Using your old photos as journaling prompts

Memory Lane is a nice place to visit

Journaling is an anchor for me in many ways. Sometimes it holds me in place in calm times so I can linger over my thoughts and enjoy them, and other times it holds my ship steady in the rough waters of life so I have some time to process difficult topics through writing.

I journal to recall and document memories and what they mean to me, re-live funny moments from trips, and process emotions both good and bad. I record many of life’s fun, random, and fleeting thoughts and ideas that might otherwise pass by and be forgotten to time. What did I think about a particular article or book I read? How did I like a day that I spent exploring a new place? What did I do on that trip I went on? I don’t want to forget those things because they’re the breadcrumb trail of my life, and I enjoy periodically going back to read what my thoughts were about such things to go along with the photos I’ve taken. I’ve written a previous post on how and why I journal that discusses more about these topics.

Dusting off the boxes of photos

Several years ago before my Dad passed away, we tackled the long-standing project of digitizing thousands of his old 35mm photography slides of our family from the 1960’s – 1990’s. He wanted the project done to get the photos out of the closet and into digital format where they can be easily enjoyed by the whole family in the future.

I was born in the mid 60’s, so the time period from then all through the 70’s is of particular interest to me because that was my childhood and I remember a lot of it well. Although people typically didn’t take nearly as many photos back then as they do today with cell phones and digital cameras, Dad did a good job of capturing many great memories over the years.

I have very strong picture-recall (for lack of a better phrase). Meaning, I might remember the details of certain things from when I was young in a fuzzy manner….until I see a photo of them. A single photo often brings back a flood of memories that can be surprising to me at times. It’s like when they used to release dozens of white doves to fly away from a box during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. That’s the exact feeling I have sometimes when I see an old photo, thoughts flying free all over the place.

I’m sure many people are the same way, which is what gave me the idea for this short article. Combining the ideas of photography, journaling, and the concepts of nostalgia and “tasting life twice”, yesterday I had the idea to grab a very old photo of my Dad’s from my computer, put it in an entry in my digital journal, and write about what it reminded me of. Wow, what an unexpectedly great experience!

Inside the little white box is…

I chose the photo above when I stumbled across it because I recall this day like it was yesterday, just from seeing this one picture. It was my Holy Communion Day, which was a beautiful spring day in 1974. The photo is of me opening a present from my parents in our back yard, which was my first ever mechanical watch. I remember opening that box so vividly, seeing the watch, and being stunned by such a gift. I thought “Wow, this is no toy! This is a nice watch!” It made me feel special that my parents would think to buy me such a gift at that young age.

I took it out and my Mom helped me put it on, and I wore it proudly throughout that day, staring down at it many times to admire it. I remember holding it up to my ear to hear it tick and wondering what was inside of it. I also remember treating it like it was gold. When my neighborhood friends stopped by later that morning to ask me to play basketball, I wore the watch while we played and I remember looking down at it many times to make sure it wasn’t breaking from the rough playing. It would have been wiser to just take it off, but there’s no way that watch was leaving my wrist! Perhaps receiving this first watch seeded my long term interest in watches and horology that I wrote about here and here.

The photo also reminded me of my home where I grew up, our yard, all the special times we shared there, and most of all my parents. I journaled about all of it in the entry that I created for this photo.

As I wrote, I thought to myself “This is exactly why we take photos, isn’t it? To go back and enjoy them over and over.” There’s not much point in taking photos if we never look at them and reminisce about the times when they were taken.

The nice bookend to this story is that I still have this watch, 46 years later! I’ve taken it out every once in a while as I’ve come across it over the years, and each time I wound it up to find that it still worked. Sadly, this time when I wound it while writing this article, I found that it no longer functions. But since it’s a mechanical watch, all it needs is a good internal cleaning and re-oiling and it will work like new again. Since I’m into watchmaking, maybe I’ll make that a personal quest of mine in the years to come…learn enough to get this watch working again!

Give it a try…

Grab an old photo of yours and try journaling about the memories that it brings back. You might be surprised at how easily your thoughts come flooding out, like the white doves coming out of their box at the Olympics. Enjoy the time spent with the process, it’s an opportunity for you to taste life twice.

Inspiring your “becoming”

I wake up before dawn every day, usually somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00. No alarms needed, it’s just the way my brain and body work.

I used to prefer sleeping a bit later, because waking up early can make me drowsy during the afternoon and requires a power nap to recharge myself. However, when early rising started happening consistently a few years ago, I learned to embrace it. I now fully enjoy waking up while it’s still dark, and it has become “my time”. The silence in the house is a nice way to quietly start the day as I read, write, drink coffee, and watch the sky start to lighten. Every sunrise is a unique gift, and I often photograph them. The photo above is the view from our front window a few mornings ago.

I often go for walks while it’s early; before the cars are on the road, the neighborhood dogs start to bark, or there are other distractions out and about. On a recent walk when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I came across something great that I want to share here…

The process of becoming

This is a link to one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever heard. It’s an episode called “Over Time” of the podcast “A Beautiful Anarchy” by David duChemin, which I’ve previously written about here.

The episode is only 14:06 long, so I encourage you to listen to it in order to catch David’s expressiveness as he discusses the topic. If you want to read it instead then there’s a full transcript at the same link.

For any writer, photographer, artist, dancer, painter…or anyone who’s doing something that you enjoy and strive to get better at, David’s words are simply stated, yet full of inspiration and hope. The episode was so impactful to me that I stopped walking to play back this section several times:

David duChemin:

“We live in a culture focused on being great, not becoming great. On being talented, not becoming talented. And on being creative and prolific and successful, even lucky, but not on becoming those things.

Becoming takes time. And grit. Your grit might not be as, uh, gritty, as someone else’s grit, but it’s grit all the same.

Becoming is not easy.

Becoming depends more on mistakes than on getting things right straight out of the gate.

It takes focus.

And it’s messy, full of moments that invite us to either quit or keep going.

But what is deeply hopeful about the idea of becoming is that it is largely in our hands. It does not rely on a random gift of genetics. It does not demand that we be better than anyone else or even compare ourselves to anyone, including ourselves.

Becoming is hopeful because it means while the person I am today might not be able to pull it off (whatever it is), the person I will become tomorrow or next year, might be.

