A Fortnight at Forty: What I discovered on a 2-week break

10 min readJun 28, 2019

This is a fairly long, often personal, sometimes pretentious post about the fortnight I’ve just taken off for my own retreat/reflection purposes. It’s meant for my own self, ultimately, but I wanted to publish it in the open too — partly because I think it helps to solidify thoughts, and partly because it might be of interest to others thinking about doing the same thing. Or who just enjoy stalking me.

For completeness, I shall copy it over to my Medium feed as well.

What did I get up to?

Perhaps it is poor form to start off with so much detail, and in such an unchronological order. But then, detail is the easiest thing to write about. And time is anything but linear, once we start jumping between memories. So take this part as pure documentary — there is no particular aim, analysis or intent at this point. To reflect, first we must let things be, so we can see them as they really are.

It has been 9 days ‘off life’ now. 1 more after this. The fortnight was a present to myself, on the cusp of my 5th decade, and the last few years have been a ride and a half. It felt like … not a ‘good’ moment, but the ‘right’ moment to take a step back. Reflection runs through me, and I’ve learned over the years that stopping is generally the best way to move forwards. We humans are upside-down, cursed creatures of brain first, and body second — a few weeks away from deadlines and pressures, is nothing when set against the era of a lifetime or the eternity of a planet.

On the very first day — last Monday — I deliberately started out by just sitting in the garden for a while. As a ‘believer in symbolism’ as a way of life, I — hopefully unpretentiously? — let myself be guided by the I Ching when I am at things-that-look-like-crossroads, and that day felt like it made sense. Tucked into the shade under a tree, armed with pen and paper and coin, I generated my reading ‘Little Accumulation’.

Of those other 8 days, 2 were always earmarked for my weekly, scheduled time to look after #son2. As he starts to mutate into school age, these days are oddly getting more and more precious. These weeks, where I’ve had time to think about change, have hit me pretty hard in good and bad ways.

I spent one of the days in London, visiting the British Museum with my mum to see their Manga exhibition, and managed to take in their temporary shows too — one on symbolic art, one on Rembrandt’s sketches, and one on avant-garde postcards. After the museum, I caught up with my ex-colleague Obi, long-term chatter but first-time meeter Richard, and all round open data star Giuseppe. It was a day full of jovial chat, data, and culture, and was definitely the right choice.

One day I spent stomping up Seaford Head, over to Cuckmere Haven, and all the way back again. Technically, it’s a short walk, but the views and escapes make a massive difference. I documented barriers and took photos through an old Ferrero Rocher box. Semi-accidental projects in the making. The breeze kept me strident, and I noticed again how the cliff had disappeared just that bit more than last time. All the while, thoughts circulated through my brain, driven on by each step, and the physicality of the day etched itself into me.

Another day I spent cracking on with a small zine, formed of pictures from the old dockyards at Portsmouth. This has been on mind for a while and I wanted to get it out of the way — but it was everything to return to working with my hands. The texture of photos, projected into the fibres of the paper, creased, scored, and cut to produce the right shape, populated with margins and a bespoke narrative. A touch of twine to bind it together. I shall make more of these.

Last Friday was a rest day — a rest from a rest? But yes, because every idea needs time to foment and prove. Just because the brain is not engaged doesn’t mean the ideas don’t go to work. In the garden, tomato seeds were starting to break out of their soil chambers, tiny leaves cracking through the surface to see what dangers lurked. This day was also the summer solstice.

Yesterday I felt the tiredness, and snoozed on the train into Brighton. The Writing Our Legacy committee met to make plans and swap stories, and I felt out of place and at home at the same time.

And then, the last of those 9 days is today. I wanted to get something down, start bringing thoughts together into something … coherent? Before the sense of routine came back. I started again with the I Ching. ‘Mutual Influence’ this time, the first gua in the Lower Canon, which deals with the ways of humans rather than of the universe. Talk of ‘good fortune’ gave me confidence. And now I am sitting in the library garden, tapping away. A Spitfire is circling the downs among the outlines of seagulls. Tiny magics.

(Day 10 is tomorrow. I need to get the car fixed so its airbag doesn’t shatter my head in an accident, but I suspect I’ll also be writing up more of these notes.)

How can you get the most out of some time off?

A quick word on my approach. Perhaps this is of interest to some, or of use to me one day in the future, maybe in another 10 years?

I think that there is an “art” to reflecting. What am I trying to do in this time off? How can I make sure I’m free from distractions and undue influence? But also, how can I make sure I’m not ignoring my responsibilities which remain regardless?

This time can be divided into a few, simple purposes:

  1. The Past: Tidying, clearing out the old and no-longer-needed.
  2. The Present: Reflection, taking stock of where and who one actually is.
  3. The Future: Exploration, the chance to find alternatives and potential.

It is important to get the right balance between these, to make deliberate time for each, and then to know in any one moment whether one should be dealing with the memory, awareness, or imagination.

When dealing with the present, do nothing. The mind is inherently smart — or aware, conscious of all the demands being placed on it and of its own context. All that is needed is to stop going off on tangents, to spend some time being freed up from the worry of what has happened already, or from the worry or desire to do something else.

When dealing with the past, be ruthless. The past is a big place, and we are constantly trying to make sense of it. Some things make more sense than others, and these can be ignored. Some things are more of a puzzle, though. No worry. Identify what these things are, know them as a source of confusion, but it is likely they will be so until you’ve found the right perspective to see them. Catalogue them like lost toys.

When looking at the future, be precious. As the days to come are unwritten, they are full of promise — and therefore full of excitement. It is easy to get drawn into a thousand things which are merely fresh, or ‘something other than what is’. But ideas by themselves are cheap, and novelty value is easily dismissed once ideas get difficult. Explore ideas, but don’t commit to any yet. The present is more important.

