Treasure

I found a treasure
Beside the trail
A whisper in the wind
An overlooked flower
Hidden in the grass

I snatched it by the whiskers
Wrapped it carefully
With my fingers
I’m racing home now
To plant it safely
In my garden

The First of March

I had forgotten
the scent of wet soil
or rather, the fact that
under all these layers of snow
there existed a thing called soil
at all

Until the first of March, when
under the unrelenting force
of the noon-day sun
all the memories
of dirt under fingernails
and the crunch of fresh carrots
came rushing back
on the wind

Eat (and Read) and Run

I first heard about ultrarunner Scott Jurek in Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, where he joined a small group of daring runners in a 50-mile race with the legendary Tarahumara in the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. When a friend mentioned that Scott himself had written a book, I had to check it out.

Eat & Run

In Eat & Run, Scott tells the story of his journey to becoming one of the greatest runners in the world. From his humble beginnings, running the snowmobile trails in northern Minnesota (which I could immdiately relate to), Scott went on to run (and win, repeatedly) some of the most grueling races on the planet, races of +100 miles in places like the mountains of California and Colorado, the Grand Canyon, and Death Valley.

Along the way, Scott also learned about the importance of food as fuel and medicine for maintaining health. His journey lead him to adopt a vegan diet (and he shares some great recipes in the book).

Scott’s story taught me a lot about the importance of mental strength and discipline in running. He claims that anyone can run an ultra, but there is so much work that goes into training for ultrarunning. I also learned a lot about how all aspects of health and our being are connected. Running isn’t just a physical exercise, it requires spiritual, emotional, and mental strength as well.

Running is often used as a metaphor for life, and it often works. Recently I wrote about my quibbles with the “life is a marathon” idea, but what I learned from Scott is that actually, maybe I’d been thinking about running in the wrong way.

Life is not a race. Neither is an ultramarathon, not really, even though it looks like one. There is no finish line. We strive towards a goal, and whether we achieve it or not is important, but it’s not what’s most important. What matters is how we move towards that goal. What matters is the step we’re taking now, the step you’re taking now.

As I’ve set my sights on running my first marathon this year, this book provided timely inspiration for testing the limits of my body’s capabilities by running longer distances than I’ve ever thought possible. (If some crazy people out there are running 135 miles through the excruciating heat of the Death Valley, I should be able to handle a “mere marathon” Manitoba summer, right?) It also made me more aware of how I’m fueling my body, considering how the food I eat affects my overall health.

And Read

As I read Eat & Run, I noticed all the books Scott mentioned that contributed to journey. Reading obviously was an important part of his development as a runner and a person.

I started making a list of books Scott mentioned for further reading (not that he might endorse them per se, but they contributed in some way to his development), and thought I might as well include that list here.

Here’s a list of the books and major influencers he mentioned. (More were also included in the Footnotes of the book, but I didn’t record those.) Follow some of these rabbit trails, see what you can learn as well.

If you’re a runner (and a reader), check out Eat & Run to get excited about running! And I hear Scott’s got a new book coming out soon, so be on the lookout for that one as well.

Thanks, Scott, for sharing your story!

Thanks, Seth

Seth Godin is probably the reason I’m here (on this blog) today.

Over 10 years ago, a friend passed Seth’s blog along. I landed in the middle of his slow-drip project and enjoyed the steady, patient sharing of wisdom and observation.

Seth changed how I thought about communication, media, and spreading ideas. But more importantly, he helped changed my posture, demonstrating the importance of generosity, trying things that might not work, poking the box, leaning into fear, and committing to the slow drip.

He launched a new project yesterday, a podcast. As I started listening, the voice was familiar. Steady, challenging, curious, inspiring. Check it out.

Thanks, Seth.

Missing an Eclipse

This morning there was an eclipse.

And I missed it. (Which news stories and Instagram posts were kind enough to inform me.)

This world is a wonderful place, isn’t it? (Boom de yada, boom de yada…). Even this sterile winter day was filled with, the deep blue glow of the pre-dawn snow, a lunar eclipse, a soft but expansive sunrise, sun dogs at noon.

Not to mention the wonder of kids growing up and discovering new things, and each of us grown ups becoming different version of our selves day by day.

