New year, and the urge to self improve

The New Year urge to self improve is upon me, the desire to mark the movement of the calendar to a new year, a blank diary, the thought of a new start. Those blank pages awaiting all possibilities. But it is so arbitrary, and with the colder, dark weather, and a desire to hibernate strongly influencing every movement my mind and body takes, maybe not the best time of year for resolutions.

I have been thinking about what I want to achieve, my goals – long and short term – and my ambitions. Advice about how to self improve, and what disciplines to adopt come from all directions, so many individual good ideas.

Yesterday, I looked back at all the advice for self-improvement based on “just spend (time period) every (day/week) doing…” that I have received over the last year, and have started to wonder if  putting all those things into my life would actually  mean that I do nothing except meditation, yoga, exercise, meditative & creative walking, daily writing practice, making youtube videos daily, writing a blog daily, mindfully cooking and eating nourishing meals, reading (spiritual/cultural/political/current affairs/tech subjects/arts/science/…) in fact means there is no time to do any work… And today I remembered pelvic floor exercises, 10000 steps a day, artist’s date-with-myself day once a week, mahjong, singing, dancing, painting, drawing, sewing…)

If I did all things I have been advised to do, there would not be time for work… or sleep… so instead of trying to do everything, I  need to combine, refine, decide what I want to do, what direction I take. Maybe there is a place for seasonal changes of emphasis, as well as a daily core. Maybe there are three areas I could group everything into:

  • wellbeing: for example Physical health, mental health, spiritual health
  • self development: for example Creativity, awareness, learning
  • productivity: for example Writing, teaching, researching

These work together: if I look after my wellbeing – exercise, fresh air, nutrition, friendships, rest – then it will be easier to be productive and to nurture my self development. If I am productive and developing as a person, I will be more motivated to look after my wellbeing.

I need to think about which times of day and which seasons are most suited to those three areas, and whether the types of activity I do change with the seasons. I also need to think about which activities run daily, weekly, monthly or seasonal cycles.

Or maybe, I need to not over-think it, relax, digest my supper and then sleep.

2018 – a year of great potential – what will I do to harness it? Today, despite much thought, I am no clearer on my goals for the year, I can see some of the picture, but not clearly. Tomorrow I shall think some more.


2017 – a year of moving forward and not looking back

This year – 2017 – so much has happened, personally, professionally. So many changes, so many challenges, so many new things that I have tried.

I have travelled to India, Canada, France, USA, Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Malta, I have lived all around the UK – in flats, in houses, in cities, towns and the countryside. Moving on, moving on, all the time.

My friends have been my safety net, my front row, my supporters, bringing me encouragement, reminding me of what I want to be and what I am. I think of my long standing friends, and also friendships renewed across the years, and new friends, people I have met for the first time in 2017, yet feel I have known forever. Some encounters built on years of friendship, some encounters were only of minutes in length. Souls touching and parting, linked now only by the tenuous threads of memory.

I have stretched, grown, released tired and knotted muscles, been still and moved swiftly, listened and spoken, laughed and wept, started to spin the threads that I will weave to fabric and sew into a new patchwork quilt of a new life. And now, at the end of the year – I am. I am an expert, I am a student. I am a thinker, I am a comedian. I am a sewer, I am a painter. I am a writer, I am a musician. I am a dancer, I am a swimmer. I am a listener, I am a speaker. All these things I have done, some not so well, but all of these things I have done.

2017 has been an extraordinary year – my life has changed. I acknowledge that I have much to be grateful for in my life: my energy, my friends, everything that has happened. I acknowledge the suffering and pain so many in the world feel, and hope for its cessation.

“Looking forward and not back” says one of my friends, and that is the watchwords – after this brief review, this acknowledgement that 2017 has been a year of personal growth, of creativity, of energy, of growing to know myself better.

What will 2018 bring? What do I want and what can I achieve?

Look back, see the past

landscape clear. Looking forward:

new path starting now.

another year, another autumn train ride, another country…

Another year, another autumn, another train ride, another country. Another two conferences to connect by some days and some travel. Why fly city to city, and wait, when you can drift along the tracks, absorbing the world around you?

This time, from Vancouver to Toronto, the Canadian. Board in Vancouver on Sunday evening, arrived Toronto Thursday evening. Through the Rockies, through the Prairies, through the woods, and past lakes.