Some other short practical notes.

  • Get a small notebook, just for jotting down thoughts and exploring ideas. Settling into a rhythm can take several days, multiple sleeps, and it can be helpful to keep notes that can be joined up as you go.
  • Brainstorm a bunch of stuff you’re interested in before you start — topics, questions, ideas, etc. You don’t need to explore all of them, but it helps to open up and then clear the brain.
  • Block out full days and/or half days for particular things. Even if you don’t have a clear aim in mind, treating time itself like a mini-project can get you into a more focused frame of mind, and help you to know when to move on.

So, what did I learn?

The more personal section, huh? And in theory this part is really only of interest to me. Maybe I won’t even publish this, but print it out on Vellum, burn it, and store the sacred ashes under my pillow to absorb them as pure dream matter. Maybe.

A few recent media snippets have lodged themselves in my head over the fortnight:

Dan Barrett’s tweet on the nature of discovering other’s suffering:

“In my 30s I was bowled over when I realised that being a grown up isn’t a thing and it felt profound but I reckon the realisation in my 40s that everybody’s barely holding it together is a bigger deal. Hugs everybody.”

Reto’s reply to my rant about a local tree being destroyed:

“it means that the person who did it is suffering. it’s out of frustration that someone does that. it says that there is much to be done and people like you are needed to relieve the suffering. don’t give up.”

The (internal) conversation that followed, resulting in the term ‘mendicant anarchist’:

“Something about the term ‘mendicant anarchist’ has impacted me. Learning to take blows and anger is an important healing tool. Been a rough 12 hours, but feel like I’ve turned some sort of corner.”

(Seriously, the Ganesha mastodon instance has been instrumental in my thoughts recently.)

And finally, this quote from ‘Fist of Legend’ starring Jet Li:

“The ultimate goal of Martial Arts is to maximise one’s energy. If you want to achieve this ultimate goal, you need to understand the soul of the universe.”

And here are the thoughts and realisations that I’ve noted down, in some non-sensical yet vaguely narrative order:

People depend on me. Writing it out, it’s one of those things that seems obvious, when you’re a Director and a Head of Something and a Parent and Husband and all these other hats. But when you’re in the thick of it — balancing plates and making sandwiches and arguing and writing documents and even fixing (or causing) the odd bug — the scalability gets at you. Things are non-stop, or if they do stop then you’re on watch.

More importantly, this is something I’ve chosen to do. And I’m good at it.

It’s OK to be a rock. That sense of dependency is something I started out my notes with. I separated out what I do from why I do it, and wrote ‘root root root root…’ down underneath it all. It’s a theme I carry across whatever I do — tai chi teaches us to establish a firm connection with the ground, so that our movements are powerful and connected, whether we’re using our hands, a sword, a fan, a brush, or a keyboard. For an organisation, it translates into the rationale, mission and values behind people showing up at the door.

For life, it’s about stability, and resilience. These are two distinct things really — stability lets people build something more while resilience helps absorb shocks to the system. I feel like I provide stability and resilience as a service, almost, if it’s not too base to bring such industrial speak into this.

But it’s never been something I’ve consciously done. I do it because I care, but it’s tiring and my butterfly brain always wants to look into the future and do new and exciting things.

Being a rock is more important than being a butterfly.

A mountain is a place of nurturing. My second I Ching reading, Mutual Influence, brought this relationship between rocks and nurturing home for me. ‘Lake above, Mountain below.’ The mountain — in hexagram terms, only one step away from pure yin — supports the flow, heat and potential of the lake above it. Earth is the middle, grounding force across the five Chinese elements. A stable platform, a place where things grow and ecosystems form.

In effect, a mountain is a host, which was something I realised I enjoy doing. I am more interested in creating a space for people to play than in telling them what to play, or in winning. Certain things prevent me from setting this space up as much as I like, in all areas, which I should address. But up until now, I hadn’t appreciated the link between hosting and everything else as much. Now I think it’s fundamental to it all.

I ended up writing ‘Foundation’ many times in my notebook over the last two weeks, deliberately and accidentally. I wrote ‘Fundamental’ once, just now, in the paragraph above. But really, they’re the same root, aren’t they?

With roots, there is nothing to fear. Actually, for all the talk of rocks and mountains, it’s hard to distinguish between solid earth and the roots that grow within it. The same strength flows through both — the roots simply borrow their stability from the same forces that make up the earth. When the earth crumbles, the roots are weak.

Being a rock is more important than being a butterfly — stability and resilience let you know where you exist, which gives you the power to not just absorb things, but to explore them in greater detail. All events have origins, all effects have causes. When our heart is rooted and stable, our senses are free to take a more considered approach to all the things trying to uproot us. Incoming anger, fear, and undue influence. These are all temporary effects.

And … So what?

So, I am freshly 40 and allegedly having a mid-life crisis ;-) The last few years have been hectic and transformative. It doesn’t get much “easier” from here on, but I think I have a way forward now.

I want to build foundations to let people grow and develop — family, team members, colleagues, and everyone else. But probably in that order.

I want to be bold enough to face up to struggles, but I also want to tackle those struggles with empathy and listening rather than direct problem-solving and suggestions. Receptive rather than normative.

I want to bring people together, find common ground, establish reinforcing feedback patterns that create groups rather than divide them. Groups often need healing as much as individuals do.

And above all, I want to wake up and remember that I’m doing a good job, that people depend on me, that I’m making a difference. Because I am.

Originally published at http://describe.blogspot.com.




Lead tech at OCSI, making data friendly for social good. Likes words. Doesn't really own a bowler hat.