the telling of stories

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Recently I was in a team building day.  It happens that the (work) team I’m part of has undergone some significant changes recently, so we decided to spend a day together as the ‘new’ team to mark this new beginning.

Part of the day involved the invitation to take 7 minutes to tell a little of our life story in answering the question “how did you get to be here?”.

Even as I write, it sounds like a simple task, that would have been no big deal; just tell the stories and move on to the important parts of they day. Right?

That (of course) isn’t how it worked out. It turns out that the opportunity to listen carefully to a bunch of colleagues tell something of their life story (even if only for 7 minutes each) is a rich and rewarding one, revealing all sorts of connections with one another, finding out what really matters, or why the other is a certain way.  The opportunity to tell your own story too, to an intently listening group is a rare privilege – providing the opportunity to think about the core of who you are, and to organise your thoughts around your own life’s adventures.

We discovered all sorts of things about each other over those 63 minutes (do the maths and you’ll work out how many are in my team).  We laughed so hard the actual laughter was funny in itself. And we were on the very edge of tears at other time as genuinely moving or profound stories were shared. It was, for me, the highlight of our day together.

I walked away so much the richer for the time shared, and so glad for the opportunity to listen, and to speak.

And also a little nonplussed.

Maybe it’s just in my world (genuinely I mean that), but it seems opportunities like this – to listen to another speak of their deep story – are a bit too rare in our modern world. Social media is not the place where deep stories are shared.  Increasingly busy schedules means the time to stop and listen (really listen…when was the last time I did that? you?) seems harder to find. Minds filled with a thousand and one things are less able to slow down, focus, pay attention to the other.

It seems we (by which I mean I) might be missing out on something important here.

Later that week I dropped into the mechanic to pick up my car – usually a 2 minute interaction involving me transferring horrendous sums of money to his account, and a few inane pleasantries.  This day, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I went a little beyond the usual and asked a couple of more open questions – and we got into quite a valuable conversation.  It only lasted maybe 5 minutes, and for all I know he might have been thinking “c’mon mate, take your car and leave, I have work to do” – but it didn’t seem like that.  He seemed to be enjoying the conversation, and the storytelling as much as I was.  This encounter reminded me that it doesn’t need to be team building meetings, or campfires or counselling sessions where we share our stories…it’s possible even in the moments of our every day…provided we’re willing not to be rushed.

Now it’s quite possible that this is not news to you, and I’m just late to the realisation (or to be charitable, the reminder) about the value of listening to the story of another – but it felt like quite a big couple of moments for me in that week as I encountered the importance of telling and listening to stories from one another’s lives.

Of course we can hear the story of another through their actions too, as the famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us: “Who you are thunders so loudly I can’t hear a single word you say.”  But while that is without question true and valuable, it seems to me there’s also something precious about inviting someone to tell their own story using words – and listening carefully and interestedly (a new word I just invented) while they do so.

It’s a personal challenge for me, a life-long introvert fairly well down one end of the I-E scale of your average Myers-Briggs personality test – but it is a challenge I find myself interested in taking up.

So…hit me up for a chocolate milkshake…I’m ready to listen to your story. 😉

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it’s just a trail

Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Tasmania with a bunch of guys to ride mountain bikes for a week or so. Yes, indeed, I do realise how privileged I am to be able to do so. It was an amazing week.

We rode in two places, Blue Derby (which I’ve ridden before and know and love) and Maydena Bike Park. If you like riding bicycles on dirt trails among rocks and trees, you should put both these incredible places on your list.

Now before the rest of this will make sense (if indeed it has any chance of that) you should know that when it comes to mountain biking, I’m relatively average. I ride regularly at local trails around my city and suburb, I have a nice bike, and I enjoy it – but I’m not particularly special. I’m not the kind of guy you’ll see on those YouTube videos hurtling down some vertical descent, or starring in World Cup or Enduro World Championship races all over the globe. I also don’t really do jumps…I like it when my tyres are in contact with the ground. Really I’m just a guy who goes riding with his mates and has a good time. If I don’t crash, I’m generally happy. I even made my own hashtag to describe my level of competence: #veryaveragetrailrider

So when preparing for Tasmania, it was with a certain degree of trepidation. This is “proper” mountain biking country.