I’m not talented enough to do tomorrow’s big thing today. I never am. If I had the talent or ability right now to do the bigger things about which I dream, I’d have done them already. I might not be able to do it now, but I will be in a year. Maybe two or ten. Because while I’m not yet the guy who can write my next book, I am becoming that guy. And, though it feels like a paradox, writing my next book (and all the books that led me to it) makes me the person capable of writing exactly that book. The man I am when I start a book is not the man I am when I finish it. Yes, we make our art, but our art makes us.

But remember, too, that merely sticking it out, merely persevering, is of no particular value. Just being patient, and putting in the time, is not the same as over time becoming, learning, or growing.

Being is static. Being one thing or another is fine if you’re content with that, but it’s not really the stuff of possibilities, is it? Becoming is on-going. It’s cumulative. Evolutionary. Becoming is about transformation.

But we don’t talk like that. No one talks about who we are becoming. They talk about who we are, as if it’s been decided, nailed down, set in concrete. As if the person I was when I was born is the person I am now and will be in 20 years. But we are not. We become. Or we can, if we are willing to learn.”

As I continued walking and listening to the rest of the episode, I thought about all the things I’ve tried in my life that I enjoy doing, and what my arc has been with them as I’ve continually strived to do them better. Photography, music, writing, craft-related activities…it doesn’t matter…his words apply. They’re a potent reminder that it’s about the journey, not just the destination. And it’s also a reminder that the journey is our “becoming”. I think we forget that, or perhaps never even realize it in the first place.

Remember his words while you’re on your journeys and you occasionally reach points where you have to try over and over again, or put in much harder effort to reach your goals. Stay focused. Keep doing, learning, and growing. You’ll get there eventually, and you’ll be a “better you” for the effort. Enjoy the process…and become!

How to start and benefit from writing a personal journal

The path to a clear mind, and the enjoyment of tasting life twice

“Writing serves to heighten our own awareness of life…to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

Anaïs Nin

The quote above nicely captures why writing is important in the lives of so many people, myself included. Like any art form, the creative possibilities through writing are nearly limitless. You’re free to go wherever your mind takes you, and to explore as deeply and as long as you like. This post is specifically about how to begin writing a personal journal, and how to realize the many benefits that you can gain from it.

I’ve wanted to write about journaling for a long time, but I didn’t get around to it until something pushed it to the front of my mind recently. Maybe it was the New Year marking the end of the terrible year that 2020 was, combined with all of the hope about how 2021 will bring us to the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Maybe it was also because I was off from work around the end of the year and I had some peaceful time to just sit and think about personal things. Whatever the reason, here are my thoughts about journaling and developing the habit of keeping up with it for the long term. If you decide to try it, you’ll likely be glad that you did…

Physical or digital, that is the question

In order to journal, you first need to decide where to journal. Many people like the process of writing with a good quality pen in a nice leather bound journal, or some other type of notebook. If that sounds like you, then you can shop on any number of online sites or local stationary and craft stores to find one. For example, Barnes & Noble has a large selection to choose from.

Physical journaling has many benefits, one of them being that it’s tangible. You can touch, feel, and even smell your journal (if yours happens to be leather bound). It’s there. It’s sensory. You can hear the pages flipping and feel the weight and quality of the paper. You can use different color pens, sketch drawings, tape mementos like ticket stubs, pictures, or travel guide pamphlets into the journal. Some people even do things like pressing small flowers in their journal so they become flat and dried over time. Journals can be small and in the range of 4×6″ or 5×7″ which can be tucked in a pocket or purse, and others can be the size of a photo album for large format journaling with room for adding additional pages when needed. There are all different sizes and styles to suite varying tastes.

The other option is to go digital. I personally prefer using a digital journaling app because I don’t want to carry around a book and pen. More importantly though, I want the option to journal at any time, anywhere, on any of the devices that I always have with me. That freedom helps me to keep up with my writing habit. It’s also nice to have the liberty of attaching a digital photo, video, or audio file to a journal entry to enhance it. Plus, journaling apps can automatically add other valuable information to your entries if you choose. The additions could include using GPS information from your phone to note where you made an entry, what the weather was in that location, or even what music you were listening to at the time you were writing. All of these features can be turned off if you prefer, but including them is a great way to capture your thoughts while adding additional information to your entries for a richer contextual writing experience.

Whatever format you choose, remember that it’s not cast in stone. If one approach doesn’t work for you and it becomes an obstacle to actually doing your writing, then try something else. Eventually you’ll hit your sweet spot of physical or digital (or both), convenience, and features that click for you.

You just have to start…..and then keep going

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

Walt Disney

One of the difficult things about writing anything is that you have to…start. For some people, that might be easier said than done because a blank page can be intimidating. If writing comes easily to you then the words will quickly start flowing onto the pages when you sit down to write. However, for those of you for which writing is a struggle, you might understandably need some tips to encourage and guide you to grab a pen and paper (or download a journaling app) to write your first entries and get yourself out of the starting gate.

I’ve been journaling since 2012 and have learned some key things along the way that might help you. Here are my tips for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and also benefiting from the writing process:

Privacy: One of my most important suggestions is to remember that a journal is your private space. It doesn’t matter what you write or how you write it. Nobody is going to judge it, edit it, or even see it if you don’t want them to. It’s your space, your thoughts. Keeping that in mind should help free you from self-editing when you write. Self-editing, and thereby blunting your thoughts and ideas before you can express them, is the biggest barrier to writing of any kind because it stops your thoughts before they even get out of your head. Journaling is all about your mind flowing to page, and if you know that people won’t see what you write unless you want them to, then there’s no worry. Be free with it!

