It feels like Spring here in South West France. The French word for flourishing or blossoming is épanouissement, and it’s used when referring to both plants and people. In the former case it’s about when the flowers appear. It means “opening up” just like the buds unfurl to stretch out their petals and reveal the full flower. In human beings it’s used in the field of personal development to refer to the movement towards ever greater fulfilment – to becoming the best you, you can become, the most fully developed, evolved, grown and mature expression of your unique self.

I only saw the absolute beauty of this tiny flower when I got down on my knees beside it. From human standing height it looked like this –

Looking at these two photos one after the other makes me realise the importance of the individual. The beautiful carpet of blue at the edge of the grass attracted me to walk over to it. As I stood and took a photo it looked like a floral version of the night sky. Down on my knees, as if in prayer, filled with wonder and delight, I saw the complex, utter beauty of the single flower.

As often happens, these experiences set off a train of thoughts. For example, I thought of the hundreds, no, thousands, of patients I met in my working life and how one by one they presented their utterly unique selves to me; how I never saw two people completely the same; how every one had a unique story to tell; how every single individual deserved the fullest attention, the greatest care and the most complete compassion.

And I thought about the societies we live in today, with ever increasing inequality and injustice, with a rise of xenophobia and so called populism which advocates for good things for some, and the exclusion of the other.

And I wonder, isn’t it obvious that if we want economies which flourish, then we need societies which flourish, and that’s only going to happen if we maximise the chances for the greatest number of people in society to flourish.

And I wonder, is there a good moral or rational argument to deny flourishing to anyone in any society? Isn’t the way to a better world, through a focus on the creation of the conditions which will maximise “épanouissement” for as many people as possible?

Indeed, why create the conditions for growth of only some, but not of others? Don’t we want everyone to reach their full potential as a loving, creative unique human being?

Paying attention

As these glorious hyacinths transition from showing the delicate colour to the full bloom beauty of this……

I got thinking again about that advice to be present, to live in “the now”, to enjoy the moment, because if we hadn’t focused on the future several months ago we wouldn’t have planted the bulbs which are now producing these glorious flowers.

So if we live in the moment without a thought to the future, then, how’s that going to go? Yet if we focus all our attention on the future, then we’ll miss the rich delights of the everyday.

This need to be present whilst thinking ahead reminded me of the practice of Medicine. When a patient came to see me I had to be fully present in order to understand them properly. In those moments I had to make a diagnosis, a prognosis and initiate a treatment. When they came back for a review I had to be fully present and prepared to let go of the previous diagnosis, prognosis and/or treatments if the situation had changed, whether for the better or the worse.

The key to the dilemma was non attachment….the practice of letting go of prior assumptions and assessments as the situation changed.

When I was training to be a GP, a consultant Obstetrician I was working for, told me, one day in a labour ward, that “obstetrics” meant “to stand and wait”….then moments later called for gloves and forceps to intervene!

Watchful waiting might capture it. We don’t have to intervene or act all the time. Sometimes it’s best to be present and engaged with an eye on today and the days ahead in the same moment, ever ready to be flexible so we can adapt and change as the need arises.

I read a paper today about prostate cancer. The researchers divided patients with prostatic cancer into three groups….one to get surgery, another to receive radiotherapy and a third to have “active monitoring” (a kind of watchful waiting). All three groups had the same 10 and 15 year survival rates, both from prostate cancer, and all other causes of death.

I think of all that as I admire these hyacinths and think where we’re going to plant the autumn bulbs we’ve just bought.

It seems being present and thinking ahead are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they blend together beautifully.

It’s International Women’s Day today so I thought I’d share this photo which I took in the nearby village of Saint Savinien. It’s a sculpture of a young woman reading a book. Maybe it’s nothing spectacular but as I am always on the lookout for “l’émerveillement du quotidien”, (the wonder of the everyday) I find this hits the spot.

Reading is certainly part of my everyday and I can’t resist a good bookshop. In this part of the world, where the climate is so pleasant, I find it’s a great joy to sit and read outside, surrounded by birdsong.