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to be happy…and yet…

It’s time I started writing again after quite a long break. I’ll probably be rusty. Bear with me (or just let this and the next couple pass by). Cheers!


Photo by Diogo Nunes on Unsplash

It was an excellent moment. Delightful even. And it made me happy.

I’d spent a few months filling in some parts of a senior role within the organisation I work for. One of those tasks was to join the senior execs for their weekly meeting. It was the kind of meeting that deals with HR and risk and budgets and complaints and legal issues and strategy questions and staffing concerns and and and and. All the kinds of things that I’m neither good at, nor all that interested in.

And this moment marked the end of that period of filling in. The moment my last meeting as part of the group wrapped up.

I was so happy to have finished, to get those few hours each week back into my diary. I’d been counting down the weeks, and the blessed moment had finally arrived. I could (and maybe did) have done a little dance.

And yet…I also walked away a little sad.

I’d come to really value the people I was meeting with. To understand that in exercising their own gifts and skills they want the best for the organisation at least as much as I do.

I’d come to realise that I was learning a huge amount from each of them individually, and from participating in the meetings with them collectively.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to re-invent myself as an accountant or HR manager or risk specialist on the basis of this series of meetings…but nonetheless I’d learned a huge amount and valued the opportunity. As much as I was happy…I felt sad too.

It was a thoroughly confusing moment, to realise that as much as I was happy (and I most definitely was), there was also a little gloominess in the mix (and it was real).

It is, I guess, a strange, but very human thing that we can have these seemingly contradictory feelings in the same moment.

Maybe it’s similar to those contradictory feelings of grief and relief when an elderly relative passes after long and painful health battle.

Or the mix of disappointment and joy when a much-anticipated event is cancelled, but frees up enough time for some long overdue family time (or an afternoon nap 😉 ).

Maybe living with contradiction, with seemingly contrary emotions is entirely human. Is holding in tension two things that seem impossible to have happily co-exist a vital daily reality?

For me at least, realising my capacity to be both happy and sad in the same moment was a helpful reminder. A reminder that the world I inhabit is rarely either/or. Rarely black or white. It’s more often both/and. More often shades of grey.

In so many ways we’re inhabiting a complex world, building for ourselves a a complex and confusing culture. I wonder if, for me at least, learning this capacity to hold opposites in tension, to notice the contrasts in myself, and in the world around me, might just help me make sense of it.

Being happy and sad at the same moment might just be a pointer to a bigger reality.

Still, the next time the appointed hour for that meeting rolls around and I notice a big yawning space in my diary so I can pursue other work? I think happiness might just win out. 🙂

overland with the fam

Tasmania is without doubt one of the best places in Australia for family adventures. And on an island full of great places to explore, and great adventures to experience, the Overland Track stands out.

The six day walk from Mt Barney in the central highlands south to Lake St Clair is justly one of Australia’s best known and most walked routes.  From the heights of Mt Barney to deep temperate rainforest, from spectacular waterfall views to glorious highland tarns, the Overland Track has something for everyone.

We set out with a bunch of friends to walk the Overland Track. In our group were kids aged from 10 years old and up, with a wide variety of walking experience together with their respective parents with a similar variety of outdoors experience. Our own kids are 13 and 15 and proved the ideal age for the walk.  The 9 year old in our family opted for a solo holiday at Grandma’s…she didn’t feel quite ready for the walk and we didn’t want to push her into something like this too soon.

There’s a bit of logistical work to do on a walk like the Overland Track – with gear to be organised and transport at either end to be sorted. We won’t bore you with those details – head over to the official website to find lots of great information on preparing for the walk.  You’ll also need to think about time of year. The peak season is the late summer – January and February – with less rain and snow falling at that time of year (less, but not none!). In winter it’s a truly difficult walk and you’d want a lot of winter (snow) walking experience before tackling it. We hit the trail early January in the summer school holidays.

