I am per se a curious person; maybe that is the reason why I discovered the following books that inspired my life and affected my thinking in one way or the other. These books reminded me of values and wisdom, which I have accrued over the past 50 years, but some of which I neglected or ignored at certain stages of my life. They reminded me how easily we can get caught up in our daily treadmill and forget to focus on life- and soul-enriching practices. They reminded me that we can choose what we want to make a priority, how we react and feel, and what we think. They reminded me how important it is to observe the trivial, ordinary, and mundane; to look at things and people from a different perspective; to alter our view. They encouraged me to forge ahead and find a new path in the next stage of my life. I hope you don’t mind that this is a longer post than usual.
1. Memento by Michael McQueen
Memento is an illustrated journal that lists over one hundred questions about your life. I know it sounds trite but this little book directed me on a wonderful, exciting, and scary journey: researching my family history and writing about my life.
Out of curiosity, I started filling out the pages and realised two things: firstly, some of the questions took me a long time to answer because I had to dig deep in my memory – sometimes without success; and, secondly, to some questions I simply did not know the answer. After three months of working through the pages, the desire to write about my life grew stronger and stronger. What if I started researching my family history? What if I interviewed my relatives about their past? What if I told my sons that I wanted to write it all down for them, a record of their grandparents’ and their mother’s life in Germany, their country of birth?
At the end of 2014, I made the decision to write about my life; I began 2015 – for the first time in my life – with a vision board to manifest my goals for the next twelve month.
In the middle, I had placed a page from a literary magazine with the headline For Lovers of Non-fiction over an illustration of the map of Paris; next to it, a stack of books and an old typewriter. My intention for 2015 was manifested on my wall: I would start writing about my life kicking off with a Life Writing class in January.
I finished the first draft of my memoir manuscript at the end of 2015 and ticked off my other goals as well.
2. The Artisan Soul by Eric McManus
"I love Paris. I didn’t want to because it seems so cliché…Paris is a city that romances the human spirit, provokes in us our imagination, creativity, and love for beauty. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by beauty. The sounds and smells are both soothing and exhilarating. Even the language is beautiful. The Eiffel Tower seems like an ancient marker to let everyone know that if you’re an artist, then this is home.”
When I read this first paragraph of The Artisan Soul - Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art by Erwin Raphael McManus my curiosity was sparked and I purchased the book at the Art Gallery of New South Wales shop where I had picked it up after visiting an exhibition.
As I read on ‘it is a manifesto for human creativity’, and the author argues that we all carry the essence of an artist within us.
In one of the beginning chapters, McManus talks about our voice as our narrative that guides us and how the voices of others speak on our behalf before we are capable of speaking ourselves. It is other people, who are telling us who we are. He continues that ‘the soul is that material in us humans that distinguishes us from animals and reflects the divine in us. It is designed to be shaped by our passions, experiences, and values.’
Writing my memoir has allowed me to view my life from a bird’s perspective, to become an observer while being the protagonist at the same time. I reflected on my experiences – good and bad – how they have formed the person who I am today. It was interesting to see how experiences in my childhood have laid the foundation for my passion for art, design, and decorating today. According to McManus, the soul is malleable, as is our memory, and shapes itself around the words of the people, who influence and form us in our earliest years.
It was my mother, who introduced me to the world of art and design at a very young age. She took me to the opera when I was twelve. As a teenager, I accompanied her to art exhibitions and museums. My mother was born during the Second World War in Germany, and due to her circumstances never went to university; despite marrying into a quite uneducated household, she tried to make the best or her situation. She loved reading, joined a local theatre community and studied French in evening classes. She always encouraged me to make most of my school years, to learn as much as I could to be able to study and work in a profession I would enjoy. I also recall that my maternal grandmother and mother always taught me to say ‘Thank You’ and be grateful for the little things in life.
“There are two ways to live your life – one is as though nothing is a miracle and the other is as if everything is a miracle."
With this quote, Albert Einstein challenges us on a daily basis to think about how we interpret our life. McManus further explained that “our interpretation of life determines the material from which we will build the future."
Moving to Australia was a milestone in my life, writing my memoir an attempt to describe and interpret my life, to clear the confusion of existence, to find out why I was here and what my purpose was; both undertakings challenged me to move out of my comfort zone, which I had occupied over the previous thirteen years. With curiosity and courage, I started working on a new piece of art, throwing new paint on my life’s canvas.
Was it a coincidence that I started writing about my life in the same year I turned 50? I don’t believe so. Everything happens for a reason, and everything seemed to fall into place at the beginning of 2015. Researching my family history, discovering my personal values, and connecting the dots has grounded me more, like a tree that is firmly rooted in the earth.
