<![CDATA[Alex Armstrong]]> https://alexarmstrong.net// Tue, 31 Mar 2020 00:00:00 +0000 Tue, 31 Mar 2020 00:00:00 +0000 Statamic Copyright 2023 3600 <![CDATA[Surrounded]]> ]]> I’ve been cooped up at home long enough that I stopped counting the days1. I’m not complaining – I mean I am, but I shouldn’t be. Considering the plight of the world right now, I am extraordinarily lucky.

I’ve been working remotely full time since 2015 and have workspaces and workflows that support how I like to work. Because almost all of my job is digital, I like to change my posture every hour or two, otherwise I’d spend the whole day hunched over a laptop. Sometimes I sit at my desk, sometimes I sprawl on the couch, and sometimes I work standing up. I say “work”, but when you’re standing for a long while, there’s a lot of dancing involved. If I have to read a long document I’ll switch from my laptop to my tablet, returning to the laptop for more interactive tasks.

I’m lucky enough to be at the beginning of a relationship that was going quite well when the government called for people to stay home. Before the quarantine, my girlfriend was staying over most days, and so moving in together was the logical step for us. It’s been wonderful to have someone to share this experience with. Not to mention to play board games together. And to be silly. Silliness is really important.

My flat is small and I wouldn’t have chosen to live with another person here. But despite our cramped quarters, cohabitation has been more of a balm than a bother. We share the work of shopping, cooking, and coax each other to take care of ourselves: to eat well, to get some exercise, and to avoid looking at screens all day. One of our strange behaviors, though by no means unique to us, is that we reward ourselves for healthy choices by eating a pile of junk food. So that evens out in the end. Doesn’t it always?

Despite all this good fortune, I’ve found it hard to settle into a routine. I’m comfortable working from home, but pre-virus I used to spend the evenings out and about, having drinks or food with friends, taking improv classes, hosting a creative writing group, or just walking by the Thessaloniki waterfront. I miss all this, this motion and people and light.

When people ask me how I am, I tell them am well and mean it. A couple weeks ago I admitted to a friend I’m downright happy. I’m well-suited to a homebound life and living with my girlfriend has been a blessing. But there’s a dark undercurrent as well.

I don’t feel stressed out, but there are hints. When I shop for our weekly groceries I come out of the supermarket feeling nauseous. The local market is well-stocked, but it’s a cramped, downtown building and there always too many people in there. I've started using diluted bleach to clean the packaging of the stuff I buy. I called up my dad, whose opinion I trust in such matters, and asked him if he bothers to do the same. He said he probably should, but doesn’t.

I’ve been working reasonably well, and have even managed to mostly stick to a five-day workweek. But I’ve hard time sticking to my plans for writing, meditation and other personal matters. I generally sleep like a rock, but last night I didn’t sleep at all. I wasn’t sad or upset. I was just restless.

I must be stressed out. How could I fail to be? I worry about the local shop running out of tofu sausages. I worry about the people still going to work each day – they're all exceptional heroes. I worry about my parents who are in their late 60s and early 70s. I worry about my brother and his wife who brought a baby girl into this world two weeks ago. I worry.

I’m reminded of the song “Surrounded” by Michael W. Smith:

This is how I fight my battles:
It may look like I'm surrounded
But I'm surrounded by You

I don’t have the faith to support a belief in an ever-present, benevolent God, but I can imagine what that might feel like.

On many mornings, I have a call with a friend so that we can sit and meditate together. I ran a virtual creative writing group where every couple days a bunch of us get together and write together for an hour. My colleagues are all supportive and patient. I’ve had more calls with people I love and miss, and received more messages from people near and far in this last month than I did all of last year.

In this time of ostensible isolation, we reach out and find each other. We offer reassurance and we offer ourselves. I feel surrounded by an invisible threat. But also by so much kindness and goodness.

I wasn’t going to blog today because I felt I was in a foul mood, but one of the members of the writing group suggested I give it a shot.

Well, here it is. What do you think?

I think I’ll sleep tonight.

  1. I checked after finishing the blog post. I’ve been at home since the 14th of March: 18 days. ↩︎

Tue, 31 Mar 2020 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2020/03/surrounded https://alexarmstrong.net/2020/03/surrounded
<![CDATA[How to self-care]]>
  • Ask yourself, “What do I need now?”

    (Assuming it's not reading some guy's blog.)