Honesty: Be honest with your writing. The primary benefits of journaling are getting to know yourself better and getting a deeper understanding of how you think and react to the world around you. If you’re not being honest with yourself about what you really think and feel about a topic, then it’s impossible to achieve these benefits. If you feel good about something, then write about it and explain why. If you’re angry or disappointed with someone/something, you’ve failed at a goal, or you’re harboring some other type of unpleasant feelings, just let your emotions pour out honestly. No sugarcoating or self-editing. With the aforementioned privacy, be comfortable that your truth is secured, and the more honest you are then the more insightful your journal will be for you. I’ve humorously dropped more than one f-bomb in my journal when writing about something that made me very angry. I can’t help but laugh when I read those entries back to myself…

Prompts and templates: If you’re new to journaling and you’re having difficulty choosing what to write about, then try starting with some writing prompts here or here, or Google for some other prompts and journal templates that appeal to you. Journaling videos on YouTube and pins on Pinterest can help here as well. There are endless possible prompts to choose from, or you can create your own to suit your needs. Journal templates take the idea of prompts one step further, and are usually a blank page that’s divided into sections with headings that also act as prompts. For example, a template might have sections for “What happened today”, “How did it make me feel”, and “What will I do tomorrow”. Whatever the specific prompts are in a template, the goal is that they provide a way for you to frame your thinking and let the thoughts start flowing. If you’re using a journaling app, they often have built-in templates that you can select for an entry to get you started.

Simplicity: Especially in the beginning, approach your journaling by keeping it simple and low-pressure. If you start easy by writing your most basic thoughts about whatever you choose, you’ll get into the swing of journaling without pressuring yourself to write a novel every time you sit down. Get some basic entries under your belt, maybe writing just a few sentences about what you did this weekend, who you were with, and how it made you feel. Was it fun? Boring? Adventurous? If so, why? Did you have a bad weekend? Write about why, and maybe what you’ll do next time to enjoy yourself more. Using the prompt approach mentioned above is also a way to keep things simple in the beginning and jump-start yourself until you determine what you want your journaling approach to be.

No rules: Your journal entries can be as short or long as you like. You can choose to write once per day, once per week, or just whenever the inspiration hits. Some of my journal entries are just a few sentences to capture a thought, and others go on for pages. I’ve gone through periods when I’ve written more than once per day, and also times when I’ve skipped a few weeks due to other priorities happening in my life that took away my time. (Interestingly, I’ve always felt odd during those skipping periods, like something was missing. Then I realized that it was the process of journaling that was missing!) The main rule is that there are no rules. Journaling should be a pleasurable experience that you enjoy and learn from, not a chore that you feel you have to do. Of course, if you want to journal consistently then developing some good habits around it to provide regular inspiration and output never hurts, but steer clear of hard and fast rules.

Review: Re-read your entries. At some time interval of your choice, review your older entries to see the things you’ve thought about, places you’ve been, and things you’ve done. See how your journaling has changed and grown over time. Some people use the end of the month as a checkpoint to go back and review what they wrote that month, and also set themselves up mentally for how they want to approach the next month. Think about how the process of re-reading makes you feel and see which thoughts and benefits come to you. Your writing will eventually start to feed off itself when you do these reviews and realize what you’ve done and the changes in how you’re expressing yourself. Before you know it, you’ll probably be surprised at how much you’re writing!

Time and persistence: I don’t have a specific time during the day when I journal, but I do specifically find the time for it. I carve out a little slice of alone time to jot down my main thoughts, which sometimes morph into a much longer writing session. I’ve found that if I don’t specifically do that then I get engulfed with other activities and journaling falls by the wayside for a few days. Use your own approach to finding your time, but try to do it and stick with it. I regret the periods where I let my journaling lapse, they seem like holes in my memories.

One for all: You might see recommendations to pick a subject for your journal, but I don’t recommend that in the beginning. For example, some people have different journals for travel, life topics, work, general ideas, etc. When you’re just beginning, it’s easiest to just have one journal for everything so that you don’t have to segment your thinking into “Oh, this should go in my travel journal” or “This should go in my journal for work”. Remember the tips from above…keep it simple and barrier-free so that your ideas will flow easily. You can always transition to using multiple journals in the future if you decide to go that route.

Making the choice of using a physical or digital journal, using my tips above, and maybe trying a few prompts should give you enough foundational ideas to get started with your journaling. Now let’s take a look at some of the benefits of journaling…

Benefits, you say?

There are many mental and physical health benefits of journaling, far more than I ever imagined or were apparent to me at first. This article from Mindful.org or this one from Huffington Post mention some of them that have been researched over time, but if you want to dig deep on the topic then review this article from PositivePsychology.com. It’s a thorough look at how you can transform yourself through the expressive writing of journaling.

Below are some of the specific benefits that I’ve personally experienced from journaling. You might experience these and many others as well, because each person reacts to the process differently. Some benefits came immediately to me and others were realized over time, but no matter how they surfaced the impact of all of them has been undeniably positive on my life.

Stillness: You hear it repeated every day and probably by many people you know, “life moves too fast”. Think about your average day. You have work or school, chores, exercise, friends, and maybe a house, cars and kids to take care of as well. When do you get time to just…think? This is exactly what journaling provides for me, the time to do nothing but sit, think, and express my thoughts. Journaling is “my time” that I carve out for myself with all other activities and distractions eliminated. It is peace and stillness, and I strongly believe that everyone needs this private time in their daily life for optimal health. (Hint: Put your devices on Do Not Disturb when you’re writing…there’s nothing worse than having your “me time” interrupted by a buzzing phone)

Reflection: I’m a thinker. I enjoy learning about and experiencing new things, and afterward I like reflecting on them to expand and deepen those experiences further into my thoughts. I also like to think back about the things I’ve done and places I’ve been to remember and reflect on them as well. This type of reflection , which also involves nostalgia, is a great way to build memories and cement them firmly in my mind. On so many occasions, I’ve thought about a random memory of some time, place or thing and quickly grabbed my journal to write about it. Sometimes I laugh out loud while I’m writing about a funny memory. A perfect example is the time my family walked in on an already occupied hotel room in the middle of the night that was also accidentally assigned to us. We were so stunned when we opened the door, stepped inside, and then realized what was going on that the only thing we could think to do was slam the door shut in the darkness and…run! I don’t know why we ran, but we were laughing so hard that we could hardly breathe as we made our way back to the front desk to tell them their mistake. We still laugh (almost to the point of crying!) when describing each of our panicked reactions when we re-tell this story years later. I enjoy those moments of recollection and like to write about them, especially when they’re funny. Understanding and feeling what you’ve experienced in the past also helps to pave the way for your future.

