To Be or To Do? That is the Question.

I read an article by Richard Branson. It took the form of an open letter in which he invited his readers to cultivate happiness and claimed he isn’t happy because he’s successful, wealthy and connected – but is successful, wealthy and connected because he’s happy. Now, while I’m not convinced that’s always the order of things, I do believe being a happy person can draw a measure of success to you.

Quoting Branson: “So many people get caught up in doing what they think will make them happy but, in my opinion, this is where they fail. Happiness is not about doing, it’s about being. In order to be happy, you need to think consciously about it. Don’t forget the to-do list, but remember to write a to-be list too. If you allow yourself to be in the moment, and appreciate the moment, happiness will follow. Because allowing yourself just to be, puts things into perspective. Try it. Be still. Be present.”

Now, while that’s a lovely sentiment, it’s also the words of a very rich, successful man. These words may be harder to apply if you are poor and hungry and struggling to feed your kids. Too many people have to do two, three or more jobs just to keep a roof over their family’s head and food in their bellies. The idea of stopping to ‘be in the moment’ may be foreign to them.

We are created, not just to be, but also to do. When created, mankind were given the mandate to subdue and cultivate the earth, to extend the borders of paradise. And they were promised happiness while doing it. They disobeyed and it all went terribly wrong, but there is still happiness in hard work. It hasn’t altered the fact we were created to do, not just to be. The secret is to find the balance.

There’s something about the satisfaction of working hard, of putting that food on the table, of keeping that roof over your head: the feel-good factor.

To put it simplistically: Working to feed your family raises self-respect. Working to make your fortune raises expectations, followed by disappointment when reality fails to match them. Working for the sake of working raises stress levels – and perhaps that’s what Branson meant. If work is for the sake of it, or for the goal of success and fortune, it might be time to take his advice and take that moment.

I particularly like part of his conclusion: “Happiness shouldn’t be a goal, it should be a habit. Take the focus off doing, and start being every day. Allow yourself to be in the moment, and appreciate the moment. Take the focus off everything you think you need to do, and start being.”

After reading the article, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in the garden, in the sunshine, just being. I took the moment, I appreciated the moment, I took the focus off everything I thought I should be doing and just let myself relax and be present in my life. It felt good. A feeling I often have because it’s something I often do. I’m blessed in that I don’t have to do multiple jobs to feed my family. I don’t have to work all day until I’m exhausted. I have time to take my moments. And I’m grateful for that.

In one of those moments, I got to thinking about all the opportunities I have and take to actually be present in my life, and realised they are many. Every morning, I stand at my bedroom window, look out at the day and say thank you for it and for my life. I am happy. Often, later in the day, I pause in whatever I am doing to take a thankfulness walk around the garden. Because I’m happy. Before I eat, I pause to say thank you for my food and think about how blessed I am to have it. And there are many other times during the day when I am consciously ‘present’ in my life. And consciously happy. But more often than not, it’s not because I’m just being, but because I’m busy doing.

One of the things I like to be busy doing is writing. I love writing. I find it satisfying work. It may not ever take me rich and famous, but it does make me happy.

Thinking about my writing, I realise that I gave Rosanna, the main character in Gold Plated, satisfying work to do, and it made her happy. Her painting and her dressmaking are not just hobbies: there have been times in her life when she has earned from them. And she has been happy and fulfilled doing so. But I also gave her ‘a moment’ here and there too. Let her tell you about one of them:

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The walk down to the little wooden jetty I can see ahead of me is glorious. A few steps from the cabin, the path becomes dappled with the shade of the many trees beside it, their leaves having already covered it in gold. I love the scrunch of them under my boots. The only other sound is of the many birds who live in those trees. Or perhaps they’re visiting, like me.

There is a rich, musty smell. An earthy smell, mixed with warmth trapped by the canopy of trees. A faint rustling of woodland creatures scampering for cover as I invade their territory. I step with a light tread, having no desire to disturb them.