I’ll read anywhere really….in my study, in the garden, at a cafe, in the train etc. How about you? Where’s your favourite place to read?

Let me mention some books written by women which I’d say are amongst my favourite books ever. I have a lot of poetry books by Mary Oliver. She’s a great favourite of mine. I also have several volumes of Liz Lochhead’s poetry and hearing her perform is one of my best memories.

I have many books by Mary Midgley, who was one of England’s greatest 20th century philosophers. If you haven’t read any of her work, I’d recommend starting with “Science and Poetry”.

Madeline Miller’s Circe is a brilliant re-telling of Classical Myths and Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books are amongst of my most favourite fantasy fiction.

If you’d like an introduction to the works of Montaigne you won’t do better than to read Sarah Bakewell’s superb “How to live”.

“The Deficit Myth” by Stephanie Kelton utterly transformed my understanding of economics, and Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” is a simple, and quite brilliant way to see what kind of economics we need to create a more sustainable, more just, society.

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. I’d highly recommend the works by any of these women.

How about you? Would you like to share any of your favourites?

This is a very different post from me. The link I’ve embedded at the top here will take you to a very short video posted by one of the French TV channels on Twitter.

Recently, a 16 year old went to school in Saint Jean de Luz, went to the Spanish teacher’s classroom where a class was underway, locked the door and stabbed the teacher to death. Who knows why?

Agnès Lassalle, the teacher, was popular and she and her husband spent a lot of their free time dancing.

This is a short clip from her funeral. The man in the foreground in front of the coffin is her husband. Just watch.

This is one of the most moving, human scenes I’ve ever seen.

La source

There’s a spring just a few steps from my house. The French word for a spring is “source” which is pronounced with an “oo” in the middle. When you see the same word in English you hear it as “soar” not “soor”. In my head I hear both those prononciations at the same time. So experience this as both a spring of water and a starting point, an origin, at the same time.

Water is like that – it is probably the origin point for Life, and therefor for our ancestors. When we send spacecraft to explore other planets we are on the lookout for water, because we know that without water, there will be no Life, at least, not as we know it.

Although the water in La Source is crystal clear, no matter how hard I look I can’t see it arriving. But I know it is always arriving because it continuously tumbles over the edge and into the Roman aqueduct. This amazes me every time. The pool looks absolutely still, apart from where the water leaves it to enter the stone channel.

Stillness and constant flow together.

I suppose our bodies are a bit like that. Moment by moment, apart from the movement of my chest with my breath, I’m not really aware of my body changing. I feel pretty solid, with clear edges or borders, this skin which lets me connect, or touch, beyond myself, whilst simultaneously acting as a border defence which separates me from the rest of the world.

But in fact my body is flow. The trillions of cells in, and on, my body are constantly changing, subject to continuous flows of information, energy and particles, constantly metabolising (building up and breaking down)

Strange, but true.

I find it pretty frustrating that there is much in this world I’d like to change but I don’t have the power to do so. Wouldn’t you like a planetary system which better provided all living beings, which was fairer, kinder, more compassionate and more caring? I would.

My whole working life I worked with patient after patient, to try and relieve individual suffering, to try to play a part in improving the lives of the people who I cared for. But I couldn’t do anything about poverty, about poor housing, precarious unsatisfying jobs, about the climate and inequality.

But here’s something I’ve realised. When you live a certain way, it catches on. In fact, whichever way you live, it catches on. Kindness breeds kindness, just as anger stokes anger and violence causes more violence.

Every single one of us lives embedded in vast networks of connection. We can’t help influencing others and changing the world. It’s what we do.

The thing is, mostly we do all this unconsciously, on autopilot, as “zombies”. But what if we decided to wake up, become more aware, to imagine, act and share more consciously?

As Gandhi said

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

Maybe, then, we can spread more of what we want to spread.

Back in 1966, Dionne Warwick sang…..

When I noticed these little funghi growing amongst the gravel I had an old thought jump back into my mind.