  • If you can give yourself what you need, do so now.

  • If not, write down the next thing you can do to move towards fulfilling your need. Do it as soon as possible.

  • Repeat as needed.

  • I sketched this out one night and posted it the next day to a muted social media response. I wrote it mostly as a reminder to myself, but I'm leaving this here in case someone else finds it helpful.

    Tue, 12 Nov 2019 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2019/11/how-to-self-care https://alexarmstrong.net/2019/11/how-to-self-care
    <![CDATA[Yet another meditation guide]]> I’m a meditator. Which simply means I’m someone who practices meditation regularly, rather than someone who has anything particularly profound to say about the topic. 

    Knowing that I’m a meditator, friends – and, occasionally, strangers – ask me how to get started with meditation. Or they tell me they tried it, but it didn’t stick, and do I have any suggestions for how to get back on the cushion?

    At first I avoided answering such questions, because I didn’t feel I knew enough about it. But my desire to share the gift of meditation won out eventually. I began to write longish emails to friends describing how I got into meditation, hoping that my story might offer a path for them.

    Each time I would copy the email I’d sent out last time and adapted it for the new person I was writing to. In this piecemeal process my emails grew and grew. By 2016 my stock draft was too long too edit comfortably in an email client. I started thinking about putting together a guide I could just link to. In 2017, I gathered the material I’d been sharing with people over email into such a guide. I was using Dropbox Paper, of all things, and wasn’t too happy with how that worked. A couple months ago I finally migrated this content to my website and made it publicly available for the first time.

    This guide brings together the things I say to people when they ask me how to get started with meditation. I believe it can help anyone to start meditating, regardless of where they are in their life.

    I hesitated in publishing it because there’s so much material on meditation out there already, much of it written by people who have a deeper knowledge of the topic than I do. But I haven’t been able to find something that I was happy to direct people to, something at once brief, but also covering the most common questions that come up when folks start practicing. So I felt there is a place online for my little guide.

    Here it is: How to get started with meditation

    Almost every word is the result of someone’s influence — whether that of teachers whose work I’ve read or listened to, or friends and mentors I’ve discussed my practice with. All blunders are, of course, my own.

    I’m constantly revising and updating this guide based on feedback from those who try to follow it. I’d love to hear what you think — whether you’re a meditator already or just starting out on this path.

    Tue, 22 Oct 2019 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2019/10/yet-another-meditation-guide https://alexarmstrong.net/2019/10/yet-another-meditation-guide
    <![CDATA[The wisdom of humility]]> One of my favorite poetry collections is T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which consists (as its title hints) of four long poems. I first read it around the age of twenty, after I became infatuated with Eliot in a literature class at university.

    I owned1 a slim, second-hand paperback of the Quartets that easily fit in the small messenger bag that went everywhere with me in those days. I often carried the book when I figured I wouldn't have time to read, and so ended up reading random pages in parks and bars, in public transport, in the houses of friends and strangers. On occasion I'd been known to read out loud.

    I've written before about some of the real-life circumstances surrounding this book. Right now, I just want to highlight a passage from "East Coker," the second poem in the collection:

    Do not let me hear
    Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
    Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
    Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
    The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
    Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

    There is much to mull over in these plain lines. I keep returning to them over and over again, in different contexts, and always find something else, something more to understand.

    1. And still own, in fact. Although I've been giving away most of my physical books over the last couple years, there are a few I've been hesitant to part with. ↩︎

    Wed, 04 Sep 2019 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2019/09/the-wisdom-of-humility https://alexarmstrong.net/2019/09/the-wisdom-of-humility
    <![CDATA[Reviewing your past year: Accomplishments, experiences and ambitions]]> ]]> Every year around New Year’s day I dedicate an hour or so to review my past year and look forward to the year to come. I’ve done so since 2013. It’s a wonderful exercise which always leaves me feeling gratitude — and sometimes relief — about all that is past, and hopeful for what is to come.

    I first heard about this practice from David Allen, but I haven’t been able to source it and so can’t check to see how much I’ve adapted what he suggests1. I’ve tried more structured methods of reviewing my year, but this is the only process that I’ve consistently finished each year. It’s flexible, simple to do, and rewarding. Also, I have half a decade’s worth of reviews at this point which makes me want to keep doing them.

    So here is the reviewing process:

    Start a new document in your device, or a fresh page in your notebook, and make three lists: Accomplishments, Experiences and Aspirations.