I’ve tried to imagine the joy, the luxury of sitting by the banks of some stream or loch, lost in thought, with nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, and, while I could see how that could be welcome if you were a particularly busy person in your day-to-day life, I could never see how it would be different from my day-to-day life, where I am pretty much left to my own devices much of the time.

But it is different. The air smells different. Laden with wafts of wet vegetation, rich earth, sunshine and water. If asked, I would not have thought water has a smell, but it does. When it’s an open loch of fresh, sparkling water, it smells of all good things, tingling my nostrils and making me smile. I close my eyes and fill my lungs with it.

The sound of the water lapping against the wood of the jetty, the sparkle of the sun on water, the feel of the air, fresh and cool on my face, the need for patience and stillness – both qualities come easily to me – it is all wonderful, peaceful, satisfying. I thought I’d do a lot of thinking, but I find I don’t. Not the thinking I need to do, anyway. Instead, I allow my mind to wander across the loch to ramble in the fir trees on the opposite bank. I can make out a wee track going through them and climbing the hill behind, and I imagine myself walking there, scrambling up the hill to look over the top. As is the way in Scotland, there’ll be more hills beyond the ones I can see, layer upon layer of heather-clad slopes. Easy to get lost without a map or a compass, just as I am lost in my personal life – without map or compass. Right now, it’s pleasant to let my mind drift on the wind, caring nothing about being lost. Time enough to find the right path home.

~~~

Gold Plated is available now on Amazon Kindle and will be available soon in paperback.

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Where and when do you find time to just be? To cultivate happiness?

I have to say, I enjoyed the few minutes I took after reading that article.

Then I took three deep breaths, savoured happiness for another few moments before getting back to the housework and my writing – things I not only needed, but also wanted to do. Because they make me happy.

~~~

Story a Day for a Week in May…2

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Okay! So it’s bullocks cooling off in the pond in the field over our hedge, not cows, and so they’re only distantly related to a pint of milk. But, then, so is my story for Day 2 of  ‘A Story a Day for a Week in May’ only distantly related to buying said pint of milk.

In today’s effort for ‘A Story a Day for a Week in May’, we meet Sandra again, Hugh’s long-suffering wife in yesterday’s story. She’s supposed to be buying that pint of milk, but it isn’t working out too well, as you’ll see.

***

Dogs and Cats and Cupboard Clatter

Early morning sun filtered into the waiting room through the newly cleaned vertical blinds, showing it to be empty apart from some floating dust motes and a wet mop which was just out of Sandra’s reach.

She’d forgotten it in her haste to get into the cupboard herself. ‘I mean, is he early? Or am I late?’ she muttered. Five more minutes, just five, that’s all she’d needed! Or ten. To be realistic, probably ten!

At least he’d gone, for the moment.

She opened the cupboard door a crack and blindly groped for the handle of the stray cleaning tool. When her disembodied hand failed to locate it, her head followed like the slow emergence of her childhood tortoise. The mop was stubbornly out of reach.

She pushed the door open a little more and hastily looked around. Seeing nobody there, she reached further out of the cupboard, was just about to snatch the mop when Doctor Watson popped back out of his consulting room.

Head and mopless hand retracted swiftly into their protective shell.

Doctor Watson, a dapper little man, white shirt neatly pressed, dark suit immaculate as usual, walked with a flat-footed roll, studying the papers in his hand, his manner that of a preoccupied penguin. Used to cutting his corners fine, his way was barred by the mop.

A wider sweep round that particular corner would have missed it, but Doctor Watson was proud of his economy of movement: the straight path, the direct route, these were his choices. So, he encountered the mop.

He stared at it. It stood its ground. When it refused to step aside, he lifted it and with a loud ‘Tut!’ he opened the cupboard door and plonked the offending implement inside and onto Sandra’s feet.

Thankfully all of this was accomplished without any inspection of the interior of the cupboard, where Sandra stood flat against the wall hoping to be mistaken for the hoover.

When the wet mop draped itself round her ankles, she decided against exclaiming loudly because, basically, she didn’t want her boss to realise she was there.

