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How To Reconnect: A November Challenge
WARNING: this may give you a kick in the feels.
Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity, attention and wonder.
I guess I should be encouraging you to read everything I write, but honestly, nothing in this email will be as entertaining as these starlings, so you could just stop right here:
Anyway. My marketing people are yelling at me, so, back to it.
So far this season we’ve looked at the very real cities that float in our skies, the reason why we see faces in grilled cheese sandwiches, the Dutch artist who drew with numbers, and how staring really hard at things can make you lose parts of your mind…
But as a break from all the mindbending, let’s return to the challenges that first kicked off this newsletter back in February.
They work like this:
I ask you to pick one (or more!) of the following challenges and have a go at it/them over the coming week.
The End. Really, that’s it. This isn’t some kind of exam and there won’t be a follow-up quiz. You can ignore everything I suggest and go on to have a perfectly lovely week. However, as I said with my First Rule, a lot of the benefits of curiosity are tied up in what you don’t yet know you don’t know. So applying yourself to some fool’s random-seeming challenges is a great way to increase your chances of stumbling over something wholly new to you. That’s the method at work here. It’s indirect, but it works.
The handful of new challenges below are only for paid subscribers, so they’re locked away underneath Substack’s fancy new paywall thingy. (UPDATE: I’ve removed this! Open to all now.)
But if you’re on the free list, why not take your pick from the 40 different challenges I already publicly published across season 1 & also in season 2 here and here? No end of trouble you could get up to in there. Please, within reason, throw caution to the wind. What’s the worst that can happen?
NOTE FROM MIKE’S LAWYER: Please note that my client is not liable for the worst that can happen. Thank you.
Here are three new suggestions for things you could get up to this week - and they’re all around the topic of reconnecting.
1. Say Thanks To A Teacher
In an ITV special devoted to Adele a few days ago, actress Emma Thompson asked the singer who her biggest creative influence was as a kid. Adele’s answer: Ms McDonald, her former English teacher at Chestnut Grove Academy in South London, whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years…
Oh, just watch the video. It’s gorgeous, it’s ridiculously heartfelt, and it’s a reminder of what a huge impact our favourite teachers have on our lives.
That video is currently *everywhere* on social media, and I’m already seeing its effects:
And - yes. Me too:
No answer yet. I’ll let you know.
Now it’s your turn. You already know who: they’re the one who actually made it fun (which completely blew your mind, because - education! fun!).
They introduced you to something that stayed with you long after school ended, that maybe rerouted your thinking onto a subtly different track, a tiny shift that led to an ever-different course, leading you to a whole new life.
Or maybe they were just enthusiastic, in a way the other teachers weren’t. They just cared, so much, for so long, even when nobody else seemed to - and in doing so, they taught you that caring is the very best method of learning anything.
Or maybe they were horrendous idiots (this is valid too, if rather less gracious) who, by their utter refusal to treat you and your potential with a bare minimum of dignity and respect, created a stubborn self-belief in yourself that has served you well!
Or maybe (and this is a really hard one to think about) they really tried, and yet they failed with you. You weren’t ready. You didn’t listen. And it was only later that you realised this, you saw what they were trying to do, and made amends by learning to listen - but of course school was long over by then, so they never knew they made a difference in your life. They never knew. And that’s haunted you until now.
So this week, you’re doing an Adele. You’re going to try to find them, and try to say thanks at long last. This may be a bittersweet exercise: a few of my favourite teachers are no longer in the world, and the same may apply to yours too. But it’s worth a shot. It matters - not just the saying of thanks, but the trying to say thanks. It’s opening a door that should have never been closed.
- Google is your friend, obviously. As is Twitter: I found my possibly-maybe-who-knows old English teacher on Twitter by searching for her name plus “English teacher”. It’s a little harder to find women than men because men don’t generally change their surnames when they get married - so you may need to do some sifting through old staff tallies for clues.
- drop a letter or email (I’d say a letter is better) to the school they used to teach you at. For confidentiality reasons they might not be able to give out any details, so maybe a better strategy is to ask them to pass on your letter to that teacher, wherever they are right now, in the hope that they remember you and contact you directly.