Consolidation: My head spins with thoughts, and sometimes I can’t dedicate the time to them in their moment to fully resolve what I think or feel about something. Journaling provides me with an opportunity to jot down a quick thought at some point during the day and then return to it later to consolidate and solidify my thoughts. Journaling drives me to organize, articulate, and get my thoughts written down, transcribing them from my swirling mind into text on a page. It gives me an opportunity to debrief with myself.

Closure and healing: For a variety of reasons, sometimes life leaves topics open that really need to be closed for you to heal and move on from them. It could be a disappointing experience, an argument, a death, etc. Sometimes in those circumstances we just don’t say and do the things that should be said and done, and you can be left with hanging threads in your life that can drag you down. Writing about it and getting it off your mind can help to either resolve it within yourself, or lead you to a path to resolve it with others. Resolution leads to healing.

Privacy: I do occasionally write about some things that I don’t discuss with other people. I don’t have difficulty expressing myself or my ideas, so that’s not the reason I keep them to myself. It’s just because some things are…private, and everyone has some thoughts sometimes that fall into that category and you prefer to keep to yourself. Using my journal to get these private thoughts out of my head and more solidly formed in writing is like a long exhale of relief. It feels good.

Stress reduction: If you’ve read the points above and connected them together then you can easily conclude that they lead to a reduction in my stress level. I’m writing an article series about my experience with stress overload, and journaling is one of the ways I worked my way out of being buried by it, so that was a direct benefit to me. There’s nothing like a cleared mind combined with a relaxed body and soul to reduce your stress level.

Self-awareness: Through the process of surfacing thoughts and emotions about my experiences, writing them down in my journal, and re-reading them in the future to see where I’ve been in life, I create a pathway to self-awareness. I know myself very well. I understand what I like and don’t like. The experiences that have been successful, and those that have failed. This knowledge comes from the cycle of processing thoughts and emotions, and then taking the time to write and absorb them. I apply what I learn to help understand my past and also guide my future.

History, memories, and tasting life twice: I’ve saved the biggest benefit for me personally until last, which is the ongoing and rewarding experience of recording your journeys, history and memories in a way that does indeed allow you to “taste life twice”, as mentioned in the quote above from Anaïs Nin. Sometimes I journal as something is happening, and other times I return to do it when I have time at the end of the day. There are so many things both large and small that happen every day to enrich life in some way, and you simply won’t remember them all. I enjoy capturing these thoughts and occurrences so that I can look back and re-live them through my writing. It’s my breadcrumb trail through life.

How do I journal?

With the above being said, what’s my approach for journaling? I chose to go with a total digital approach on both my iPhone and MacBook computer using the excellent Day One application. It has won design awards from Apple and others over the years, and I’ve always found it to be one of the consistently best journaling apps available. Others have come close using approaches similar to Day One, but they never quite hit the same high mark of features and usability that I prefer.

I started using Day One when it was first released and have stuck with it ever since. The developer’s support for the app is strong, and they’ve made constant updates to it over the years to refine and polish it. It has grown into a seamless all-encompassing writing environment. Nearly any type of information you’ll likely want to add to a journal entry is possible with Day One. You can simply type your entries and be done with just your typed words, or you can have the app automatically add other types of ancillary information to your entries to give them more context.

For me, the digital approach strikes the perfect balance of flexibility, portability, usability, and features. If you’re interested in potentially going digital, then please take the time to read this excellent review of the Day One app on The Sweet Setup website. It’s a complete look at all of the features the app has to offer, how to use them, and how they can help you have a better journaling experience. The review also describes several other good options to pick from other than Day One.

Some of my favorite features of Day One, which many other digital journaling apps have as well, include the following:

  • Adding photos, videos, and audio files. It’s great to augment my entries with additional media to make a “complete entry” of the moment I’m writing about.
  • Using hashtags to categorize, organize, and search my entries (e.g., #travel, #movies, #kids, #books, #memory, etc). This is handy when I want to find and re-read entries about a particular topic.
  • Automatic extra data added to my posts, including weather and location. Having location appended to my entries allows me to pull up a map to see where and when I’ve written.
  • Full text search. This is huge. Having my journal entries full text indexed means I can find anything I’ve written over the years by simply searching on a word or phrase that might have been in the text of the entry, its tags, or its title. Very powerful, and not possible with hand written journals. This one feature alone would be enough to push me in the direction of digital journaling.
  • Writing prompts. The prompts included in Day One are thought provoking, and although I don’t use them often because I typically have a lot to write about, it’s interesting to try to tackle one of their prompts when the mood hits me.
  • Exporting/archiving. When I made the decision to use a journaling app, I was conscious of not tying my content up in a proprietary platform from which I could not easily get it out if I ever decided to stop using the app. Day One has good exporting features so your content is definitely yours, and there are no worries about it getting stuck somewhere against your wishes.
  • Exporting entries to print books. I haven’t used this feature yet, but it’s a great idea. The Day One service has a book formatting feature that allows you to select the entries that you would like to export (including photos) for printing into a keepsake book. If you journal about your next family vacation, include some photos about it, etc, then you can export that into a travel book for yourself or as a gift for someone else. I plan to try this on our next family trip.
  • “On This Day”. Day One has a feature called On This Day that will automatically show you the posts you’ve made on a particular day in the past. It’s fun to see what pops up on a given day, and it’s given me a lot of “Oh, I remember that…” moments to enjoy.
  • Encryption and security. Last but not least, security and encryption are fully embedded in the Day One apps and their synchronization service used across your devices (if you subscribe to that option). This is a must for any digital journaling tool. Not only is the content encrypted, but you can password protect the app itself to keep anyone else who might be using your devices out of your journal.

Take the first step

The information in this article provided a glimpse into journaling, how to get started, the benefits, and the route I chose based on my preferences. Journaling is a great private hobby that can span your entire life and provide much positive benefit to you. I encourage you to take the first step and give it a try, and if you like it then you’ll likely find that it will open your mind to new ways of looking at yourself and the world around you. It has the extra benefit of allowing you to taste life twice, and how can you turn that down when life is so short? Enjoy the journey!

P.S. – If you found this article helpful, please forward the link along to others you know who might enjoy it. Thanks!