There are a couple of ways to do the walk: self-organised or with a guided group. If you’re not an experienced walker, the guided groups offer a fantastic way to complete the walk – with all the challenges of gear, logistics, cooking and navigation taken care of for you, and experienced guides to show you all the highlights along the way. Even with guides it’s still a long walk though, so don’t be too complacent if you take this option.

Long distance walks in Tasmania are based around the choice of using simple bush huts, or camping in tents – and the Overland Track is no different. There are huts and camping areas at each night’s camp, and you can use either (but you must carry camping gear in case the huts are full). Staying in huts can be crowded and noisy, but it can also be a great way to meet people who have come from all over the world to walk the Overland Track. They also enable respite from weather that can turn pretty nasty at short notice!

In our group there were enough people with bushwalking experience (and having walked the Overland Track before) that we could safely opt to be self-organised rather than take the guided option.  Both Sheri and I had walked the track together a few years ago and were excited to share it with our kids before they get too much older.

Our kids were pretty committed to preparing for the Overland Track – and it’s not a preparation to take lightly. We did lots of day walks around south-east Queensland, an overnight test walk into Mt Barney Creek, and the kids made their own decision in the weeks leading up to the trip to walk to and from school regularly rather than the bus or bike options they’d usually choose (a distance of around 5km each way).  By the time our walk rolled around, they were fit and ready to go…and excited!

I won’t go into too much gear detail except to say we carried two small tents, cooked using a Trangia fuel stove, and that the kids definitely carried their fair share of gear. The 15 year old daughter carried all her own gear, plus a share of family equipment, while the 13 year old carried his own equipment plus our family’s daily lunch supplies. Sheri and I carried a little more gear than the kids, but they definitely kicked in their share.

We kept a good lookout for value-for-money equipment in preparing to go, and apart from borrowing from generous friends chose to pick up some bits and pieces from Aldi, and an on-line discount supplier. I wouldn’t recommend Aldi gear if you’re going to be doing regular long distance walks, but for a one-off summer walk we found their down sleeping bags, boots, hiking socks and two-main tent fit for their purpose.  A 55l pack for the 13 year old, gaiters (a definite for the Overland track!) and waterproof pants all came from on-line discounters. We didn’t skimp on rain jackets though, conscious they’d probably get a workout (and they did!) so opting for good quality rain gear.

We planned our menu together, and put together a tasty selection of recipes including home-made Bircher muesli we mixed up each night for the following morning, wraps and crackers with a variety of fillings for lunch, and a mix of stir fry meals for dinner. Other friends in our group used commercially available dehydrated meals for dinner and definitely had a quicker and easier meal prep time than we did, but there’s generally no rush.  We let the kids go crazy on making up some trail mix (nuts, chocolate, lollies, dried fruit etc) to their own specification – you’re going to burn lots of calories on a walk like this so regular snacking is important, and we also carried as much fresh fruit as we thought we could.

The Overland Track is an incredible walk. It starts at the base of the majestic Cradle Mountain, and within a matter of minutes the steep, tough climb to Marion’s Lookout begins. This first couple of hours is the hardest of the week, but our kids bounced up the climb like they were out for an afternoon neighbourhood jaunt. The view from the top on a fine day (which we had) is incredible. From there, day one continued around behind Cradle Mountain and an optional side trip to the summit. Sheri took the 13 year old to the top in what turned out to be a quite difficult and at times exposed climb to an incredible summit, while the 15 year old and I stayed on the main track toward the night’s first campsite at Waterfall Valley. We were off to a great start.

What followed was another five days of fantastic walking, lovely campsites, glorious views, and the kind of family experience you’d dream about.  Hours of walking with the kids, chatting about life, the universe and everything, were interspersed with periods where they were walking with other kids from our group so Sheri and I had plenty of time to walk and chat too.

