Desiderata 12


Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 12th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.”

You may have heard the analogy of having your emotional “tank” full or empty. When you’re running on empty you’ve got nothing left to give, and are dangerously close to breaking down in one form or another. The remedy is simple – spend time with the people/things that fill you up emotionally and give you a sense of wholeness again. Unfortunately that’s not always possible, and in such instances you have to work out how to keep going on the smell of an oily rag.

But Desiderata isn’t really taking here about having your tank full (though it helps!). He is talking more about nurturing your own inner ability to be strong. Whilst filling ourselves up emotionally is a really good idea, we still need that strength of spirit that says “I’m going to keep standing as long as I have to, and I’m going to see this through”. 

It’s true that some people are born with an amazing (and sometimes infuriating) tenacity and stubbornness. Like Winston Churchill, they are the kind of person to say “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never…” and back it up with their unflinching determination. But many of us aren’t like that. Whilst I have a good deal of tenacity, I lack that ironclad, immovable, unshakeable faith in myself and in what I am saying or doing. Chances are you’re similar to me in that regard – I’m pretty sure I’m no Robinson Crusoe here.

But strength of spirit is crucial to all of us. Without it we simply won’t make it. Oh we might survive and even live long, but our lives will be broken, or empty, or somehow less-than, if we are not able to gird our loins in the midst of adversity. We need to be able to keep ourselves together and not give up on ourselves. Those who have given up on themselves (and no judgement here, we don’t know what they’ve been through) sometimes never really recover.

The author of Desiderata gives us no clues as to how to do this. And this is no self help blog, so I have no intention of listing any tips or tricks. But I will say this: be aware that you need to do this. Make sure you build yourself up, not with flattery or ego, but with the simple understanding that times will come where you will have to stand alone. Whilst we need each other and can expect that others will come to our aid, be sure of this – there will be times when no-one can or no-one will be there for you.

In every marriage, for example, there are going to be times when your spouse just can’t or won’t provide what you need. That’s just reality. When that happens, it’s not the time to berate them or to wonder why you married them in the first place. That’s often a manipulative attempt to get others to carry you. No, it is a time to draw on your own inner resources, and sometimes even just be there for them, until things return to normal. I believe it’s a sign of a healthy marriage when both parties have the ability to stand on their own two feet when’s it’s absolutely necessary. It creates respect and it can even draw people closer once they realise each other’s inner strength. There’s an old saying – the ones who are really ready for marriage are the ones who don’t actually need to get married.

Desiderata  doesn’t leave us on our own though. In an about turn, he says in effect “Now don’t overdo it. Don’t be perpetually on your guard, expecting the worst”. We can read too much into things. I know – I am guilty 100 times over of fearing the worst and then finding there was nothing to fear in the first place (so much so that I’m now suspicious of my fears and don’t give in to them so easily). There are some people I know that stand like a rock all on their own all the time – and that’s sad.

We need a balance then, as always. On the one hand, to be internally strong enough to get by during periods of personal drought and hardship. Without it we become too dependent on others or on circumstances. On the other hand, to not make ourselves an island, one constantly on guard, keeping people and opportunity out. That way lies loneliness and unfulfilment.


Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.


The struggle to overcome

The optimists may be right, but its never easy as they say it is

In 2000 I remember going to the cinema with my brother in law to see the film “Cast Away”. Great film even now, for those who haven’t seen it. It was on TV last night and it all came rushing back to me.

It was a profoundly moving film for me, because it is all about decisions, crossroads, and helplessness. If you intend to watch the movie, then spoiler alert, because I want to unpack some of things that happened in the film and how relevant they were for me at that time.

The main character (Tom Hanks) ends up marooned on a small tropical island after a disastrous plane crash. He is not just alone on the island – he is also trapped. The waves and breakers conspire against him to stop him from leaving, as they are just too powerful to get past. He tries, fails, and hurts himself quite badly in the process. He watches the patterns of the tide over the months, and even though there are some times that are less impossible than others, he despairs that even then he still can’t get off the island.

After 4 years, fortune smiles upon him and a piece of bent metal washes up on the shore with which he successfully creates a sail for his makeshift raft. At the appointed time, when the waves are the least boisterous, he finally sails over the breakers and to eventual freedom.

This is so much more to the film than this, but I want to focus on the helplessness he felt in the face of something he could not overcome – the breakers and the tide.