Wisdom in A Beautiful Anarchy

Great advice and learning comes from many different sources

One of the components in my mission for this blog is to share things that I think are worthwhile, because I believe that “Sharing binds people together. One of the best gifts you can give someone is sharing something that you find valuable or interesting.”

With the above being said, consider the recommendation in this post a gift that’s both valuable and interesting. If you make some quiet time for yourself to listen to and consider the thoughts in the podcast below (which includes written transcripts), I can almost guarantee that you will:

  • View yourself and others differently
  • Challenge your beliefs and understanding about how you think
  • Learn how you can be more creative in every day life, and/or lead a more informed life in general
  • Understand the value of communicating, sharing, thinking, learning, adapting, and growing
  • Gain insight into why you are the way you are

For me, it started with the books…

The podcast I’m writing about is from a photographer named David duChemin. His photography books are how I became familiar with his work because I’ve purchased many of them over the years, but that’s only the tip of his iceberg. David’s career has spanned theology education, successful comedian, global humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, blogger, and podcaster.

David has a way of writing about photography that brings the artistic, human, creative, adventurous, and technical aspects of it together to capture your imagination and leave you hooked within his stories. Before you realize it, those stories are conveying gems of wisdom that not only apply to photography, but when you think about their essence, they apply to life itself as well.

The reason I purchased David’s books in the beginning was to learn and improve my photography, but I kept coming back to buy the next one when I realized how much more I get out of them than just photography insights. Through his stories about traveling, creating his images, connecting with people and places, and sharing all of these experiences with others, I have continually seen that much of what he writes about is the process of discovering the soul. Your soul. It transcends mere photography.

…and then came the podcast: A Beautiful Anarchy

Considering the high value I place on his books, I jumped right into David’s podcast called A Beautiful Anarchy when he started it. He describes the podcast as:

“A Beautiful Anarchy is a heart-felt kick-in-the-pants podcast for everyday creators and anyone who’s ever mud-wrestled with their muse. Hosted by photographer and author David duChemin, these 15-minute podcasts are an honest and sensitive exploration of the joys and struggles of the creative life.”

For sure, the foundational premise of the podcast is creativity and discovering how you can be your most creative at whatever it is that you do. How to open and awaken your mind, be more accepting of inspiration wherever it comes from, explore new paths, beat your creative obstacles, etc. Going further though, I found that after listening to his podcast that you can even remove the word “creative” from the phrase “creative life” in the description above, because to me it’s about more than creativity. Just like David’s books, this podcast is serendipitously about…life.

Even if you’re not a particularly creative person, give this podcast a try. Listen to the ideas and apply them to the everyday. Go down the path. You will not regret it, because after you digest a few episodes you’ll be tucking away many gold nugget thoughts in your head about how to be a better self and get the most out of whatever it is that you do in your life. I think you’ll agree that it’s worth the time spent listening. Enjoy!

PS – Save the podcast transcripts that David provides somewhere on your computer. Trust me, you’ll want to return to them in the future.

Wait, it’s autumn already!

In the confusing and exhausting daze that has been 2020, time has warped. Days turn to weeks seemingly without division, weeks to months before realizing what month it even is, and the seasons have flowed together in a strangely seamless way.

Autumn is probably my favorite season and I look forward to it every year. The air gets colder and the days get shorter, as the angle of the sunlight lowers and lengthens. Beautiful colors slowly sweep across the treetops. Things seem to get more peaceful as people get ready for winter, and I reset myself every year at this same time as I notice these things happening. I typically find myself reading or sitting to listen to music more often, relaxing with a glass of wine and a fire in the fireplace, and other activities that start to slow things down for a chance to reflect. Maybe that’s why autumn is my favorite season…it slowly sweeps in and creates the perfect atmosphere to think and reflect on a personal level. It creates a sense of inner peace that comes easily to me at this time of year.

From a hike at the top of Hunter Mountain, looking east toward Tannersville, NY USA

This year however, autumn snuck up on me. I’ve been getting chores completed that I need to finish before it gets cold, but I was never really thinking “autumn” while doing them. Then last week, the time warp that I mentioned above ended for me. We were driving up to visit my son at college and I looked out the window while driving past a cliff on the side of the highway. Draping over the side of this perfectly vertical cliff and running forty feet down its face to the ground were different varieties of vines, each one a different color. There were reds, oranges, yellows, greens, browns, and blends of colors of all different intensities. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was at that moment that I said to myself “Wait, it’s autumn already!”

The rest of the ride was completely different after that. I noticed that the leaves on many different types of trees are changing fast here in southern New York, and many are even dropping already from the windy days we’ve had recently. My favorite season is upon me, and I plan to enjoy the rest of it.

Backyard leaves, little scenes like this are everywhere now

Things are different this year though. Many autumn traditions that we like to do to get outdoors and enjoy the autumn splendor have been canceled. No Oktoberfests, no craft shows, no music festivals. Fortunately, at least the mountains themselves are still open so we can take some hikes, get some fresh air, and enjoy the slow slide into the colder months. We’ll try to do that in the coming few weeks before we wake up and suddenly find snow on the ground!

Local wetland grasses

The pandemic has changed all of us and the way we look at certain things. One way it has changed me is how I think about and use my time. I’m more selective about the things I spend time on, and I’m thinking and reflecting more. I’ve also found that the current situation has re-awakened some of the interests that I’ve always enjoyed, but sometimes don’t have much spare time for. I have that time now and for the foreseeable future, and I will pursue them again. Things like sitting down in a quiet room to read a book or listening to a favorite jazz album start to finish, uninterrupted by anything. Even something as simple as sitting outside on our patio, watching the leaves fall and listening to the wind blow through the trees.

We have time for these things now. Use it to find yourself again.

709 pages, and next on my reading list 🙂

The benefits that mindful listening bring to you

It’s a gift to you and the one talking; mindful listening is so fundamentally different from how we usually converse that we can feel it in our bodies as much as in our heads. 

Laurie J. Cameron

Mindful listening requires us to give up preconceived ideas, judgments, and desires in order to allow space to hear what is being said. True listening requires a deep respect and a genuine curiosity about situations as well as a willingness just to be there and share stories. Listening opens the space, it allows us to hear what needs to be done in that moment.