Amazing things are happening all around us, right under our noses, all the time. Quite overwhelming, if you think about it. We might easily echo Jayber Crow’s lament:

“Often I fear that I am not paying enough attention.”

Most of these wonders, like the lunar eclipse in my case, happen unnoticed. They’re free to enjoy, but won’t complain if they come and go unannounced.

All the more reason to pay attention. Look up at the sky. Take a moment (15 seconds, to be precise) to soak it in, before this moment passes quietly on to the next.

One Good Seam

We all dream of having a chunk of uninterrupted time to work on creative projects:

“If I could turn off my phone for just one day, I could work on my book.” * “If I could get a whole morning without interruptions, I could launch my website.”*

Distractions and obligations, though, seem to get in the way. The kids need attention. The phone keeps ringing at all the wrong times. Sometimes even 10 interrupted minutes to focus on a single project can be hard to find.

There are 2 ways of looking at this. First, maybe your constant interruptions aren’t as urgent as you think. Does email really need your immediate attention, or could they wait for half a day?

On the other hand, unless you live in some ivory tower, the circumstances will probably never be absolutely ideal. The stars will never perfectly align, so you have to make the most of the available opportunities to make progress on your creative projects.

10 Minutes

In The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna suggests that 10 minutes is all you need.

We all have a net of obligations and time constraints—both real and imagined. The most effective way to find your Must is to find ten minutes. Because while running away from all of your obligations to focus uninterrupted on your Must for months sounds romantic, the harder, trickier, and more sustainable way is to make shifts every day within your existing reality. To integrate, not obliterate. What can you do in those 10 minutes that it takes for the kettle to boil? Instead of checking social media in the evening, is there a small task you can complete to make progress on your goal?

One Good Seam

My wife loves sewing kids clothing for our kids and friends’ kids. The biggest struggle for her is carving out time in the day to focus on getting a piece of clothing finished. While she’d love to have a full day without distraction to take her creations from start to finish, that’s rarely realistic.

Instead, the secret she’s found for sewing is to focus on making “one good seam”.

The project will be ready to go in the sewing room: Fabric’s laid out, tools are ready. Then, in the few quiet minutes before we prep dinner, or once we have the kids to bed, she’ll say, “I’m just going to sew one seam.” She’ll hide out downstairs for 10 minutes, until that seam has been sown.

For those few minutes she focuses, not on getting the whole project done at once, but on sewing one good seam. Then, as Elle also notes, those 10 minutes become a gift. And over time, those minutes add up to some beautiful projects.

What’s your “one seam”? What’s one small step you can take in 10 minutes to make progress on a dream or project that’s been waiting in the back of your mind?

Because, as I’ve witnessed, beautiful pieces clothing aren’t made all at once. They’re made one seam at a time.

The Tree, the Soil, and the Fruit

I love looking for connections between the books I read. When I see common themes in otherwise unrelated books, my ears perk up. To see unconnected authors’ paths cross seems to validate what both are saying.

As I look back on the books I read over the past year — which varied in theme from running to farming to motorcycle maintenance— I noticed a few common threads emerge.

Today, I’d like to pull on one of those threads (with apologies, this post is rather long-winded…).

Let’s begin where any good conversation should: with food.

Reaching for Gold

Ray Croc knew what it takes to win. In the 1950s he grew McDonalds from a little family restaurant in San Bernardino, California, to a global franchise. But Croc’s relentless appetite for business success flew in the face of the values around which the original Golden Arches stood for. The 2016 film The Founder depicts this tension been the modern “winning mindset” on which the American dream was built and the more conservative character-driven approach to business that the McDonald brothers valued.

One heated telephone conversation in the film encapsulates this tension well. At this point in the story, the McDonalds franchise has grown throughout the US, but the McDonald brothers are having their doubts about the means Croc is willing to use to succeed:

Ray Croc: “I wanna win. And you don’t get there by being some “aw shucks” guy sap. There’s no place in business for people like that. Business is war. It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor were drowning, I’d walk over and put a hose right in his mouth. Can you say the same?
Mac McDonald: [pause] I can’t. Nor would I want to.
Ray Kroc: Hence, your single location.