The year 2000 was a very difficult year for me – financially, personally and emotionally. I felt trapped by a whole of range of things that appeared beyond my control. I was going through an early mid life crisis, and felt I had all but exhausted myself in trying to break through my obstacles. If there’s anything that I can lay claim to, it’s that I’m not a quitter, and I had tried my best, but to no avail. I was wrestling an alligator, and the alligator was winning with ease.

When I watched the film and saw his dilemma, I  became emotional. I related so well to the situation, but of course, from a completely different viewpoint. The breakers were my problems. And try as I might, I could not get past them.

When the moment came that his craft rose through and above the waves, tears traced their way down my cheeks. How I wished I could get off my island, past my daunting waves and move forward.

My story has a happy and not so happy ending. I made some momentous decisions that year that altered my life for the better. Big decisions that changed my vocation, my income, and my perspective on life. But not all my obstacles were overcome. I have to say the deepest issues, internal ones, ones that I personally wrestled with, are still with me today. I can say their roar has been dulled, and that I have developed ‘work-arounds’ to cope with how they limit me, and I have grown stronger in some measure as well, but I do still ache to move on past them.

The fact is not everything has a fairy tale ending. Tom Hanks found his piece of metal that he used (ingenuity and decisiveness there by the way) to win his freedom, but it wasn’t smooth sailing after that. He had major heartache and some big decisions  ahead of him.

I took some bold and scary steps and definitely moved on. My life is infinitely better now than it was back then, truly. But I suppose if I was to use an illustration, it would be that I once was paralysed from the waist down, and now I walk with a limp. (I think actually, that most of us do, but the gait is different for each of us).

So all the emotions of that film came rushing back to me last night, and I wept again. I still haven’t given up on those stubborn problems, but I have come to accept that if I never overcome them, at least I have learnt to enjoy life in spite of them. And there is something warm and fuzzy about tears -they bring their own kind of life. Sadness is curiously a part of being whole too.

And that’s all for now.

Why I (usually) hate poetry

A slightly contradictory discussion of my problems with poetry

I know that some of you who read my posts write poetry, and wondered what you would think about today’s topic. But I thought to myself, if we were mates and sitting around a table with a cup of coffee, I’d probably feel free to tell you what I thought, and you might vigorously disagree with me, but chances are neither of us would be offended. So I’m taking that chance today.

You’d think that I would like poetry. And obviously I do like some poetry, otherwise I wouldn’t have written posts on Desiderata a couple of times already. I’m a touchy feely kind of guy, love the arts and things of beauty. So surely I would warm to soul searching, delicately constructed and crafted expressions. Well, yes and no.

My problem is that much of the poetry I come across is so subtle that I can’t work it out. Or it would take me way too much time reflecting on it before I might work out what it was trying to say. And I’m no stranger to subtlety, so it’s not that I lack the insight (or maybe I do, in ways that I don’t know).

I get it that sometimes things expressed subtly or metaphorically are richer than just coming out and saying it. There’s a sense of something captured so beautifully (I wish I could think of some examples right now – maybe some Shakespeare?) that when you read it you just think “wow”. It’s a picture or an emotion or a moment perfectly communicated.

But so often when I read a poem the meaning of it is almost impossible to fathom. I can imagine (tell me if I’m wrong) the author thinking that there is a precious truth contained in his or her poem that only a select few can grasp, and that only those who are in tune with the author will get it. If I thought I could work it out without too much trouble, I probably would have a crack. But I read it, think to myself, “I have no idea. I don’t have time for this” and move on.

And here’s where I might sound like I’m a bit hard to please, because I also don’t like poetry that is the opposite – clear and straightforward (“there’s no pleasing this guy” I hear you mutter). So I suppose a poem that teases my thinking a little without demanding that I pore over it to try and glean some kind of clue, well, that’s probably the kind of poem I like.

Of course, there are also my personal preferences. Some poems do it for me, some don’t, but I’m not going to elaborate on that because it’s of no value to this discussion and purely subjective.

But now I must admit to a contradiction. If the words are put to music I don’t mind so much! I love Leonard Cohen, some of Tom Waits, a lot of Yes, and no doubt lots of other bands with elusive lyrics. When their opaque phrases are added to music that I like, the fact that I can’t understand them doesn’t bother me (or not so much).