Mirabai Bush

True story

I bumped into a colleague in the hallway at work who was seeking me out to ask a question. We greeted each other and he asked his question, and then I began to answer him. Remember…he sought me out as a trusted source of information, so this was supposedly an important discussion for him.

Shortly after I began to answer, he took his cell phone out of his pocket and started reading and then typing something on the phone. I looked at him in shock (and maybe disappointment too?), but dismissed it thinking he’d quickly return to paying attention. Wrong. He continued to type and read on the phone.

In disbelief at this waste of my time, I stopped speaking and just looked at him. It took at least five long seconds of awkward silence for him to finally look up and say “It’s OK. I’m listening. You can keep talking.”

I responded with mildly shrouded sarcasm “No, it’s fine. I’ll wait until you’re done.”

Realizing the error of his ways, he sheepishly tucked the phone back in his pocket and proceeded to listen attentively to the rest of the answer to his question.

Has anything like that ever happened to you? Or, has a conversation that you’ve had ended with less than optimal results? I would bet the answer is yes, and if so then read on to learn how you can contribute to improving your conversations through mindful listening and at the same time help to steer them to successful outcomes.

Art and desire

Listening is part art and part desire.

It’s an art because mindful listening requires a thoughtful combination of skill, timing, and restraint so as not to derail the true messages that are being communicated. It involves reading body language and recognizing things like the nuances of facial expressions or a pause in speaking. It’s about keeping an open mind to what’s being said and responding accordingly to it in the moment. From a visual perspective, if you could see a conversation with mindful listening in the air, then I would liken it to a series of colored lines between the people speaking that all weave together into a pleasing and intricate pattern. It’s a good feeling to walk away from a conversation like that.

Mindful listening also involves desire because in order for a conversation to be successful, you have to care about what you’re saying and you need the desire to listen and understand what the other person is expressing. If you don’t care and you have no desire to listen, then the conversation is pointless and it will fail.

There are piles of books and training courses available about effective mindful listening, but honestly all you really need to easily get started is this short article “How To Give Your Full Attention” by Laurie J. Cameron over at Mindful.org. For additional easy tips on trying this, you can also check out this short article by Elaine Smookler.

Laurie speaks about some core skills and cues needed for successful listening, and I agree with her that these things are sorely lacking in many conversations that occur each day. Many people simply don’t or can’t focus enough to listen to a basic conversation in order to make it productive and successful for everyone involved.

Three key points

Three things that I would like to briefly emphasize about listening include:

1. Be honest about your skills and behavior: Some people think they’re good listeners, but they’re simply not. When trying to understand why your conversations are not going as well as expected, be honest with yourself to understand what you might be doing that hobbles them. Listen to the feedback that people give you during or after a conversation. Learn from your experiences and be honest with yourself so you can improve.

2. Pay attention to body language. I can’t stress this enough…Look at the person you’re speaking with, acknowledge what they’re saying, be present in the moment, put your phone away, be silent when they’re speaking, and don’t interrupt. Body language and overall conduct is absolutely critical to mindful listening.

3. Keep an open mind. A large percentage of the time, people go into conversations with a desired outcome in mind, and that’s understandable. That’s how we move our topics, work, and activities forward. However, it’s important to understand that taking that stance typically predetermines a lot of how the conversation will flow, and often that predisposition is not a good thing because you’re not really going to listen to the other person if you’ve already decided how the conversation will proceed. Instead of predisposition, it’s necessary to achieve balance between keeping an open mind and being flexible while still achieving purpose.

Sum it up

The benefits of mindful listening can’t be overstated. For both your personal and professional lives, this form of listening creates better communication, empathy, trust, respect, and strong bonds between people. Many aspects of society today are sorely lacking these things, so we should all do our part to improve our corner of the world through mindful listening.

I agree with Laurie that mindful listening can initially be challenging because it takes effort and it’s not the norm we’re used to. However with a little practice, the labor of doing it will soon bear fruit for you. A successful conversation is certainly better than a frustrating and pointless one, so give it a try the next time you’re speaking with someone. Truly…listen. See if you notice the great improvement that mindful listening can bring to your every day interactions at both work and home. And also see if you think the quote below is true…

The very first time you give your attention to someone, I bet you’ll notice instant softening, openness, and connection.

Elaine Smookler

Happiness and the “Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking

Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

Abraham Lincoln

A trip to the mall uncovers small wonders

I was Christmas shopping at the mall in December 2019 when I came across what turned out to be my favorite gift idea of the year.  It was the four books pictured here about mindfulness, gratitude, and self-awareness.  I sat engrossed in Barnes & Noble bookstore for over an hour paging through them while deciding which one to buy, and in the end I just bought them all! 

These little books are packed with many of the same ideas that drive me on a personal level, so it was easy to relate to them.  They’ve since found a permanent place on our fireplace mantle.

Everyone grows during their lifetime.  Our learning and experiences drive our change, and we become more of who we want to be as a person as our viewpoints mature over time.  In the past few years, I’ve changed in many ways that other people might not even notice, but for sure my thinking about people, things, places, and life in general have shifted.  I’m striving to have more simplicity and goodness around me, and less complexity and negative outside influence.  These books directly relate to my goals.    

I’m on a path to eliminate anything in my life that doesn’t take me in the direction I want to go. Interpersonal drama, chaotic people, constantly negative news, etc. All…gone! Realizing that they add no value to my life and then moving on from them helps get me to my desired state of “goodness”. Anything that helps me move in the direction I want is something that I make a part of my life, and I want to share those things with others when I discover them.

If you read and really think about what these books are saying, you’ll be surprised that they can change the way you look at your life, and maybe even how you look at life in a broader sense as well.

The focus of this post today is one of these four books, The Little Book of Hygge – Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking.   

Hygge concepts, plus some additional perspective

The Danish have been ranked as the happiest people on Earth several times.  Why?  They say it’s partially because of their hygge mindset.

Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is generally defined as “a Danish word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment”.  The Little Book of Hygge mentions that hygge is a feeling.  It is comfort.  It comes from within.  It exists only in the absence of stress and nuisance and feeds off feelings of happiness and relaxation.  

This link is to a related CNN article about how some of these concepts tie into the “World’s Happiest Country” that’s selected each year by the United Nations.

Additionally, this is the link to the 2019 World Happiness Report, which contains the underlying concepts and data that drive the selection of the “Most Happy Country” each year.