It’s hard to pick highlights from a walk in which every day was unique and special, but there are a few that stand out:

  • A sunny afternoon enjoying the lovely grass campsites of Waterfall Valley and watching the sun set behind Barn Bluff
  • An optional side trip to the summit of Mt Ossa (Tasmania’s tallest) was rewarded with an astonishing summit area after a hard scrambling climb. I couldn’t make the walk (a little dodgy knee action), but Sheri and the kids joined some friends for the trip – and they haven’t stopped raving about it since.
  • We camped some nights, and stayed in the huts on others and enjoyed meeting walkers from around Australian and beyond – including a dad with his 7 and 9 year old kids who charged through the walk in remarkable style.
  • On our fifth day, from Kia Ora to Windy Ridge, the rain set in. We’d had great weather up until this point, but this day was bleak, cold and wet (even in summer time the weather on the Overland Track can turn nasty, with snow possible any time of year). Rather than bemoan the weather, we celebrated with the kids, telling them “embrace it, this is the real Tassie!” We buttoned up the waterproof gear, splashed our way along tracks that were more like creek beds than dry walking trails and explored a number of side trails to spectacular waterfalls along the Mersey River. It rained all day, the kids loved it, we coped well physically, and were rewarded with the big, modern, well equipped hut at Windy Ridge as a fine place to warm up, dry out and spend our last night on the track. While on other days we’d walked intermingled with our larger group of friends, on this day we spent most of the time just walking as a family unit…and that made it all the more special.
  • While it’s possible to walk right along the shoreline of Lake St Clair to the finishing point at its southern end, that day’s walk is rough, slow and not particularly scenic, so most people (us included) finish the walk at the northern end of the lake and organised a ferry across the lake to the official finishing position. That last day’s walk down to the lake edge is fast, flat, scenic and includes a spectacular swing bridge over the Narcissus River, before a (nearly compulsory) celebratory swim in the icy-cold waters of Lake St Clair….we were done!

The kids smashed this walk. We had zero complaining, zero whinging about no mobile phone or internet access. We had some blisters, sore shoulders, hips, feet as you would imagine, but the kids truly loved being immersed in this spectacular wilderness environment. We had one gear failure – my trusty boots gave up the ghost on day two and only survived by being taped together each morning with Elastoplast – but an otherwise trouble free walk. Our only regret was that the 9 year old wasn’t quite up to joining us (yours might be, but ours wasn’t)…the bonus to that being that we might have to make a repeat visit in a couple of years when she’s ready.

A walk like the Overland Track (either alone or with the family) isn’t easy. It takes preparation, training and a certain degree of skill and capability in the outdoors (particularly if the weather turns bad). That said, there are the guided options I mentioned earlier, or the option to walk with friends who do have the skills and experience necessary.

When all is said and done though, the memories of a trip like this will last a lifetime for kids, and set them on a path to pursue adventure, with the confidence that comes from having completed (and enjoyed) such a trip.

This story was originally written for a family adventures website, so it’s a little different to my normal writing. Its now published here to make sure I don’t lose it. Hope you enjoyed!

do something human

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

As often seems to be the case (at least with me), it caught me unawares, this idea.  It kind of came from nowhere, but once it arrived, wouldn’t let go.

I was sitting in a meeting last week, thinking about strategic planning (I know, everybody’s favourite subject) for the organisation I work within. In the midst of the meeting a story was being told – a personal story, only peripherally related to the subject at hand – by one of the participants. In the middle of describing a difficult situation he’d found himself in, full of stress and anxiety, and surrounded by people who were (legitimately, reasonably) having a hard time, he described how he’d done something very simple to help someone, and described it as “you know, doing something human”.

It was a throw-away line, and the story continued, but for some reason the idea grabbed hold of me. For the rest of the meeting, and since, I had this phrase running through my mind, and the question that goes with it: do something human.

What does it mean to do something human, and why would be such a big deal?

I’ll tackle those questions in the reverse order.

I think perhaps it’s a big deal (to my mind at least) because so much of our modern life is dehumanising. We’ve built for ourselves a society that puts human-ness a distant second place. We’ve turned human beings into economic units – an entity only worth considering because of the economic value or economic cost it brings to a system. We’ve built a society where our identity is shaped not by the relationships we have with other people, and the place (both physically and in terms of community) we live in, but by what we consume and what we contribute. A society where the every present marker of success is “busy-ness”. Where change and complexity are daily realities. Where isolation is keenly felt by so many even in the midst of a crowd. Where anxiety, dissatisfaction and conflict are the stock-in-trade tools of an advertising industry designed to part us with our money. Where fear is a weapon wielded by politicians the world over. Where human-ness is being codified and fed into ever-more-complex computers and robots destined to replace us. And so on.