    Accomplishments are the answers to this question: “What are you proud of accomplishing last year?”

    I list those things I actively worked on and which supported my goals and needs as I understand them.


    • 2017: Started a Shut Up & Write branch in Thessaloniki
    • 2016: Attended my third Vipassana 10-day course and served as a volunteer at another 10-day course
    • 2015: Changed jobs!
    • 2014: Bought a new laptop (finally!)

    Under “Accomplishments” I also list some raw numbers that I keep track of, such as the number of books I read that year, and the number of hours I meditated (outside of retreats). These specific numbers are important to me. I don’t dump a whole bunch of raw “quantified self” data into this list.

    Experiences are the answers to this question: “What memorable experiences took place last year?”

    Experiences are differentiated from achievements because although important enough for me to remember, I wasn’t the driving force behind them. They sort of just happened on their own, without requiring any special effort or determination.


    • 2017: I decorated a Christmas tree with a loved one (by putting lights on it — not quite what I had imagined, but it still counts)
    • 2016: Went to an improv comedy class.
    • 2015: Visited Edinburgh, after five years
    • 2014: Got my house burgled (had to happen sometime)

    Under “Experiences”, I also list all the cities and places I visited that year, whether it was for vacation, work, or other reasons.

    Aspirations are the answers to this question: “What accomplishments or experiences would you like to include on these lists a year from now?”

    This is a new category I’m trying out this year, instead of more structured planning methods. I get bogged down when there are too many fiddly bits. But the question of what I would want to be true a year from now is always relevant and fairly straight-forward to answer, even if I can’t see how to get there from here. I’ll determine how useful this is in a year or two.

    And that’s it!

    All the examples above are real and were drawn from my own notes. I avoided the personal ones, but otherwise tried to give an overview of the sorts of things that I find interesting to record.

    Note the absence of extensive explanations. The lists are for my own benefit and so I don’t need to include the context of why things are important to me. I know that already. Part of what makes this review simple to do is how little you need to actually write down if you aren’t over-explaining. Last year I wrote my longest review and it was only a few hundred words.

    I try to support my feeble memory by taking notes for these lists over the course of the year. But I don’t do that with any consistency and so always have to spend some time daydreaming about what I did and what happened and so on. Deciding what is important or meaningful enough to record gives this review its resonant power.

    If you share your life with a partner, it can be a insightful to do this review together with them and to share some of your lists with each other. Your partner can also help you remember things.

    If you are as pretentious as I am, you may find it appealing to make this review into an event. Two years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were travelling through Belgrade around New Year’s. We did our review together while drinking tea at the Hotel Moskva, one of the city’s landmarks, where a host of luminaries have stayed since its opening a hundred years ago. Fancy downtown hotels, lonesome mountain cabins, eccentric seaside cafes, and other such liminal spaces can help you look back with a bit of detachment, and envision a future with unabashed optimism.

    Some folks balk at reviewing their year around New Year’s day, a moment deeply associated with consumerism and socially-induced “resolutions”. If you belong to this faction — and I don’t blame you — your birthday is an excellent alternative date. It’s unique to you and it occurs on the same day every year.

    I hope you found this helpful. Give this review a shot and let me know how it went!

    1. I do recall it was a webinar or a podcast, not a book — but that’s as far as I got. If what I’m saying here rings a bell, send me a note of the source and I’ll add a more detailed attribution. ↩︎

    Wed, 26 Dec 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/12/reviewing-your-past-year https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/12/reviewing-your-past-year
    <![CDATA[Choker]]> Walking along the waterfront, I stopped at the stall of a lady who handmakes jewelry.

    "I'm looking for a necklace," I said.

    "For you?"

    "To gift." I looked over her merchandise. "This one is nice," I said, pointing to a silvery necklace with a little heart.

    "This is tight," she said, clutching her throat with one hand. "Like a choker."

    "It's an interesting message to give to someone."

    "You mean to say it says that love... what? It has you in a stranglehold?"

    I nodded.

    "I hadn't thought of that," she said. "Doesn't it though?"

    "I don't think love does anything you don't let it do."

    "Maybe you haven't really loved."

    "Maybe I haven't," I said and thanked her.

    I kept walking. I sensed (or imagined) her following me with her eyes. The jewelry lady hadn't said I overthink things but I knew she was thinking it.