When Sandra applied for the extra job as cleaner, he had been aghast. ‘Not fitting, Mrs Gilmour. Not fitting at all,’ he’d tutted. ‘How would it look if one of our patients were to realise that you, the receptionist, were also the cleaner? It would undermine your position here at the desk,’ he’d stated.

There was no arguing with him: he’d decided.

‘No! We’ll go through the Agency as usual, Mrs Gilmour. Perhaps you’d put that in motion, would you?’

But she needed the extra work, so, although she had gone through the Agency, she had made it clear to them she had a cleaner already, but would like payment and conditions etc. to be arranged through them. That way, The Penguin need never know how she had accommodated both of their wishes.

Now here she was, trapped in the cleaning cupboard, the door firmly closed, no handle on the inside.

Her ear to the door, she listened as his footsteps receded along the corridor to the records office. If things went to plan, he would stay there for ten minutes, more if the first surgery was heavily booked: files to look out, records to study.

The next person in the main door should be the post boy: a potential rescuer.

Sandra waited, breath held and released as softly as possible, her face flat against the smooth, painted surface of the door, listening for footsteps.

On hearing them, she knocked softly on the cupboard door; not loud enough to attract attention from the records office, loud enough, she hoped, to be heard by the post boy, if it was indeed his scuffle.

She heard the lad stop in his tracks. She imagined his head cocked like a spaniel’s, listening. She knocked again. There was the sound of a little startled jump, followed by a rush to the desk and it took little imagination to see him practically throw his bundle down before turning tail and bounding out of the building.

Hearing his retreat, Sandra sighed. She should have guessed he’d be too timid to investigate anything so mysterious. He blushed if anyone so much as said ‘Thank you!’ for the mail: practically wet himself with excitement when given a smile. She always felt like patting his head, ‘Good boy!’ and offering him some chocolate buttons.

Time passes slowly when you’re cramped into a small cleaning cupboard, surrounded by all the necessary tools of the cleaner’s trade: when the gentle aroma of spray polish mixed with the stronger smells of toilet cleaner and bleach threaten to overpower you: when there is insufficient light to check your watch but you know instinctively that you are going to be late for your ‘proper’ job, and you haven’t bought the milk yet for everyone’s cuppa at breaktime.

The Bulldog should be next. Yes, here he comes, barking out his orders for the day, only no-one is there, at the desk, to heed him. She should be there, smiling sweetly, saying ‘Yes, sir. No, sir. Three bags full, sir!’

“Where is the woman?” he barked in his best British Bulldog Voice.

Sandra pulled a face behind the cupboard door.

At last, Pussy-Cat arrived. Dear, sweet Colleen, not quite a Sex-Kitten but a very Cuddly Tabby: single, thirty-something, curly blonde hair piled on top of a round, permanently flushed face; tight skirt, clingy top.

“Where’s Mrs G?” Bulldog demanded.

“Sorry, Doctor Drummond. Must be indisposed, or possibly out fetching the milk for elevenses. Can I help you?”

Dear Colleen. Sweet, sweet Pussy-Cat. Always ready to soothe and stroke the troubled brow.

“Ermph! Yes, I suppose you’ll do.” Doctor Drummond, second partner in the Health Centre practice, growled and grumbled through his list of requirements for the day.

By the time he had finished and moved off to his room, Sandra had broken out in a bit of a sweat, brought on as much by the realisation that her chances of getting out of her predicament undiscovered were diminishing with every passing second, as by the fact that her oxygen supply was also diminishing—with every passing second.

She could just see the merest slither of light under the tight-fitting door, none at all round the edges. She would have admired the excellence of the craftsmanship if she had thought of it, or of anything much at all. In fact she was beginning to feel decidedly sleepy…

Colleen was alerted to Sandra’s plight by the noise emanating from the cleaning cupboard. The noise of brooms and mops falling over, buckets being kicked, plastic bottles of cleaning products crashing against the closed door, a strange moaning as she approached to open it.