I took hardly any photos – every time I took a photo, I missed something to watch, to properly see… There was so much to fill my eyes and mind: the breadth of the sky, the subtlety of the colours, the wonder of a wild and empty world. Being on the train was a capture into a glass cage of stillness in motion, a tiny community of fellows, a transport of ideas.

In Vancouver, where I was for only a couple of hours between leaving the the aircraft from LA and boarding the train to Toronto, I met a labyrinth artist, HiMY SyED (his website is  and we fell into conversation – just a chance encounter in the cool autumn sunshine, as I was drawn to the labyrinth he’d chalked on the open area beside a children’s playground. Mazes and labyrinths, paths with branches and decisions, changing a maze to a labyrinth with a single path of meditation by making a decision. (I typed there at first “a single path of mediation” – a strange mis-step.) Our conversation ranged across Chartres and Cathars, Sufis and Dervishes… and then … the train, and so a brief acquaintance is made and gone.

The train drew out from Vancouver after dark, I sat in my cabin and watched the light of the train’s headlights across the rock faces ahead, and the lights from the windows of carriages ahead of me reflecting in water, flicking lights illuminating so little, hinting at much.

I didn’t sleep much those days – it was too easy to sit at night in my cabin and watch the night sky, overwhelmed by stars and the northern lights curtaining across the wild black.

I didn’t sleep much those days – it was too easy to sit by day and watch the prairie pass by, magnificent in its restrained colours – biscuit and charcoal, fleeing animals, swirls of snow geese rising and falling.

Toronto was the end of the line.


Quilt: a wine tasting in Italy

In May I went to a workshop in Italy, run by Tania Katan and Angela Ellsworth. It was a mix of meditation, writing and visual arts, centred around themes of topography, memory, and sensory perception: the Topography of Memory, at Spannocchia

As part of the week, we had a wine tasting for the wines produced on the Spannocchia Estate – the grapes are grown, harvested, made into wine, bottled – all on the Estate.

There were eight of us, a magical week of shared experiences and creative impulse, that I will not describe here. This post is about the quilt that I made, starting at the wine tasting.

We tasted red, rose, white – which was palest yellow – the golden fortified and clear grappa. Five colours, five textures – each liquid having its own unique viscosity and each glass type a smooth but differentiated touch against the lips. There were five sets of perfumes, not a single aroma from each wine, but a whole range which we tried to identify from the wine tasting wheels with their strange and vivid descriptions – fungal bubble-gum fruit… And the sounds – of wine trickling into glasses, of laughter and delight as we tasted, of the rims of the glasses sounding, sounding echoing, fuzzing across the room, against the touch of our fingers. We made music.

As we completed the tasting, I noticed that the glasses scattered across the table, each with a trace of wine left were sometimes quite random, but starting to form patterns. I started to form the glasses into a quilt – red, pink, white, amber, clear, pink, white, amber, clear, red…

I became… slightly obsessed… with the idea of a quilt. When I returned to the UK, I started to draw and paint the experience.

4 sketches: trad-style concept for the quilt, wine glasses vibrating from above, glasses set out in pattern, with calculations, and 8 women vibrating wine glasses


Concept sketch – yin-yang of the group and the wine.


Next, I went and looked at fabric. I needed something that would proxy the translucent nature of the wine and glass, and the echoes and vibrations of glass music, and the interactions between us.

I found net. I have not worked with net before, so I bought some lengths in red, pink, pale yellow, white to work with. I found that layering the net produced iridescences and merged colours that were very interesting.

2 photos of net overlays

My ideas for the quilt started to change because of the nature of the net itself. I envisioned overlapping the pieces more, and more randomly, than I had at first thought. The quilt needed to be a little wild, a little uncontrolled. It needed to reflect that there are 8 of us, one group, 8 individuals, and within that duos, triples, quartets, sextets, in all the permutations. It needed to be public and private – shared and hidden. It needed to be delicate, graceful, vulnerable to harm, easy to damage, easy to repair. Loosely assembled, yet strong together or apart.

I had net – red, amber, pink, yellow – but nothing for the grappa, nothing for a background. Then, I found more fabric at another store on the remnants table. A clear pale mauve chiffon for the grappa. A white, double sided silky or mat fabric for the background. An Italian style tapestry possibly for the background. I started… experimentally. I cut out circles of the net and started to overlay them.