    Thu, 06 Dec 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/12/choker https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/12/choker
    <![CDATA[Quickly create new Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Forms]]> I suspect there’s a vanishingly small audience for this tip, but this has never stopped me writing about something before.

    If, like me, you have to create new Google Docs and Sheets all the time, you might be tired of having to navigate to the approriate Google site, waiting for it to load, clicking on the New button, and so on.

    Instead you can bookmark the following URLs in your browser which will automatically create a new document:

    It used to be that the URLs for these were long and hard to remember. But as I researched this I discovered that Google literally five days ago announced all these shorthand URLs:

    Rejoice lazy Google Docs users!

    Oh, and if you are logged in with several users, these links will create a document using the first user.

    Oh #2, if you’re using G Suite, the URLs remain long and hard to remember.

    The source for this blog post is — what else? — StackExchange.

    Tue, 30 Oct 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/quickly-create-new-google-docs-sheets-slides-and-forms https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/quickly-create-new-google-docs-sheets-slides-and-forms
    <![CDATA[A better number]]> The Cretan greengrocer weighed my items, bagged them, and now he was tapping sums on a calculator.

    "Nine euro," he said.

    Opening my wallet, I saw that the smallest bill inside was a fifty. In small shops like this it's considered discourteous to use large bills, as you will drain the till of change.

    "Would you be upset with me if I told you I only had a fifty?"

    He looked at me over the rim of his glasses. "Yes. Yes, I would."

    "I only have a fifty," I said and held the bill out.

    He plucked it from my fingers. He rummaged through the till and in the metal box he kept unlocked in a drawer underneath the till. He checked all four of his pants' pockets. But apparently failed to turn up enough change.

    "Here," he said, placing a one-euro coin in my hand, followed by the fifty euro bill I'd given him.

    "What's this?" I asked.

    "Next time," he said, "you'll give me ten euro."

    "I could just owe you the nine…"

    "No, it's good like this. Ten is a better number."

    I thanked him and left the shop with a bag of produce I hadn't paid for and an extra euro I hadn't asked for.

    They say Greeks are no good with money. That's not true. They're just playing a different game altogether.

    Mon, 29 Oct 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/a-better-number https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/a-better-number
    <![CDATA[Greeks and books]]> It's commonly held in Greece that Greeks don't read books. Anecdotally, it seems true.

    I live in Thessaloniki, the second most populous city in Greece, and work remotely, spending about half my working hours in cafés. I choose quiet, smoke-free, tastefully-lit cafés with unobtrusive music, comfortable seating and good coffee and tea options. In other words, the sort of places you'd expect to see a lot of readers. But there are none.

    I often see students with books. They can be identified by the piles of notes and books, and the fact that they're mostly checking Facebook or talking on their phone. But they're not reading, they're studying, if that.

    I almost never see regular adults just reading a book for pleasure. I saw one today and was so surprised I tried to recall the last time I had seen someone reading who wasn't an obvious tourist – easily recognizeable by their pasty, sunburnt skin and foreign-language books. I racked my brain, but the last person I can recall seeing reading for pleasure was in late July – three months ago.

    I realize that this isn't a particularly scientific observation. You can make of it what you will.

    It breaks my heart.

    Thu, 11 Oct 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/greeks-and-books https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/10/greeks-and-books
    <![CDATA[We refugees]]> Living in Greece, where many folks have become stranded on their way from violence and persecution to the safety of Europe, the topic of refugees is often in the news and on our minds. You hear about the horrors of the journey, the squalor of the camps, the violence inflicted by or upon these marginalized groups. It is hard to know what to think about an issue as challenging as this.

    Recently, I came across an essay by Hannah Arendt addressing the vagaries of of Jewish refugees in 1943, when the essay was published. It is "We Refugees" and starts like this:

    In the first place, we don't like to be called "refugees."

    The rest of the essay is as cheerfully contrarian as its opening and remarkably applicable to the refugee crisis facing Europe today – or, one might say, still – especially the foreboding message of its closing sentences:

    Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of “indecency,” get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples—if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.

    The text is available online and, if you're the aural type, there is also a reading of the essay on YouTube.

    I heard about this essay in the In Our Time podcast, whose episode on Hannah Arendt can serve as a brief introduction to her life and work.

    Tue, 21 Aug 2018 00:00:00 +0000 https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/08/we-refugees https://alexarmstrong.net/2018/08/we-refugees