- mention Adele’s teacher, because that seems to me a great way to prove you’re genuine and not a bit of a dodgy character. Anything that shows you’re exactly who you say you are is a big plus, as is including a few details only an ex-pupil would remember.
- …and if you get an answer, please return to the comments of this post and tell me. I’d love to know.
2) Revisit The Kid You Once Were
As I’ve written about before, I love sleeping outdoors. “Wild camping” is the popular term, although it’s more like “only-sort-of-camping” because I sleep in the tiniest of tents and try to leave absolutely no trace I was even there (which should be the standard anyway).
But if I’d made more of an effort to reconnect with my childhood, I’d have been doing it for at least a decade longer than I have been. It feels like a decade lost. (All that life affirming low-grade misery I could have been having!)
When I was a kid growing up in the depressingly flat county of Norfork in the south of England, I fell in love with a book about sleeping in the woods.
But because I forgot about my love of this book for decades, I had to relearn all the lessons it had already taught me.
Getting older is wonderful! For example, I’m a fan of the way social weirdness gets relabelled with the much kinder word eccentricity, and I’m really looking forward to getting rebranded in that way. Bring it on.
But it’s also a double tragedy: not only do you forget so much, you also forget you’ve forgotten it.
And then one day you remember a book, and you think, “how could I have forgotten artwork as beautiful as this?”
And then you realise what your favourite childhood reads can still do for you as an adult:
Old diaries, old correspondences. Abandoned blogs. Anything that gives you an insight into what you were thinking ten, twenty, thirty years ago (or further) - maybe as opposed to what you think you were thinking.
Give yourself a week to go find something you’ve forgotten about who you were. Go find something incredible.
3. Take a Half-Year-Retrospective Adventure
A few days ago I took the ferry to Arran, the Scottish island closest to where I’m living at the moment.
Because I’m clearly some kind of halfwit, I only started visiting Arran this summer, after living opposite it for almost a year. It’s not like it’s hard to get to: a £4, 30-minute journey by train to the ferry terminal at Ardrossan, then another £4-ish for the 55-minute trip across the sea to Arran’s terminal at Brodick. Financially, it’s a ridiculously cheap adventure (two portions of fish’n’chips for a day’s mountain-walking!) - and yet it took me that long to discover it. What a plank I am.
But now I’m finally aware, I’m trying to go there once every month.
This time, I got myself up the Clauchlands hills to the south of Brodick, so I could look down into Lamlash (Arran’s biggest village) and only-just-inhabited Holy Isle:
Bloody windy up there, let me tell you. And I was enormously impressed that someone had brought a park bench (how? it’s a footpath!) until I learned there was an Iron Age hillfort at a similar height just round the corner, built around 2,500 years ago. How easy it is to fail to image the ingenuity of others.
But what I’m really looking forward to is seeing this same view in a few months, when the snow has descended and the colours have faded and the sound carries all the way to the horizon.
If I’m lucky enough to pick a day in the dead of winter when there’s no wind, I’d be a happy man - although it’d be hard for anyone to tell, because I’ll be wearing at least 3 jackets, two bobble hats and a balaclava. (One does not take on the elements of a Scottish winter and win any kind of meaningful victory.)
This is a great way to learn something new about a place, particularly if it feels over-familiar and difficult to feel excited about. Who hasn’t felt the wonder of their garden transformed into a blank canvas of crunchy, crystalline white powder?
(Certainly not my late mum’s dogs, which used to go bananas. You can learn a lot about living a good life from watching a dog. Here’s someone who firmly agrees.)
So, the challenge. Cast your mind back 6 months - or maybe a year and six months. Any day-trips or activities that spring to mind? Anything where the sun was hot on your face (or if you’re in the southern hemisphere, where the wind dragged all the heat out your bones)? Remember how that felt, and how everything looked?
Excellent. Then it’s almost time to go back and see it again, except so, so differently. To see it transformed.
And if you need some inspiration, click this.
Now get moving. You’ve got a week to either plan this or just get it done. Best of luck!
Images: Lucasz Szmigiel; Mike Sowden.