3. Money & Mindfulness by Lisa Messenger
Although I love giving and helping others I experienced in 2015 that you have to set boundaries to not burn out yourself. Starting out with my interior styling business three years earlier, I had arrived at a point of total frustration and resentment. I was sick of everything and everyone, just wanting to escape. I had been contemplating for a few months how to stop playing small in my small business; I knew I was standing at a crossing and needed to choose which way to go. I knew I was not willing to sacrifice family life and quality time with my growing sons any longer. To continue the road I had chosen would neither be sustainable nor fun. I felt like running into brick walls over and over again; one step forward, two steps back. To keep up positivity and motivation on a daily basis became exhausting.
Searching inspiration and motivation in one of my favourite business magazines I came across a teaser leaflet for Lisa Messenger’s latest book Money & Mindfulness - Living in Abundance. Reading the first chapters, the scales fell from my eyes, and I realised that part of my frustration was fuelled by my money beliefs, a topic I had been working on before, but obviously not resolved. I realised that I had to stop undervaluing my time, services, and expert knowledge to escape the downward spiral that I had manoeuvred myself into. Here I was, a creative professional with sixteen years experience in public relations, corporate writing, and project management plus a Diploma in Colour and Design, a published author, completely undercharging for my time and expertise.
When we moved to Australia in 2008, I thought I had to start from scratch, especially as I wanted to follow my passion for art and design and start out in a new industry. I studied at a design school, enrolled in styling and photography workshops, did several public speaking courses, and worked with business coaches. I added more assets to the ones I already had from my previous professional career as agency management member of a German PR agency.
I turned to what I felt most comfortable with: working creatively. I started a mind map and vision board for my business in 2016. And I made a decision: no more free workshops, speaking engagements that I can’t leverage, and coffee meetings that end up in unpaid design consultations. Instead, I decided to join a group of executive women and work with a mentor in 2016 to define the next stage of my life and business, to overcome my old money beliefs and to transform one of my most fun workshops into a new product for small business owners, writers, and the corporate environment: a mood board workshop to foster creativity and design thinking. I love being a creative mentor helping others accomplish their goals.
4. How to be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith
"You are an explorer.
Your mission is to document and observe the world around you as if you’ve never seen it before.
Take notes. Collect things you find on your travels.
Document your findings. Notice patterns.
Copy. Trace. Focus on one thing at a time.
Record what you are drawn to.”
In her book, Keri Smith encourages the reader to do some "People Watching: Sit in a public location and document people you see for one hour. Take detailed notes. Make sketches of one item that stands out most about each person.”
I first picked up this book in the shop of the Museum of Modern Art in Sydney a few years ago. I started reading the first pages and knew that this would be my new bible. It is a – hand-written – treasure chest of ideas and exploration exercises to see the world with new eyes. The instructions how to use the book read like a recipe to stay curious and live more consciously, to observe the world with all our senses; something many people seem to search these days, in our technology-dominated world where we are connected 24/7 and seem to spend every free moment scanning our devices for new updates, notifications, and messages. The other day, I stopped at a traffic light in front of a bus stop. Each person waiting for the bus was staring at a mobile device – completely immersed scrolling pages, texting and tweeting – and ignoring the world around them. The ability to merely observe your surrounds, sit and watch in stillness, concentrating on doing nothing, is threatened with extinction.
However, observing, listening, touching, smelling, tasting, playing, wondering – exploring the world with our five senses and seeing things from a new perspective are pivotal qualities to fuel creativity.
Authors often find inspiration by observing the world around them; picking up snippets of conversations in a café or shop. Those observations can develop characters and stories around them. Using your observations from the real world is a very clever way to write novels that captivate the reader, as most readers will discover something they have in common with the protagonist. They can relate to the story.
In my life writing classes, we made several exercises using our senses to retrieve memories. I wrote a piece about a holiday in South Africa in 1997 by listening to a movie soundtrack that we listened to in the dining room of our Bed & Breakfast accommodation in Cape Town. Our five senses are powerful levers to get access to our past and dig out memories that are long gone and that we did not think about for many years.
“We shall not cease from exploration and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
5. Minimalism - Live a Meaningful Life by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.
I decided to review my life regarding the five areas that had helped the authors to change their lives:
I realised that I focussed more on some areas than others. Health, for example, had always been important to me, and I had had a life-changing experience five years earlier, in 2009; I spent a weekend in a yoga and wellness retreat, where I took advantage of a consultation with a Naturopath. After thirty minutes of asking me questions, while filling an entire page with notes at the same time, the Naturopath explained to me that the cause of my constant fatigue was the result of what and when I was eating during the day. Back home, I implemented his suggestions and experienced an instant change during that same week. My fatigue had disappeared by adjusting my eating habits.