And, because we’ve all eaten a Big Mac at a McDonald’s outside of San Bernardino, California, we know that it was Croc’s aggression that beat out the McDonald brothers’ conservative mindset.

But was this really a win? Was spreading the good news of McDonalds food around the world worth the sacrifice of Kroc’s marriage and relationships with the company’s founders?

And what about those of us who aspire to a life of character deeper than “success at any cost”? Are nice people destined to finish last? Can compassion and competition co-exist?

Chris McDougall, for one, believes that they can.

Love and running

In his book Born to Run, Chris McDougall studies both the Mexican tribe of super-runners called the Tarahumara and the elite athletes in the world of ultra-running. He notices a surprising trend among the best runners in the world:

The best runners were also the most loving and generous people.

…there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you’ve got, being patient and forgiving and… undemanding…maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that getting better at one could make you better at the other.

As McDougall pointed out in his TED talk, this trait was exemplified perfectly in Derartu Tulu’s winning run in the New York City Marathon.

In 2009, the accomplished 37-year-old Ethiopian marathoner returned to the sport to race the New York City Marathon. Just over halfway into the race, Tulu was running alongside the heavily-favoured Paula Radcliffe when Radcliffe pulled up in pain, nursing her hamstring.

This was Tulu’s chance to break ahead of her rival and take a commanding lead! And yet she did the unexpected.

“Come on,” she said to Radcliffe, “we can do it.”

This was a heart-warming display of sportsmanship, but we all know that nice people like Tulu don’t have what it takes to win, right?

Wrong.

As the race progressed, Radcliffe stopped a second time in pain. Again, Tulu stopped to encourage her competiton to continue. At that point Radcliffe said, “I’m done,” and let Tulu run ahead.

And run she did. Not only did Tulu manage to catch back up to the lead pack but went on to win the race!

Tulu is an example of someone who didn’t sacrifice compassion for the sake of competition. In fact, it might have been her depth character that also made her a great runner.

Often it’s easy to believe that we can excel in one area of life at the expense of others.

We can sacrifice our sleep or diet to find success in our work.

We cut other people down in a fight to the top.

When we vote, we think that a corrupt person will make a nation prosper.

But bad tree can’t make good fruit.

This principle has proven true in more places than the running world.

The perfect painting

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig becomes obsessed with Quality. He discovers that the characteristic of Quality isn’t like a coat of paint that you can throw on at the end to give something Quality. Quality must be built in from the beginning. Even before plans are drawn, Quality must be developed. It must start at the core of the maker’s character.

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together.
The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or they fall away from Quality together.

Picasso echoed this when he said, “It’s not what an artist does that counts, but what he is.”

If we hope to be great in any arena, whether art or running or business, we must embark on the long journey of cultivating depth of character in all areas of life. Despite what our culture tells us, there are no shortcuts to quick success on one day of the week, to borrow Pirsig’s words. For as he says:

It all goes together.

Tending the soil

Wendell Berry has become a favourite author in my bookshelf. His writing comes from a place unruffled by the tossing waves of today’s concerns. He draws from a deeper stream, and I’ve gleaned a lot from his perspective.

In his book The Unsettling of America, Berry emphasizes over and over the value of soil. Obviously soil is important for growing any crop or garden, but it’s far more than just the “dirt” seeds are planted in. Berry talks about the importance of particular crop rotations for returning nutrients to the soil, and minimizing tillage to avoid breaking up the bacterias and composition of the soil before planting. Now, the particulars of this are a conversation that finds this hobbyist gardener far out of his depth, but the principle rings true in many areas of life.

To grow quality fruit, take care of the tree. To take care of the tree, take care of the soil.

For this reason, the discussion of soil for Berry isn’t just about farming. Because the health of our soil affects the quality of our food and the health of those who work the soil. These affect the health of our towns and cities, and the health of our culture as a whole.

Because everything is connected.

This is why, if you want to take great pictures, you don’t start by getting a fancy camera.

And if you want to start a business that does great work, you don’t start with a killer logo or website.

And if you want to raise great kids, you don’t start by sending them to a great school.