3 photos of Swatches, cottons, circles and tapestry

Then I realised what I needed: for each person, a white square. For each white square, 8 red, 8 pink, 8 yellow, 8 mauve and 8 orange circles – for the drinks. And 1 white net circle for the tasting wheel. I realised I wanted to quilt the squares as separate pieces and join them together – but maybe not permanently. I realised the tapestry fabric was too heavy – I needed a neutral gauzy fabric for the background. I found a grey scarf in the charity shop, just right for the background. I found some grey satin in my fabric bag for the back of the squares. I got some quilt wadding. I also had 8 colours of sewing thread. I started cutting and arranging. I cut all the circles and the white square, and I arranged and sewed the circles to the squares. Half the squares are shiny-side-up and half are mat-side-up. Each arrangement is semi-random, and unique.

4 Photos: starting to set out a set, starting to quilt one of the backs of the squares, a set laid out for pinning and sewing, and ribbon and bead colours

Then, I cut the eight grey satin squares, and eight pieces of wadding, and quilted the satin to the wadding by hand. On each square, I used the 8 different colour threads, but I focused a different colour on each. Each design is different, each has some reference to the week. All are curved, hand-stitched quilting.

Then, I had to decide how to join it all together. And I realised, it needed to by joined in a way that it could be joined, taken apart, re-joined in a different order. That the net side or the quilt side could be front or back (tho’ I think of the quilts as more hidden). So, the answer was – ribbons and beads.  I got some ribbons of 4 different colours. I had some large beads. And, at the Birmingham Festival of Quilts there was a stand selling Italian buttons and beads. I could buy a set of cloth beads in colours to fit with the quilt.

Now, I was ready to join the back of the squares to the front of the squares. I used a different colour thread for each set, and blanket stitch. I inserted ribbon at each corner, alternate loop and tags.

I sewed by hand again – I knew machine sewing was wrong for this project – too violent, too mechanical, too certain.

As I finished each square I set it on the grey scarf, uncertain where this was going next.

Photo: Starting to lay out the pieces

Once I had finished the squares, I tied the ribbons together, so the eight were joined. Then I had to work out how to attach them to the background. I played around with the ribbons and beads, and eventually set is out with 4 large silk beads each with 2 colours of ribbons down the centre of the grey scarf. This stands for the 4 groups of 2 – we shared rooms in pairs. The eight quilted squares join in pairs to these four., Then more smaller beads are sewn on around the scarf, so the quilt squares also tie to them. They can be untied and moved around, whenever.

NB: the tapestry will get used for cushions or curtains.

The finished wall hanging of quilted and tied pieces: the pieces are designed to be tied and untied, so on can keep rearranging, decide which side to display, and so on.

2 photos: arrangements of the tied quilt

A wonderful, magical week, a wonderful magical afternoon, a beautiful group to be with. The quilt can never be finished, because you take it apart, and make it again. (I originally typed “take it about” and that is true too – it is light and portable, and I will take it to visit my companions from the workshop this autumn).

Quilt: a journey through Europe by train

In autumn 2016, I travelled by train from Budapest to Stockholm, via Hamburg and the ferry. This is an exciting journey, passing through so many places of historical interest, and such varied landscape. But, it is also exciting because the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen goes on the ferry – they drive the train onto the ferry, with you on board, and then off the ferry on the other side of the water. I love long train journeys. I love to go from one end of the line to another.

This quilt celebrates that journey: the colours of birch woods and autumn leaves, dense woodland, rocks, cities and water streaking past the windows of the train.

The first part of the route is a train from Budapest to Hamburg.  This train was a delight. Old fashioned compartments and a dining car. I had the company of a group of Hungarian lads on their way to Prague for the weekend. They leapt on the train at the last minute before it left Budapest, opened up their packed food and ate continuously all the way to Prague. They did not stop eating! The capacity of youth for food!

At Hamburg, I left the train and met my brother who joined me for the second part of the journey – especially to experience the train on the ferry between Puttgarten & Rødby.  He is keen on trains so had a great time photographing all the different trains, on all the platforms, on all the stations…  and we talked, and talked, and talked… The capacity of middle-age for conversation!