“What on earth are you doing in there?” she asked as Sandra tumbled out at her feet.

“Dying,” Sandra croaked.

“You can do that later.” Colleen looked around the, as yet, empty waiting room. “Quick! Get up before anyone sees you,” she said, helping her to do so while deftly closing the door on the devastation left in the cupboard. “Can you get to the loo?”

Sandra nodded. “Think so.”

“I’ll meet you there in a minute. Just as soon as Fiona gets in. Meantime, you get cleaned up a bit,” she indicted the baggy, old jogging bottoms and t-shirt Sandra wore for her cleaning jobs. “And see if you can do something with your hair!” This she added with a distasteful look at the strange muddy-brown, pony-tail arrangement atop her friend’s sweat-soaked head.

“They’re not dirty, actually,” Sandra said, in defence of her favourite trousers.

“Just go,” hissed the Pussy-Cat.

By the time Colleen sidled into the staff ladies’ room, Sandra had indeed ‘cleaned herself up’ and looked more like the neat, tidy receptionist expected by the doctors she worked for: brown hair brushed and styled to lie demurely on her shoulders, eye make-up applied discretely, crisp blouse and tailored skirt.

“That’s better!” Colleen purred. “More like yourself. Now, in three sentences, no big words, can you please explain what on earth you were doing in the cleaning cupboard dressed like a disreputable teenager on the run?”

“Three sentences? Right. One,” Sandra ticked it off on her finger. “I am, in fact, the phantom early-morning office cleaner. Two, I slept in this morning because I worked late last night cleaning another two offices. And three, The Penguin arrived before I had time to clear away and get changed. Oh! And he inadvertently locked me in the cupboard. But that’s four, so probably too much information?”

“What on earth are you doing all these jobs for?”

“Money?”

“But why?”

“Because I need it?”

“But all these jobs?”

“Just two, actually. Office cleaning and,” she looked at her watch, “the one I’m about to lose because I should’ve been at the desk forty-five minutes ago.”

“I covered for you. Told The Peng… Doctor Watson you were sick. They probably all think you’re pregnant.”

“Great! Thanks!”

“Well, what did you want me to say? That I found you skulking in a cupboard dressed like a tramp on a bad day?”

“What is it you’ve got against my leggings?”

“Is that what they were? I thought they were Hugh’s pyjama trousers. The ones he threw out because they were too old and had lost their elastic.”

“Okay! So they’ve kneed a bit.”

“And really! Ninja Turtle t-shirts are so passé!”

“Okay, okay. So I don’t always look my best while I’m cleaning.”

“Which brings us back to the point,” Colleen remarked. “Why the extra jobs?”

“Oh, Hugh’s out of work again,” Sandra sat down on one of the toilet seats. “We’re absolutely desperate. We’d kind of run up a few debts, thinking he’d make great commission.”

“Spending money before it was earned?”

“Got a new flat, new furniture to go with the new image of the new job.”

“Only the new job fell through?”

“You get the picture.”

“So how many jobs is he doing now?”

“I told you, he lost his job.”

“And he’s out cleaning too?”

“Of course not. Don’t be silly.”

Colleen shook her head and fluffed up her tail. “Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. Equal opportunity and all that.”

“Try telling that to Hugh,” Sandra muttered, remembering the row they’d had when she’d suggested he joined her in office cleaning. Well, as close as you ever got to a row with Hugh.

‘CV. Not sure it would look good. Desperate, sort of,’ he winced.

‘But we are desperate!’ she’d said. But she knew what he meant. Office cleaning didn’t sound quite the next step on the ladder to success.

“Anyway, how long d’you think they allow for vomiting break?” she asked Colleen.

“Yeah, you’re right. We’d best be getting back to work. Conversation to be continued at coffee time.”

Sandra’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, heck! I forgot the milk! I was going to nip out for it after getting cleaned up.”

“Well, you’d best do it quickly now. If asked again, I’ll tell them you’ve nipped out for a pregnancy test!”

 

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