get a surprise. The exercise was to list twenty things that bring me joy. No explanations, no qualifications and the only rule was to get to twenty. So I did. I wrote down things like: reading, developing characters, cuddling with the dog, hiking, swimming, sitting in the sun, taking photos, being with friends, … When I’d got to twenty, I looked into the book again and the next part of the exercise was to make a table and to note for each item the answers to questions like: When did I do this last? Is it cheap or expensive? Do I do it alone or with others? Is it indoors or outdoors? Is it intellectual, physical, spiritual? … and to add as many questions as I wanted.

I started doing it, but noticed very soon that the answers were mostly the same. The majority of things I like are cheap to free, outdoors, physical and intellectual or physical and spiritual at the same time (like hiking… for me, that’s both physical and spiritual), it’s done alone, I usually do it spontaneously and it doesn’t require a lot of planning…. and all of them I haven’t done in a quite a while.

And that brought me up short. So apparently there are all these activities that I enjoy and that make me feel good, most of which don’t cost me anything and can be done by myself without a lot of planning – and I’m not doing them??? Wow. Wait a minute. In other words, I’m forgoing a number of sources for happiness and contentment for no discernible reason except that I didn’t think about it or am too lazy to get up from my desk. What an eye-opener.

Needless to say, I’m going to make a conscious effort to include them into my present life. No use putting things off. Tomorrow morning, instead of talking the dog on our usual round, I’ll pack him into the car and drive somewhere new (up the hill on the other side of the valley, I think) and go for a really long walk. I’ll take my camera and instead of thinking of it as a necessary task that has to be performed, I’ll think of it as something that I have chosen voluntarily.

There, Barbara Sher – lesson learned, and I’m only in chapter 3.

If you want, try this exercise. Let us know what you found out. Even better, get the book and do all the other exercises. It’s fun and – who knows? – you might learn something new about yourself. 


things I’d forgotten

I used to be a teacher. I stopped being one for many reasons. I have never regretted the decision. But there are aspects about teaching that I used to love and that I forgot.

When I look back on my time in school, I tend to focus on the bad stuff – the pressure, the time constraints, the pupils that needed more discipline or never learned to respect others, the colleagues that were set in their ways and not open for new approaches or ideas, the parents that hovered over their kids and the parents who ignored their children. Every time one of my teaching friends or a family member that is a teacher (quite a few of those in my family…) talks about school, I’m happy I’m not involved anymore.

So far, so good.

This week, from Tuesday night to Friday noon, I was invited to sit in at a youth seminar, with the end in mind of possibly working as a mentor in future seminars. Two days before I was due to go there, I only wanted to crawl under a blanket and bawl my eyes out. I was in total panic mode. I had no idea why I’d agreed to do this. I was scared of not being able to cope, scared of the kids, scared of going out of my little box. Probably that’s what eighteen months of social inactivity and lack of structure do to one. It was totally irrational, but very, very real.

Because I have a wonderful sister and awesome friends, I finally had the courage to leave my comfort zone (and realize how very small that zone has become!) and drive down to the seminar. When I arrived, I heard from the two mentors that the group was not easy to work with, that they were difficult to motivate, that they behaved like teenagers instead of the young adults that they were. That was what I took into the group – a small dose of second-hand wariness and a big helping of fear from myself.

Tuesday night was alright, but I still felt raw. Wednesday was slightly better, but my impression of the young people was still that they kept me at distance and I didn’t feel the inclination to overcome that distance. Thursday brought an external trainer who did some fabulous work with us on body language, voice, self presentation and so on – and suddenly I started to consciously see individual faces. I’d already learned most of the names, but now I started to see individuality as well. I started to ask questions and to listen. I started to joke. I became relaxed. I stopped behaving like a wary teacher and instead saw them equals. I realized that I had myself fallen into the trap that I most hate and always most wish to avoid: I’d taken them as a homogeneous group, not as individual people. And I hadn’t seen past the us-them divide.

Tonight, the last evening, they organized a party. We played games, danced, sang. Some things worked, some things could have been better organized, some people tried to take everyone into the group dynamic, some put themselves apart… the typical group behaviour. And I enjoyed every single moment of it. It was fantastic talking music with some of the guys and exchanging opinions on songs, on sound, on dancing that were often very different from mine, but just as well thought-out and communicated. I loved dancing silly dances with the girls. I loved listening to these young people’s dreams, ideas, thoughts, opinions and I was touched when they listened to me and were interested in what I told them.

I had forgotten how much energy teenagers (and young adults) have. I had forgotten how straightforward and powerful their ideas about their future and about life often are. I had forgotten how strong they are and also how fragile and that there are so many things they still need to learn. I had forgotten that you need to show them respect and interest, and when you do, how easily they open up and how much they share about themselves.

And I had forgotten how much I love, love, LOVE working with young people. I’m not going back to being a teacher, but I won’t forget again how good it feels to be of use to these interesting, lovely, intriguing young plants that are just unfurling their leaves and starting to explore the world. I want to go back to being a mentor and help them grow.

And I want to leave my comfort zone more often. Good things happen when I do.