We spent the night in a hotel, and got the train to Copenhagen next morning.  Through countryside, and then we drew into the station Puttgarden to await the ferry to Rødby. My brother took photos of the train, the train driver, the view through the train driver’s window, us on the platform, on the train, by the train, of the ferry as it came in…  The excitement of being on a train pulling onto the lorry deck of a ferry cannot be overestimated – it was brilliant! Once the train was parked in the lorry deck of the ferry – on its own rails – everyone got off the train and onto the deck to enjoy the sea crossing.

It was a beautiful day, the sun sparkling on the water and the gulls wheeling above. The colours of the world had changed from orange, russet and gold to blue, silver and grey. As the ferry drew into dock, all the train passengers had to rush down to the lorry deck and get back on the train before docking, as it sets off as soon as the front of the ferry opens.

In Copenhagen we changed trains, and again crossed water, this time via the ØRESUND BRIDGE and then north through gathering darkness to Stockholm.

I took numerous pictures, but the ones that most evoke the journey for me and which are the source shots for the quilt are the slightly blurred landscapes. Here are some of the inspiration pictures for the quilt.

I made a preliminary sketch based on these impressions and memories.


The key inspiration was the way that – from the point of view of the passenger – the landscape rushes past the window, becoming smaller as it moves away. The colours of autumn and water streak past horizontally, while the trees and their reflections make strong vertical lines – especially the birch trees, strong yet delicate.

I gathered fabrics in colours that matched the autumn and water, and started to play, plaiting, rouching and manipulating the fabric, experimenting, sewing and unpicking. Gathering, and gathering.

Eventually a theme started to emerge, but I was sketching with fabric – I did not know where it was going to end. The photos below show some stages I went through.

I’ve used the material itself and folds to indicate waves on the sea, and folds in the landscape – from the furrows in ploughed fields to the roll of hills and sides of mountains.

As I manipulated the fabric, the ideas for how to express the quilt’s theme changed. The essentials of horizontal lines moving to a point to give left to right movement, punctuated by the horizontals to represent birch trees remained, but the colour, texture and draping qualities of the various fabrics affected how I could use them.

Eventually I stopped pinning and tacking, and went to the sewing machine – I had to commit to this or it would never happen.

I spent a couple of days sewing with the machine, pulling the fabric around, adding details, joining fabric pieces, overlapping, pleating, rouching and running quilting stitches over the surface – pale vertical stitching to indicate trees, and blue horizontal stitches for water and wind.

And is this the finished quilt?


It is as far as I can bring it at present. As ever I am dis-satisfied, but it has some aspects that I am pleased with. It does feel vertiginous, it make you feel a little dizzy to look at, so there is some sensation of speed. The folds of the cloth do indicate the folds of the landscape and waves on the sea. Probably, I would like it to be longer horizontally and smaller vertically. But there are some ideas I can reuse.

An autumn train journey across Europe from Budapest to Stockholm

via Bratislava, Prague, Berlin, Hamburg, Lübeck, Puttgarden, Rødby, Copenhagen, Malmö, and Linköping.

Woods and fields, trees and rocks, sea and ships, towns and cities.

Thank you to the HUSTEF, UCAAT and EuroSTAR conferences in 2016, whose choices – of date, city, and myself as one of the speakers – meant that I had to make the journey between Budapest and Stockholm, and could choose to make it by train and not plane!

When planning this trip, I consulted “The Man in Seat 61” and I recommend him if you want to plan or dream a train trip anywhere in the world!

Fear, selling and tiptoeing through the marketplace

At the end of my last blog, I said the next instalment would be Fear, selling and tiptoeing through the market place. And, look how long it is since I last wrote. Seth’s course set me thinking about this. He asks probing questions about whether we (I) think we are good enough to do what we want to do. He asks what it is that we fear.

So fear: fear of not being good enough, fear induced by impostor syndrome.

I need to replace that by courage. I need to remove my anxiety about what I am capable of. I need to allow myself to succeed. I need to acknowledge my successes.

If you reading this – have you come here to learn the secret of success? Do tell, if you find it…

For me, it will continue to be success through honesty, success through hard work, success through teaming with other people and success through knowing my own mind.

Selling is hard – it is easier to praise others than it is to praise myself. It is easier to dwell on the achievements of others than on my own achievements. But fear will not help me sell. And false modesty will not help me succeed.

I need to walk in the marketplace, knowing my equality.

And you, if you are reading this, you need to do all that too. It is hard, it is frightening, but it is possible. We can both manage this.