No, to produce any fruit of good quality you need to start with the soil. (And that soil, by the way, is you).

Looking back at the example of McDonalds, you could argue that the franchise’s “fruit” — the food you eat at any of their restaurants, but also their impact on our health and communities, both the good and the bad — could be traced back to the “soil” of its founders’ character, which first nourished its growth.

Because bad soil can’t produce good fruit.

It’s all connected.

Connecting

There’s a scene in How to Train Your Dragon that keeps coming to mind (forgive me, as a parent I don’t get out much these days). The feeble son of the king isn’t seen as “future king” material. He’s small and lacking confidence. Any time he presses a critic on what precisely is wrong with him, he gets this kind of sweeping finger-point at his whole self.

“You just pointed at all of me.”

It’s the season of New Year’s resolutions, as we all hope to make the upcoming year better than the last. When you think about how you’d like to improve, you might feel like Hiccup. The finger is pointing at “all of you”.

Where do we begin?

If you were to ask the motorcycle-enthusiast Pirsig where to start, he would point at all of you, but in an encouraging sort of way.

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then word outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.

Berry, too, points encouragingly to the hope of small steps. If everything is connected, then the smallest changes, the simplest acts of love and generosity, will affect everything else. (In fact, simply acknowledging these connections is also a step towards health. Berry writes, “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.”)

How you treat your fellow runners affects how well you yourself run. What you eat affects how you run your business. How you listen to your kids or your friends affects how you do your work.

It’s all connected.

As you turn your calendar to a new year, consider the health of your soil. Aspire to become of person with depth of character.

Because if your soil is good, your fruit will also be good.

Life Is Not a Marathon

You’ve heard people say, “life’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon”. Ok, it may not be a sprint, but “marathon” isn’t the best metaphor either.

A marathon is long, but it has an end. Even while battling the 26.2 miles of a marathon, you can push yourself knowing that in a few hours the race will be over, you’ll be showered up and kicking your feet up at home.

Some seasons of life are like marathons, but life is different.

Life is more like a persistence hunt.

In Born to Run, Chris McDougall tells about the Bushmen of the Kahlahari Desert who are the last people known on earth to use a hunting technique known as “persistence hunting”. The technique includes a group of hunters running after an antelope for hours and hours, slowly wearing the animal down.

(Wait, outrun an antelope?!? Turns out humans are uniquely capable of running, not because we’re the fastest, but because our independent breathing and cooling systems let us run much longer than any other mammal. Go humans! The Bushmen outrun an antelope by running longer, not faster, than the animal.)

Louis Leibenberg, who lived with this desert tribe for several years and learned the technique, explains the process:

The pace wasn’t too fierce; the Bushmen average about ten minutes a mile, but many of those miles are in soft sand and brush, and they occasionally stop to study tracks. They’d still fire the jets and take off in a sprint, but they knew how to keep trotting afterward and recover on the run. They had to, because a persistence hunt was like showing up at the starting line without knowing if you were running a half marathon, marathon, or ultra.

As a runner, I definitely prefer knowing how far I’m running before I start, so I know how to pace myself (or, because if the distance is too far I wouldn’t bother starting in the first place ;) ).

But I think there’s a life lesson in these Kahlahari hunters’ approach to running.

We can take on any amount of stress, busyness, and ambition for a short period of time. We “push through” the end of a semester, or a busy season of work, knowing that the end is in sight.

But the arc of your life is different. There’s no specific end in sight, so you have to set a pace that’s sustainable for a very long time.

That means learning to rest.

And saying “no” sometimes.

And knowing when to push, and when to ease up.

After a while, Louis began to look at running the way other people look at walking; he learned to settle back and let his legs spin in a quick, easy trot, a sort of baseline motion that could last all day and leave him enough reserves to accelerate when necessary.

How do you pace yourself when there’s no finish line in sight?

Because unlike a marathon, the goal in life isn’t to finish as quickly as possible.

The goal is to keep running.

Christmas Bells

On Christmas Day of 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was feeling melancholic. The famous poet who had penned his depiction of Paul Revere’s Ride a few years earlier was feeling less than triumphant.