The book, and Danes themselves, often mention candles and other items that will help you achieve hygge.  In my opinion though, anything that makes you comfortable, happy, and peaceful can lead you to what hygge is ultimately about.  If sitting in the woods gives you feelings of comfort and contentment, then maybe that can be your “chair” or your “candle” in relation to the book, so don’t focus entirely on the products mentioned and expect miracles from them. Know yourself, and use whatever works for you.  

Interestingly,  I’ve read several articles that examine hygge from the Danish perspective and how they react to the worldwide phenomenon of people trying to adopt a more “hygge lifestyle”, and they somewhat recoil about it. They view what happens around the global hygge phenomenon as general “marketing exploitation” of their lifestyle.  

In a way, they’re right.  There are always people and companies that will try to make quick money any way they can, and if they can do it from selling so-called “hygge lifestyle products”, then they will.  So the point of the Danish reaction is:  You don’t buy candles, warm blankets, light a fire, get a hot drink….and then automatically have “hygge moments”.  Hygge is much more than that.  

I agree completely.  It’s a mindset, not a product.

These are links to two articles from New Yorker magazine and Mashable.com that speak about what I mentioned above, and both are worth reading to get different insight into the topic of hygge.

There are typically multiple viewpoints about all lifestyle topics, and you have to pull out the things that you see value in to adopt them for yourself. 

So let’s get to the book… 

The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge was exactly what I expected after browsing it in the bookstore.  It’s a light-hearted, concise, clear, and interesting book that can easily be read in one sitting (although it certainly justifies much more “thinking time” after that to fully absorb it).

Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Its mission is to “…inform and enable better decisions for human wellbeing through data-driven research”.  I encourage you to review their website, which is filled with interesting information about their mission. To me, having facts behind the somewhat nebulous and highly personal topic of happiness is valuable so that it receives the proper level of seriousness and respect.

Meik did a good job laying out his book in way that builds upon itself nicely as you progress through it. At the broadest level, the book contains thoughts about Danish culture in general to put the book into context.  There are also thoughts that are a bit deeper and make you pause and think about Danish culture versus your own culture, and the pros and cons of each.  Finally, at the lowest level there are many “gold nugget” thoughts that resonate with you on a personal level which you can take away and use for yourself in an actionable way.

The book contains anecdotes and easy to understand charts and graphics that help explain the concept of hygge and present the underlying statistics about what Danes say about their country and lifestyle.   

So with that introduction, here are some of the gold nuggets that I took away from The Little Book of Hygge that are worth mentioning here:  

  • Experience and savor the moment. If you take one thing away from the book, make it this! The whole book centers on this key point. 
  • Hygge is about atmosphere, experience, and relaxed thoughtfulness.  Feeling happy, calm and safe.
  • Togetherness is a key aspect of hygge, and the feeling of hygge can exist even in total silence with other people.  It’s “like a hug, without touching”.
  • Equality is an important element of hygge.  Noone is trying to be better than the other.  
  • Hygge is about the process, not the end product.  There were several humorous examples in the book about people cooking together, and even though what they cooked turned out terrible, enjoying the process of doing it together was what made it a hygge experience. 
  • Your home is your “hygge headquarters”.  Create a nook for yourself there.  Everyone needs “their spot” in their home.
  • Treat yourself with cakes, hot drinks, etc.  It seems funny for the book to mention this multiple times, but it’s important to remember that hygge is all about feeling, surroundings, calmness, and peace.  The idea is that things like treats, hot drinks, etc impart a traditional feeling of comfort and therefore contribute to hygge.  My extra point to add here is that whatever the “treats” are, there are no rules.  It’s whatever makes you comfortable, cozy, relaxed, and peaceful.
  • The items on the “Hygge Wish List” in the book are all about comfort, sensation, and texture.  These typically represent comfort in most people’s minds.
  • Enjoying nature is key.  For me personally, something like walking on a treadmill is nowhere near the same experience as walking outside in the fresh air for the same distance.  I think people lose sight of this sometimes, and it does make a big difference in the experience.
  • The more a hygge item or event separates the “here and now” from the tough realities of the outside world, the more valuable it eventually becomes to you.
  • Hygge is dimmed, rustic, and slow.   I agree, which is why I’ve always thought that lighting is so important, especially warm lighting.  It’s also why I didn’t like walking around our house when I was little and always finding the rooms darkened unless someone was actually in them.  Mom and Dad were always insistent about “turning off the lights when you leave a room”, and I understand why, but still…

Make hygge yours

The ideas and sentiments around hygge are good to consider adopting because they can genuinely improve your life on many levels.  So how do you bring hygge into your own life and make it yours?  

Try these tips:

  • The obvious first step would be to read the book, but I would also suggest writing down the key thoughts that resonate with you while you’re reading like I did above.  It helps to grab those key thoughts in the moment rather than trying to remember them later.  
  • Review your key takeaways as soon as you’re done reading, think about what the statements mean to you. Think about how you can make them actionable.
  • Think about what brings you peace.   When do you feel your most relaxed, and why is that?  Get a firm understanding of this because these things will help you create your hygge “nook”, and these are your hygge “products”.
  • Since hygge is partially about sharing and togetherness, think about the people you’re closest to and why spending time with them is valuable to you.  But…I also think it’s important not to stress out about the “togetherness” aspect of this.  Hygge feelings can most definitely be felt during time on your own, so if that’s what works for you, then that’s perfectly fine. Do what works for you. 
  • Be present.  Outside distractions of any type are the enemy of hygge.  
  • Start simple.  Don’t rush to buy supposed “hygge products” and then sit in your house and wait for hygge to magically occur. Instead, work your way into it.  If you’re a reader, try something basic like making yourself comfortable and grabbing a block of time when you’re completely undisturbed…and read.  Think about how it feels to enjoy something you like in your nook in your home without any interruptions whatsoever. As you experience and value those times by yourself or with others, you’ll begin to better understand what hygge is all about.

In closing, reading this small book is time well spent. The ideas represented by hygge are certainly not new, but having it wrapped up and presented in the framework of “the Danish mindset” makes it easy to understand and think about further. Enjoy the process of moving yourself toward a hygge mindset, but go easy on the heavy treats. 🙂

Natsukashii – Gain value from your moments of nostalgia

Be grateful for all of the experiences you’ve had, because they make you who you are.