And then a harder challenge…

Seth’s course continues with him speaking, giving examples, explaining concepts and exhorting… I am not going to go through everything he suggested (do the course! I urge you… do the course! Seth Godin’s Freelancer course) but I will give some ideas of the challenges in the exercises, what they made me think about, and some of my answers.

The next questions Seth posed (as exercises 2 and 3) are really thought provoking:

  • What do people buy when they buy something from you?
  • Leave out the easy, repetitive, generic stuff… what are you doing that’s difficult?

This really got me thinking, because, the easy answer is “consultancy and training,” but… what do I mean by that? What exactly do people want to buy from me? My engagements with customers don’t necessarily offer concrete deliverables – although they can do. I’m not providing wedding catering, or photography,  where people can see something they have bought. What I offer could seem quite nebulous. The type of feedback I have had from satisfied customers (especially senior people like CEOs) are words like “happier because you are here,” “calmer days,” “more confidence”.  This requires some thinking – what are people buying, really, when they buy from me? This is not about what I think I am selling, but about what other people think they are buying.

What do people buy when they buy something from me?

I provide consultancy, training, coaching, mentoring in my specialist areas within IT. That is software quality management, software testing and user experience testing.

Therefore people buy my expertise and knowledge.

More specifically, if YOU buy from ME: you buy my confidence, energy and enthusiasm, my ability to enthuse others. You buy my diligence, my competence, my ability to find out or synthesise new things from a set of information / data and therefore suggest a (new to you) solution to a problem that you have.

You buy the knowledge that you can trust me, because I am a professional.

Leave out the easy, repetitive, generic stuff… what am I doing that’s difficult?

The difficult parts of my role, the reason I succeed, is because of two contrasting areas: People and Data.

Most of the problems I encounter in organisations, and help to solve, arise from gaps in people’s communication, understanding and skills. I’m an enabler and teacher. I enable others to become more confident and to learn new skills, both technical and interpersonal. After time with me, you’ll have bought the ability to close those communication gaps.

Data arrives on organisation’s laps in vast and unmanageable clumps. I have the ability, the patience and a certain enjoyment in unravelling data, analysing it, researching, thinking, synthesising, making data into information. Ideas arising from this work are often hard to explain and convey, but I have a skill in transferring and clarifying concepts via story-telling and metaphor. After time with me, you’ll have bought knowledge you’ve gained from those stories.

Here are ten things you’ll get from me, if you are my client:

  1. Trustworthiness – if I say I’ll do it, then I’ll do it.
  2. Kindness and respect – I’ll treat people as people.
  3. Diligence and hard work – you won’t wonder whether I could have done more.
  4. Honesty in feedback – I won’t flatter, I will critique, and I’ll praise
  5. Enthusiasm and positive attitude – I will look for ways to make things work.
  6. Stories and metaphors – I’ll seek many ways to explain and transfer ideas.
  7. Listening and understanding – I will take time to make communication two-way.
  8. Timeliness and scheduling – I will work to get things done ahead of date.
  9. Confidence and worth – I want to leave you feeling more capable than I found you.
  10. Sharing and giving – I want to transfer to you the knowledge I have.

Rank yourself…

Then came a really hard question, but one that I found important to reflect on really carefully. How do I rank, against others, against myself as I used to be, and against what I could be in the future? Seth asked: “Compared to others who do what you do, rank yourself on reputation, knowledge, expertise, tools, handiness”

So, how do I compare? And, who do I compare myself to?

I took a long hard look at my skills and expertise. There are some areas where I have specialised, practised, and continue to grow. There are other areas which are no longer my specialism. It’s like spring cleaning a cupboard – what do I want to keep? what do I want to mend? and what do I throw away? As I continue to specialise, it is clearly impossible to know everything.

Then, I reflected again on all the earlier exercises.

  • What are people buying from me? Have I the expertise and skills to offer those things? Yes, I do.
  • My most important skills and knowledge – am I nurturing those well enough? Probably, but still, I made a plan for professional development, focusing on the things that are important
  • Where I have neglected a skill and got rusty, are those skills still relevant? Probably not, so I need to decide whether I revisit them or not.

Lots to do, lots to learn. Even if I was completely satisfied with myself, the world around me changes and I need to keep up to date.

Next: Fear, selling and tiptoeing through the marketplace….