17 minutes

17 minutes are what is needed for your brain to completely focus on something or relax- our brain works in 17 minute cycles.  This summer, my sons and I went on 17 minute breaks during our trip to Venice to either pause and reflect on what we had seen or experienced or to take a ‘sketching break’.  This is one of my 17 minutes sketches from Murano-


Tourists busy taking selfies, stopped to watch us sketching. In this harried world where photographing oneself is more important than observing things, they were perhaps surprised to see two boys (one in his late teens), sketching.  Bad moods and waiting times were happily passed by these moments.  Below is another one from Torcello, done while waiting for a boat to take us back to the hotel.  People were respectful and thoughtful.  One of them even started ‘crowd control’,  to make sure that I had a clear view- this without saying even one word!  How powerful is that?!


My sketch book has been travelling with me and my children since then.  I think we have learnt a powerful lesson- that creativity is power!  You don’t have to sketch but you can write or even relax.  In the corporate world, people are taking 17 minutes breaks after working for 52 minutes (not sure where that comes from!).  Ted talks are also that length so that people focus.


Creativity and Children

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(My son at the Serpentine Pavilion, 2015)

I have two children- one is now a teenager and the other one, nearly one.  For all their lives and most of mine (and there were seven pregnancies with two live births), I have worked, starting with my first lowly job as a teenager working as a receptionist for a dentist.  I am now an architect, author and artist.  My children have always seen me working inside and outside the home.  Therefore I was surprised to view this recent broadcast on BBC Two (3rd July 2015) presented by the model and entrepreneur Lily Cole ‘to debate whether having children inhibits or enhances an artistic lifestyle’.  Perhaps, not surprisingly, the people she interviewed were mostly women- only one man appeared. Gavin Turk, the artist, was also interviewed but together with his wife, Deborah Curtis, who is also an artist.  The programme was based around the infamous quote by the critic Cyril Connolly, ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. One got the feeling that Lily Cole, who was then eight months pregnant, was exploring her own fears about whether she would continue to be creative after the birth of her child.  Barbara Hepworth also featured- how did she manage to be creative despite having four children, including triplets?  But the possible dilemma of her husband, Ben Nicholson, the artist, was ignored.  So I wondered if Cole meant to imply that this is a woman’s problem only?

The modern creatives- Holly McNeish, the spoken word poet, and Turk and Curtis- were sanguine and funny about the whole experience- breastfeeding in a public toilet, bringing babies to art shows, and doing those other crazy things parents have to do when they don’t have childcare, either paid or unpaid.  My life was like that too- I brought my sons to business meetings, construction site visits, art shows and lectures and I know of other parents who did that too.  Lionel Shriver, the author, who has chosen to be childless, spoke about the socio-politics of why and how only ‘white’ people were choosing to be childless or having less children- though her theories might be debatable (she appeared to have forgotten entirely about China, for instance).  This led me to think more deeply about my experience of having children. I believe my children have made my life more creative, not less.  It is far more simpler not to have to think about feeding and nurturing another person, about not having to argue with a teenager about pocket money, etc- instead just concentrating on being creative.  But is creativity limited to just what you produce?  Or is it about how you lead your life?  My life with children has really enhance how I live my entire life with creativity.  And I am proud that they are also known as creative people in themselves.  There will always be people, who choose not to have children (like my beloved Uncle) but those who care and nurture others (like my Uncle did with me).   I have creative friends, who are childless, and they enjoy my children’s company.  Creativity does not depend on whether you have children or not, it is a state of being, that continues, regardless.

What is mindfulness?

I used to think that mindfulness was about thinking, that I needed to think through everything I was doing- ‘I am opening the door, I am putting my shoes away, etc etc’.  But the more I thought, the more tired I got.  The chatter in my mind was not mindfulness- it was clutter.  Mindfulness is easy, is calm and clear.  I realised what mindfulness is when I read the following words from the Venerable W Rahula:

Mindfulness does not mean that you should think and be conscious,’I am doing this’ or ‘I am doing that’. No. Just the contrary.  The moment you think ‘I am doing this’ you become self conscious and then you do not live in the action but you live in the idea, ‘I am’ and consequently your work is spoilt too.  You should forget yourself completely and lose yourself in what you do.

So for  example if you are looking at something, then just look at it with your whole life and not think, ‘I am looking at it’.  I still get the sorts of thoughts I used to but now I simply observe the thoughts and let them float away like clouds until my mind is clear.

Even moments of joy and suffering can be tools of mindfulness.  As Nichiren, the Buddhist monk said, ‘Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life..’  Many a times, we suffer what is there to enjoy and enjoy what is there to suffer and thus, our whole life becomes miserable.  Instead as Thoreau advised, we should strive to ‘live deep and suck out all the marrow of life’ – whatever that may be.

A simple tip to stop procrastination


Like many others I had read about procrastination and how to stop it, how I was frittering away previous time that would never come back and look at my life in term of minutes and seconds- not years.  Those ideas certainly helped but what helped me the most was my watch.

I had stopped wearing my watch for many years because someone had impressed upon me about being ‘free’ from time constraints and being ‘natural’. So I did not wear my watch and even if I did, I developed a strange aversion to looking at it!  I would even strain to look at watches of fellow commuters on a train to tell the time.  So I was running late, not paying attention to what time it was and making excuses.  I do a lot of desk work and there are clocks on my computers which I use.  But I never looked at them or ignored them.

However, when I started wearing my watch, it all changed.  I became more conscious of the passing of time and how I was spending it.  There is this (slight)weight on my wrist which forces me to look at it.  While I don’t panic or become a compulsive looker at my watch, I use it consciously to be creative and contributive.  My time is my life!


Conscious kindness


This the lovely sage tea that the local residents used to bring for us when we worked on an community garden in Palestine.  It was hard work and it used to get cold in the winter evenings so this was very welcome.  This photo reminds me why we must remember to be kind to all- loved ones or strangers and of Goethe’s words, ‘Kindness is the chain by which society is held together.’

My aunt died recently.  With her passing, I remembered the many times I had been unkind not only to her but also to many others.  As a child, I made fun of my grandmother who could not hear or see.  Now many years later, as I struggle with my own eyesight and as a mother, I wonder how my grandmother coped with 11 children in spite of her disabilities.  I did not pay much attention to my aunt and now I know nothing about her life, her thoughts, her wishes and what she even liked.  Influenced by adults around me who should have known better, I made fun of her too.  She is gone but these awful memories live inside me.  Kindness is essential to our spirit and creativity.  I stilled my own life with my lack of kindness.  I am the one who has lost.  So in remembrance of my past unkindness, for the last month or so, I have been trying to be consciously kind.  This video also jogged me-

I know that in this world where there are people trying to kill each other at the slightest provocation, it is not easy to be kind or to have good thoughts.  So kindness has to be an active, conscious effort in our everyday living.  How can one be kind?  There are three steps, I have decided-

1. Empathy- try to find something common with the person or try to see their point of view.  This is a good ice-breaker too.

2. Politeness- Alain de Botton said that kindness is politeness (or perhaps the other way around, it doesn’t matter).  The kindest people are also the politest.

3. Time- one can’t be polite if one is in a hurry- slow down!  Acknowledge the other person and empathise with them and then say something polite.  All this takes time.

I have been trying these three steps for about a month- it is not easy but it has definitely made my life easier and sweeter.  Thanks to my aunt and my grandmother for making me a little bit kinder!