And the interesting thing is, I do try then to work what the words mean (and almost always fail). But I have fun trying! And I suppose the music adds its own meaning, so even if I don’t understand the words, if the music is upbeat I tend to feel the words are somehow upbeat, or vice versa.

Take a song by Tom, Waits for example – Time, Time, Time. A lovely melancholy feel to the song as he half sings, half says the following (this is only one of the verses – the other verses are just as good):

And they all pretend they’re orphans, and their memory’s like a train

You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away

And the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget

History puts a saint in every dream

Well she said she’d stick around until the bandages came off

But these mamas boys just don’t know when to quit

And Matilda asks the sailor are those dreams or are those prayers?

So just close your eyes son, this won’t hurt a bit

What does that all mean? I don’t have a clue! Well, I have some ideas, but they’re half formed and I can’t quite get them past that stage. But it sounds deep, it sounds a bit sad, and when combined with the music I find it moves me deeply. (By the way, if anyone wants to take a crack at what it means, go for it).

So, where does that leave me? I suppose if I persevered like I do with songs (because the music keeps me interested) maybe I would get the poetry that I came across, or maybe I don’t need to understand the poem, just get some kind of emotional feeling from it. Perhaps you, my poetry friends, can set me straight.

Nevertheless, I just can’t see myself taking the time to decipher them. A bit more context, some slightly clearer indication of where the author is going with this would help (though I suppose that would defeat their purpose, and take the edge off their subtlety). Maybe a title of the poem that sheds some light on what it’s all about?

So there you have it. I see the value of poetry, but if it takes me too long to try and get some meaning out of it, I move on. What about you?

Musing on mindfulness

What do you do when life isn’t easy?

Someone once said “life wasn’t meant to be easy” (Malcolm Fraser, one of Australia’s Prime Ministers if you want to know). Now, we can argue about the words “meant to be”, whether life was designed to be hard or not, but I think that most of us would agree with the main premise, that life isn’t easy.

It just isn’t. And the more we improve our chances for a happy life (in terms of governments, rights, health and wealth etc) the more stubbornly life remains “not easy”. Psychologists and philosophers have had a field day trying to explain why, so I’m not going to go there.

Most people aren’t happy or so I’m told, at least not happy often enough or for long enough. Sure, there are a few genuine optimists, but there are also many who just pretend they are. Some of that would be denial; some of it would be a decision to act optimistic in order to have and keep friends; some of it would be optimism because they haven’t thought things through (blind faith if you will); and of course there are as I said, genuine optimists, people who are secure in themselves and able to rationally look for the good whilst not ignoring the bad.

I’m afraid I’m not an optimist. But I do believe in being positive (just not very good at it!). I worry about things, have healthy dollops of anxiety (and unhealthy dollops as well), I tend to fear a negative outcome in situations even though so often it is the exact opposite (thank goodness for that!).

As I said I believe in being positive. One of the tools that can help is something they call ‘mindfulness’, living in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or fearing the future. To pay attention to ‘right now’ rather than lose the now by living in the past or the future. You start out setting time aside to do just that, a kind of meditation if you like, and the idea is that it spreads to a way of living your life. Of course, it’s still right to think about the past or plan for the future, but its all a matter of balance.

If you haven’t guessed already, I find it pretty hard to live in the moment. Nearly every time I try my mind wanders to the past or the future, or on to something that I can do nothing about right there and then.

Mindfulness is meant to be a great exercise to help you sleep. Focus on your breathing, or on sounds, or something that is happening right now, and your body relaxes, your anxieties or preoccupations recede, and off you pop to sleep. And it does work, when I actually succeed in doing it.

And here’s my point of this blog. In spite of the fact that I fear many things, in spite of the fact that I struggle and often fail to overcome my negativity or anxiety, I refuse to stop trying. Because to stop trying is to give in. If I stop trying, then I stay the same. If I don’t give up, there is a chance of movement, a chance of change. I have a saying – “I can change, or I can stay the same”. I don’t want to stay the same. So I will push onwards towards change.

So this is a kind of positive message, in a backhanded sense. Even though I am terrible at mindfulness, I regularly give it another shot. On the odd occasion it works, or at least partly works and I gain the benefit. What do I have to lose? Nothing but my lack of sleep.

So for what it’s worth, even though life is hard, it’s all we’ve got. There are still many many moments of joy and happiness even if they don’t last (actually the fact that they don’t last makes them all the more wonderful). A better life can be carved out, even if sometimes it is won inch by gruelling inch. “You can change. Or stay the same”. What would you prefer?