This Christmas, for Longfellow, there was no peace on earth. As an abolitionist he felt the full burden of the civil country was in the midst of civil war which was tearing his country in two. The war had also taken its toll on his family. Longfellow had recently received word that his son had been injured in battle.

Adding to that weight was the memory of his beloved wife who, three years earlier, had died in a tragic fire.

Maybe the weather that Christmas Day reflected Longfellow’s mood. Maybe it was one of those foggy winter days where the sky pressed down to blend seamlessly into the snow-covered Massachusetts ground.

No, this Christmas was neither merry nor bright.

But, as was his practice, Longfellow sat down to write a poem. Maybe this poem would be gray to match the sky, an outpouring of his melancholy.

But that’s when he heard the sound.

Church bells, ringing through the crisp winter air, announcing peace on earth, good-will to all. The sky unexpectedly lifted, and Longfellow’s spirits began to rise. He penned a poem called Christmas Bells (which was set to music years later and became I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day).

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Hearing

When I think of hearing the bells, I think of that kids movie The Polar Express. That’s the one where young boy jumps on Tom Hanks’ magical train to the North Pole to visit Santa. Maybe not a “modern classic”, but I enjoyed it, probably because I saw it in 3D when it first came out :).

In this movie, the boy has a problem: he can’t hear the bells.

Over the course of the journey he finds out that hearing the bells is dependent only on his belief in Santa. Once he believes, his ears open and he finds out that the bells have been ringing the entire time, everywhere. He simply wasn’t able to hear them.

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of our favourite Christmas songs actually have this theme of hearing baked right in.

Said the little lamb to the Shepard boy
Do you hear what I hear?

Even this one:

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

Are you listening? Can you hear them?

Part of the Christmas season is about the gift of Jesus, and warmth and light and peace on earth and all that good stuff. But another part is asking, are you paying attention?

The Ringing

Christmas can be a heavy time for all of us. Bills to pay, stresses of family, friends that are hurting, loneliness, difficult memories from years past. It all comes together during this season. And if Longfellow’s poem is any indication, it’s always been this way.

Life, even at Christmas, is not all merry and bright.

But also true, just as in Longfellow’s day, is that the bells are ringing.

Now, chances are your ears are also ringing this time of year. Mine are. We’re inundated with a forced capitalist merriness, full-volume holiday tunes, tables full of bright Christmas treats, and malls packed with shoppers trying to check off all their lists while maintaining sanity. This kind of merriness can be fun, but it doesn’t resonate deeply or satisfy once the sugar-high has worn off.

The kind of bells that I hope to hear every Christmas can’t be mass-produced or planned into the program. They’re not loud. In fact, they seem to be clearest in moments after the party guests have left, or in that breath right after the choir finishes singing.

These bells are merely a whisper, but they’re ringing loud and deep through the crisp winter air.

May you have ears to hear this Christmas. May you, in the dark of winter’s night, in a moment of surprise and grace, hear the hushed and steady pealing of the bells.

Merry Christmas.

If This Works: Book Update

A few short months ago I first released my book, Pay Attention. The project was an experiment, first in gathering and writing a batch of ideas, then producing a digital book, then a printed book. Each step of the process was a new experience for me in various ways, each really enjoyable as well.

Seth Godin talks about the importance of taking on projects that might not work, that venture into unknown territory where there’s a risk of failure, but also a chance that it will work.

The hope was that this book might help someone adopt a posture of attention, curiosity, and wonder.

And the crazy thing is:

I think it’s actually working.

I’ve been humbled to hear how the book has resonated with readers from a variety of walks of life. It’s helped people see their life from new perspectives and be more curious and grateful for what they have.

I’ve also been really inspired hearing people’s own stories of learning to pay attention. We all experience moments of distraction, disillusionment, and boredom. But we also share the desire to be present and filled with wonder.

I love it. Thanks so much for the privilege of sharing words and experiences with you and being part of this experiment.

If you haven’t read it yet, the digital version is free on my site, and I still have some printed copies available. The printed book comes bundled with a companion notebook for recording your thoughts and observations as you develop your habit of paying attention.

(You’ll notice they’re the perfect stocking-stuffer size too, so they might make a great gift ;).)

Thanks for reading.