The chapter about relationships with friends, partners, spouses, colleagues, roommates, acquaintances was an interesting one; the authors recommended a simple exercise to analyse your current relationships by dividing them in primary, secondary, and peripheral relationships and naming the effect they have on you. In the next step, they asked to write down a vision of your future relationships. Based on the belief that “the best relationships are a healthy combination of commonalities and differences” they suggested the following eight fundamentals of great relationships: Love, Understanding, Trust, Honesty, Caring&Respect, Support, Time, Presence&Attentiveness, and Authenticity and encouraged the readers to nourish their relationships every day.
I repeated this exercise one year after I had first read the book and created a table with my current relationships. When I revisited my relationships, a lot of my secondary and peripheral relationships had changed, which also changed their effects on me. I also became aware that I needed to work more on my primary relationships with my husband, children, family, and closest friends. I realised how the decision to move to Australia – a life-changing milestone for me – had influenced my personal development and growth, shifted my focus to new priorities; and, because I was so passionate about these new priorities neglected some of my most important relationships.
My family does not share my passion for art, design, and writing, or my love for yoga and browsing flea markets and op shops. I always ask them if they want to accompany me, but usually end up going on my own, as I don’t want the afternoon being spoiled by my perpetually nagging sons, who usually do not want to leave the house at all. Even a trip to the next suburb for dinner is a reason for a lengthy discussion.
On the other hand, I am not into bicycle riding, which my husband loves to do with the boys, or discussing politics. We both love walking, but I, being a morning person and getting up early every day, prefer the fresh and crisp morning air, whereas my husband often goes for walks in the evening after watching the news. Unfortunately, much to my regret, once dinner is finished, the TV reigns in our living room, and my the men in the household are gathering in front of it, silent. If I address the situation, my husband tells me that this is his way of relaxing after work, and the boys argue that I am the only person they know, who does not watch TV.
I would love to chat about my day, hearing what everyone else did while sipping a cup of herbal tea. Asking my boys how their day at school was, the only answer I get is ‘okay’ followed by the question ‘Mum, why are you always asking so many questions?’ As a consequence, I retreat upstairs, where I enjoy an extended evening shower and cuddle up in bed with a good book afterwards. I realised that I sometimes feel lonely in our home.
My teenage son seems to live on another planet and is hard to convince to leave the house after returning from school or on the weekends. I made several attempts to spend time alone with him, without success. Playing computer games with his friends is his priority for the time being. My eleven-year-old son, although passionate about soccer and sports in general, sees his older brother as a role model and follows his example. Some nights, before he goes to bed, however, he asks if he can snuggle under my blanket to read with me; these are the moments I love and cherish, as I am aware that they will be over in a few years. We live as a family together under the same roof, but I feel everyone has their own agenda. I have been watching this situation for a while now, and it makes me feel sad. In a few years, the boys will go their own ways, and I wonder how our life without children will unfold.
"You must continue to improve, you must continue to grow. If you’re not growing, you’re dying; and if you’re dying, then, by definition, you’re not living a meaningful life.”
This was one of the statements that struck me most reading Minimalism. Only in 2012 – at the age of 47 – did I learn about my personal values, one of which is curiosity and the love of learning. The move to Australia has also given my personal growth a tremendous boost. I studied Colour and Design. I started out on my own – after 16 years of being employed – in a foreign country. I self-published a style guide for people planning to downsize their home and wrote a memoir. I started practising yoga and meditation, which helped me step out of my comfort zone. I went back to study, eager to satisfy my love of learning and constant curiosity.
The more you grow, the more you can contribute. It does not always have to be a monetary contribution. I donate my time to the boys’ schools helping out in the school canteen of Max’s school and organising a stall at our biggest fundraising event in the German School. I also support the local charities by giving clothes and household items and by shopping in their stores.
My Inspirational Books at a Glance
Fields Millburn, Joshua, and Nicodemus, Ryan. Minimalism - Lead a meaningful life, Asymmetrical Press, USA, 2012
McQueen, Michael. Memento, Media 21 Publishing Pty Ltd, Double Bay, NSW, 2008
McManus, Erwin Raphael. The Artisan Soul, Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art, Harper Collins, 2014
Messenger, Lisa. Money & Mindfulness, Living in Abundance. The Messenger Group, Australia, 2015
Smith, Keri. How to be an Explorer of the World, Portable Life Museum, Penguin Group (USA), 2008
Have you read any of these books? If yes, how did they influence you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.