The art of learning another language

2 steps forward, 1 step back


Did I tell you I was learning Cantonese? Well, I am, for two reasons (three actually).

I’ve always wanted to learn a 2nd language – not really sure why. I know that in many other parts of the world people speak 2 or more languages almost as a matter of course, and Australians don’t really have to. I’ve always been impressed with people who can. But more recently, I’ve wanted to for some very practical reasons.

I know it’s good for the brain. I’m not old but I’m not young either, and I’ve been a pretty forgetful person for most of my life. Just ask my family! And in recent years (a couple of years ago actually) I started forgetting where I was right in the middle of a song whilst playing at a gig. If there’s anywhere where you can’t afford to have memory lapses is right in the middle of a song! You can’t wait 10 seconds to remember – the song just keeps on going. The real problem was, I had never had such lapses in the middle of playing before. That was one of the things I just wasn’t forgetful about, but over the space of a few months it had begun to happen with some regularity.

So I thought I’d better start doing some brain exercises if I want to avoid the possibility of Alzheimer’s. That’s a bit of a jump from being forgetful to having Alzheimers I know, but it’s absolutely a possibility and one I want to do everything to avoid. Studying a language is supposed to be the very best way to keep the brain active (and I must say since I have been studying I have never had a relapse of those blank moments, so fingers crossed).

And then, why Cantonese? I am not a sucker for punishment (Cantonese is one of the harder languages to learn, for a non Asian speaking person I mean). My daughter lives in Hong Kong and is marrying a young Hong Kong man in July, so, being ever practical I thought it would be great to learn a language I will actually use (they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong). As a matter of fact, that adds a lot of much needed motivation (and most language trainers emphasise the value of being able to use what you learn).

So I started a couple of years ago, slowly and a bit on and off again, but have been fairly hard at it for about a year now. I listen to recordings of someone speaking English then speaking the same thing in Cantonese, I write out flash cards of words (I know around 600 or so at the moment, but a fair bit still has to sink into long term memory). I also link in with someone in Hong Kong for a 30 minute lesson every couple of weeks. The goal is to speak Cantonese with them and learn a few bits along the way, but my speaking is painfully slow and full of errors, and they also have to repeat themselves over and over and slower and slower for me to understand what they are saying. That’s okay, that’s how you learn.

My goal is to be able to converse at a very basic level by the time we visit in July, to understand people at cafes and shops and at the hotel. I can’t see myself actually getting to that point by then, but it’s my goal nevertheless, and I will push on. Whether it happens by then or later, to me it will be a massive win when I finally get there. It’s like a hump that I have to get over, and then once speaking and listening is working at a basic level I will just add more words and grammar to that as I move forward. I will get there sooner or later, this I know, and I can’t wait!

It’s like learning to play guitar. For any of you who have learned guitar, there is this painful period where you place your fingers on the fretboard, strum the chord, lift the fingers off, place them in the position for the next chord, strum the guitar, then lift your fingers off and place them on the next chord …  and so on.

That’s a very frustrating period of time because you can’t play a song until you can move fairly quickly from one chord to the next. But once you get over that hump – you’re off and running! Oh sure, there’s still plenty to learn, and sophistication takes a long time to develop, but the joy of playing has begun. I think of my Cantonese in much the same way. Once I can speak, and understand those speaking to me, at whatever basic level, I’m off and running, and just have to build sophistication and my range of vocabulary as I go.

But it is hard! I think I know what I have learnt, and then I listen to the Cantonese dialogue on its own a week later without the English counterpart, and find that I’m just as mystified as before! Or I listen to my Hong Kong teacher, and I know every word they are saying but take too long to assemble it in my mind and so end up not understanding them at all!

It will come, in time it will. But I now have a huge appreciation for those who speak a second language, and whenever I talk to them (eg those who have learnt to speak English) I am keen to learn how long it took etc. Or for those who are studying another language, I am keen to hear their stories. I know I am not alone, and like anyone who has taken a new interest in something, I tend to notice everywhere people who have learnt or who are learning to speak in another tongue. The drummer in our band, for example, I have discovered, is learning Norwegian just because he can!

If you’re learning another language, I’d love to hear how you are going and any tips you might have. But for now, ha tsi gin (see you next time).