Question: Can you get value from nostalgia?

Me, age 6, with Sapporo souvenir hat
that I still have today!

What feelings come to mind when you think of nostalgia?  

For me, it’s typically a mix of both happiness and sadness.  I’ll often remember something nostalgic that makes me smile, laugh, or reminisce with someone, but then as the moment fades I’m sometimes left feeling a bit sad until the thought eventually passes from my mind. 

Aside from the emotions above, would I typically associate “value” with nostalgia? I didn’t…until today.

The thing that changed my mind was this article called “A uniquely Japanese take on nostalgia” by Erika Hobart on BBC.com, and it immediately resonated with me for a variety of reasons.  

The article is about natsukashii, which generally speaking is “a Japanese word used when something evokes a fond memory from your past”.  Erika mentions that it comes from a verb meaning “to keep close and become fond of”.  

The thing that specifically caught my attention throughout the article is how the Japanese emotionally frame nostalgia so that it ends up being a more positive experience rather than a sad one, and they regularly seek out natsukashii experiences to enrich their lives. Why? Because doing so adds great emotional value for them and their society as a whole.

Learning about different cultures

I’ve always had an interest in learning about different countries, traditions and cultures, but it’s only been in recent years that I’ve been actively spending significant time researching them.  It’s been an interesting and enriching experience far beyond the effort that it requires.   

Japan is a land and people filled with history and tradition, and it has kept both firmly in sight over the centuries.  It’s one thing for a country and its people to have historic checkpoints over time that they make reference to one way or another, but it’s a significantly different scenario to have the past and traditions remain ingrained in daily life over time and across generations.  

Between the two scenarios above, the latter offers more value because it helps people build a sense of shared identity about who they are, where they’ve come from, and where they’re collectively going.  If you study countries with a strong sense of identity and community like Japan, inevitably a large part of their overall story is that sense of tradition surviving through generations and remaining in daily life.  Japan has achieved this in part through concepts like natsukashii, which permeates their society. 

The thing that concerns many people about the U.S. is that its sense of identity and history is sometimes getting lost, most notably over the past fifteen years or so.  It seems that values and traditions are eroding, as opposed to becoming further ingrained in daily life. That’s not a good direction for long term well being, so it’s in the interest of U.S. citizens to understand that and change it.  

In a way, perhaps that’s part of what subconsciously drives me to learn more about other cultures.  It’s not only to satisfy my curiosity and interest about the world’s people and places, but also to consider where they’ve come from, what they value, and where that’s taking them so that I can better reflect on myself and my own country. Pursuing this type of knowledge and awareness is a strong path for personal growth, and I place great value in that.

The Japanese connection to Dad…a natsukashii moment   

My Dad, who passed away in August 2019, was a video tape editor for the U.S. NBC television network for most of his career.  During his time there, he worked on many great TV shows and sporting events, and he was once fortunate enough to travel to Japan to work on the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo.

Dad came home from that trip with many stories about Japan and its people, culture, and traditions.  While he was there he took advantage of Japan’s great reputation for photography equipment to buy a new Konica 35mm SLR and 8mm movie camera, so his stories had the added benefit of many photos and movies to go with them. We had many family movie nights where he would project his slides or 8mm movies on the screen in our darkened living room while he happily narrated about the entire trip. I remember it all vividly. I can even still remember the unique scent from the projector and its hot light bulb that eventually filled the room while we were watching. There was something comforting about it…  

Even though I was only six years old at the time he went, I remember that Japan made enough of an impression on Dad for me to notice it when he got home.  To this day when someone mentions Japan and Olympics together, I think back to Dad’s trip there, as well as the topics of tradition and history.  If you asked Dad what his favorite experience was while working at NBC, he would quickly answer “Visiting Japan for the Olympics”.

Perhaps the essence of natsukashii is what Dad experienced when he was in Japan.  He was 47 years old at the time and had a busy career, was raising four kids, traveled for work, and commuted into New York City every day.  Maybe experiencing the way natsukashii runs through Japanese tradition and society gave him pause to reflect, and maybe that’s what made the overall strong impression on him.  Although I can no longer ask him that question, it’s interesting to consider…     

Dad (left) with an NBC colleague at the Sapporo Ice Festival

So the BBC article above made me think about nostalgia, Japan, Dad, and value…and it gave me a natsukashii moment of my own.  After reading the article and doing further research about natsukashii, I better understand the real-life value that nostalgia can offer through gratitude for past experiences both joyous and sad, and I will carry that new mindset forward with me from now on. 

In other words, I didn’t just remember Dad’s trip to Sapporo. In the context of Erika’s article, I felt the emotion of it too.  The emotion of being sad when he left, happy when he returned, the excitement of waiting for his long distance calls to update the family, looking at the souvenirs he brought home, etc.  There is value to be taken from all of that because it’s the deeper aspect of it. Although we were thousands of miles apart while he was there, it was still an experience that we shared together. We each had our own very different perspective about it, and I felt all of that after reading and considering Erika’s article.  

How to make the natsukashii concept yours

So what does this mean to you? How can you make the natsukashii concepts from Erika’s article and my comments here your own?

Ultimately, it seems to me that the value of natsukashii is about “feeling, sharing and valuing”, instead of simply “remembering”. I’ll be writing a lot on this blog about personal mindfulness, but in a nutshell that’s what you have to do. Be more mindful and intentional, and think more deeply about what you’re remembering.

When you want to try digging further into the feelings of a nostalgic moment, try considering the following:

  • How does it make me feel? Which emotions?
  • Is what I’m remembering happy, sad, both, neither?
  • Who were the people I shared it with?
  • What do the people mean to me? Why do I value them?
  • How did that time/experience/event affect me? Why?
  • Be grateful for all of the experiences you’ve had, because they make you who you are.

There’s an endless list of questions that I could list here as prompts, and you can come up with your own too. The goal of all of them is to make you…feel. When you feel is when you move from simply remembering something to a more intentional, mindful and emotional appreciation of that moment. It’s at that point when you’ll find added value to your nostalgic moments, and indeed your life. That’s natsukashii.