I’m not blaming someone else mind, we all are willing participants in the system that we’ve created. I’m as likely as anybody else to be consumed with consuming, wrenched with anxiety, caught up in numbers and busyness and so on.  Even one of the most human activities of all – being and raising a family (whatever shape that family takes) – seems destined to be of interest to our society more because of the economic cost and contribution of such an activity than because of any intrinsic good or worth.

IF that’s all vaguely true (and I’ll grant it’s a big ‘if’) then it’s no wonder the notion of doing something human caught my ear on the way through.

So what is it to do something human?

I think perhaps it starts with noticing the other human. Noticing them for long enough to realise they’re in need (and then doing something about it), noticing them long enough to realise they might have an interesting story to tell (and then listening). Noticing them for long enough to see, or hear, or feel pain, anxiety, fear or isolation (and then stick around long enough to be part of a solution). Maybe it’s just noticing they exist (and acknowledging it).

Then there’s doing something human that’s entirely personal.  Slowing down. Switching off. Resting in the beauty of this world we inhabit. Doing the things that feed your own human-ness rather than drain it away. As simple as the choice about what you eat, and as complex as the choices about career and calling.

Coincidentally I just yesterday started reading Simon Cary Holt’s new book “Heaven All Around Us“.  He writes about the spirituality of the everyday, how there is so much goodness or fullness or richness right in front of us at any given moment if only we would notice (at least that’s what I’ve heard so far!). The book is written from a Christian perspective – but even if you’re not able to go with that belief system, I think there’s truth in what he writes – and I think it’s something to do with this notion of ‘doing something human’.  In any case, I think Christianity is fundamentally about our humanity, rather than some far-off spiritual realm inaccessible to normal people, and removed from the ordinary stuff of life – and that’s something like what I hear Simon describing.

Then of course there’s the harder stuff – the systems things that need to be addressed in order to enable us collectively to do something human. The things that are political, and economic, and that raise questions of justice and goodness and “right-ness”.  To do something human is at times to call out unjust or harsh or downright dehumanising systems and practices in our world. They’re maybe harder to agree on – like for example if I was to say that as a nation we dehumanise those who seek asylum on our shores, some would write that off as “left-wing politics” and by labelling it such, avoid the need to do something about it.  Any number of social issues that either result in or emerge from dehumanising another (gender based violence, sexism, racism, the treatment of indigenous Australians, bullying to name a few) might fit that description.

In any case, this is sounding more like a sermon, and less like a personal reflection, so let’s park that thought.

For me, the challenge that emerged from my meeting was threefold.  First, to wonder how in our organisation (and via our strategic planning) we can incorporate practices that help us all (collectively and individually) to do something human.

Second is to revisit the ways in which I understand and define my identity – and consequently revisit the ways I understand, interact with and acknowledge those with whom I share my life, not matter how tangential that sharing might be.

And third, most importantly, to hold this question before me in whatever situation and circumstance I find myself in: “What will it mean right now to do something human?”

on balance, and rocks, and beautiful places

On the weekend just gone, Sheri and I took our kids out to Girraween National Park. If you haven’t been there…you should go. Just saying.

Girraween is just out past Stanthorpe in what is known as the Granite Belt. And it’s known as the granite belt for a good reason – it’s a giant playground of granite boulders of varying sizes.

Some of the boulders are small enough that you can lift, or sit on them. Some are the size of your car, or your house, or some are literally whole mountains made of granite. It’s an incredible place to explore and enjoy. And not even some rain on Saturday ruined the weekend for us as we played and wandered.

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One of the incredible features of Girraween are the ways these boulders are piled up, or balanced upon one another.

Take this one, for example. It’s called Granite Arch.  Kind of a natural Stonehenge looking feature, with the capstone balanced on the lower two. Amazing.

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Nearby are a couple of mountain-sized lumps of rock called “The Pyramids.” The first one is walkable, the second is technically off limits. They’re incredible to look at, and even more so to explore.