For a long time I’ve thought one of the most fundamental paradoxes of human personality is the need to belong and the need to be separate, or to put it another way, the need to be the same, or similar, and the need to be different.

We need both. And, like all human paradoxes, we need both at the same time. I don’t want to feel excluded, to be an outcast or stranger who doesn’t fit in. But I wouldn’t want to fit in so well that I disappeared. I want to belong, but I also want to know and fully express my uniqueness.

How do we do that? How do we hold onto our uniqueness AND the uniqueness of every other person we ever meet, yet find sufficient connections, similarities, commonalities that we know, equally well, that we share so much of our selves, our existence, with everyone else on this little planet?

How do we manage to take care of ourselves and the lives of others at the same time?

By seeing ourselves in context?

I’m sure that’s at least part of the answer. It’s knowing my essence AND knowing my embedded web of connections and relationships, that leads me to fully appreciate my uniqueness. A uniqueness that could only exist in the world/environment/cosmos where we all exist together.

Have a look at this spider’s web.

The first thing I thought when I noticed this was how beautiful it is. Then I was astonished that a tiny creature could create a complex structure like this all by itself. I can’t begin to imagine how on Earth it does this.

As I looked more closely I was amazed to see how apparently complex, even chaotic, it is. This isn’t one of those webs with regular, concentric circles suspended by radial strands which look like the spokes of a wheel. In fact it’s so complex and random I can’t see any kind of pattern.

It’s maximalist rather than minimalist. You could argue it uses way more thread than is “necessary”, but Nature is like this. It weaves together randomness with redundancy – natural complex systems are as adaptable and resilient as they are exactly because of these characteristics.

So why do we pursue so called “efficiency” driving down costs to maximise profits? Because our system promotes money making over adaptability, resilience and health.

We’re paying a price for that kind of control freakery. Maybe we need to return to our natural teacher?

4 elements

As I stood looking out over the Mediterranean I saw this.

Water. Stretching in every direction. From this distance it looks calm, almost smooth. But from where I stood I could hear the waves breaking on the rocks, the water spraying into the air then slipping back down from the land into the sea again. Without water, no Life.

Fire. That silver shining strip of light caused by the Sun’s rays sparkling the sea. But it’s a false horizon. Beyond that apparent edge, if you look carefully, you can see more water. The fire of the Sun warms the water and warms the Earth. It’s the source of all our energy. Without the fire of the Sun, no Life.

Earth. Look more closely now, beyond the water on the other side of the sunlight. Can you see shadows? Hazy impressions of something more solid?  The Earth. Islands, other lands, rocks and stones and sand. Earth, the element which changes so slowly. Without earth, no Life.

Air. No, you can’t see the air. But as I stood there I filled my lungs with it. The clear, fresh, sea-scented air. The most invisible of all the elements, constantly changing, as I breathe in and breathe out again. As you breathe in and breathe out again. As all living creatures breathe in and breathe out again. Without air, no Life.

Then look again. Look down at the bottom right hand corner of this photograph. See the tree? Doesn’t she look like she has a fancy hat on? Doesn’t it seem as if she is looking out over the water, the fire, the earth and the air?  It seems to me that she is stretching both her arms up towards the sky and celebrating. A joyful tree.

We share all of this, you, me, everyone we know, everyone we don’t know, and every other living organism on this one, small, finite planet.

The importance of story

What do you think about this path?


Not very impressive is it? Not sure it would catch your attention at all if you stumbled across it.

But then what about this sign on the wall telling you a little bit about this path, the “Via Aurelia” (nice name, huh?)


Now, I’m sure that’s not a complete listing of all the famous people who have walked along this very path, but even knowing that Napoleon, Emperor Charles V, Macchiavelli and Catherine of Siena, (not to mention the various Popes!), all walked along here completely changes it doesn’t it?

I’m sure that if you were to read some of the stories about where these people were coming from and where they were going to, then this little, apparently unimpressive little path, would take on another quality altogether. Try it for yourself, look some of these people up on the net and imagine the part of their story which describes them walking along this very path.

There’s no doubt in my mind that stories make all the difference. They transform our world.