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High up on the first pyramid, the one you can climb by following a marked path, is a boulder generally known as “Balancing Rock”.  See if you can guess why when you look at the photo below.

The kids, along with some friends, joined the long, long, long list of people who’ve tried and failed to topple this rock from its perch.

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It’s perfectly balanced, standing on its end, on top of a mountain.  And as I stood and looked at it, I couldn’t help wondering what probably everybody else who’s made the climb thinks: “How does it stand there?” It’s centre of gravity must be just right, and the fact that it is perched on a firm foundation keeps it there, through rain, hail, wind and the attempts of 12 year old kids. It’s been there day after day, year after year, decade after decade, probably century after century. This rock is balanced, perfectly.

The challenge to visiting Balancing Rock, of course, is climbing up, and then back down this mountain-sized monolith to see it. On this journey up and down the steep slab-sided pyramid it’s a case of the balancing person. Keeping a firm footing, a balanced centre of gravit, avoiding obstacles or damp patches, and keeping focused on the path ahead are the key. Balance matters to us as climbers, just as much as it does to the rock that stands.  Balance matters as much when we are in motion, when we are living life actively, as it does when we are just trying to stand firm.

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Balance, centre of gravity, firm foundations: these things matter not just to rocks. But to people, to communities, to you and I.

As I walked I wondered what it means to be balanced in life as while walking, as while being a rock standing on top of a mountain.  What does it means to be on firm footing?

For me one of the things that means is that I wonder what the story of Jesus has to say into that space (for you it might be something totally different). Jesus on multiple occasions talked about rocks, balance and firm foundations. He used a metaphor about the value in building our house (our life) on rock, not on sand. He talked about building his church on a rock. He talked about the importance to balance in life of seeking God’s kingdom first – that other things will take care of themselves.

Balance. Firm foundations. Rocks.

Where does balance come from in my life? Where are firm foundations found? What does it look like when everything is in balance? Is it all in balance right now? If not, what’s missing?

Those are the questions I’ve been pondering this week. Maybe they’re of interest to you too.

under your nose

IMG_6926This weekend we had some good friends staying with us, and went looking for something fun (and outside) to do in Brisbane. In that same situation in the past we’ve often headed for Southbank, or wandered up Mt Coot-tha, or maybe a local park or playground.

This time, for some reason, Mt Glorious came to mind. It’s part of the D’Agular range, and right on the edge of Brisbane, with access through Samford Valley and then up the winding road to the village of Mt Glorious. Of course we stopped for breakfast on the way…at our friend’s cafe Delicatezza in Mitchelton (an unashamed plug for a great feed, and a great mate).

Once we made the climb to Mt Glorious, we left the car at Maiala Picnic Area and wandered the 4.something km Rainforest and Greene’s Falls trails. It was, it has to be said, an absolutely stunning Brisbane winter day, and the walk was a joy. Beautiful forest, easy walking trails, kids chattering away (apart from the odd “Dad I’m hungry” call that seems to accompany just about every family adventure). We clambered down the rocks at the Falls, balanced our way along a 30m fallen tree, played, explored and then back at the picnic area sat in the sun, enjoying lunch and good company.

IMG_6952A meander back via Mt Nebo with stops at the beautiful Westride, Jolly’s and Camp Mountain Lookouts completed the day – all without ever travelling more than an hour from home. Jolly’s Lookout is amazing…we’ll definitely be back there for a sunrise brekkie bbq one morning.

It was a lovely day.

I haven’t been up Mt Glorious for probably 20 years or more…and its right on our front door. Right under our nose, so to speak.

Why is it that we sometimes don’t see, or notice the things that are right in front of us? Maybe it’s beautiful locations, like Mt Glorious; maybe its the extraordinary blessing of family and loved ones that we sometimes don’t think about; maybe its business or professional opportunities. Sometimes we (by which I of course mean me) are so focused on the next big thing that we miss whats right there before us.

I’m left wondering how many other Mt Glorious’es are right on my doorstep, right under my nose, just waiting to be noticed, explored and enjoyed. Not for the first time (to my shame that I keep having to be reminded) I’m reminded of the value of slowing down a little and enjoying whats right in front of me.

How about you? What’s your Mt Glorious?