Archive for August, 2008

Natural inspiration

Which of these creatures inspires you? What, if anything, could you learn from them?

busy bees
snails pace
morning rabbits

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raindrops on leaves

Why do I love to see rainwater on leaves so much?

Don’t know, really, but I sure do. Same with flowers actually. In fact, although we tend to think of rain as “bad weather” and have a good moan about it, rainy weather is good photography weather. There’s something about the light of an overcast sky which seems to intensify colour, but it’s how water changes the surface and the appearance of things which captures my attention.

The droplets look like jewels, sparkling, shining, and adorning the plant. Don’t you put on your best jewels for special occasions? If Nature does too, then rainy days must be special days.

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rowan berries

I took these rowan berries in the garden of Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital this week. The rowan berries are plentiful in Scotland this year. Folklore has it that lots of rowan berries mean it’s going to be a hard winter. Scientists say, of course, that this isn’t true, and it seems these days that Scotland doesn’t have seem to have distinct seasons, only loads of weather!

The other piece of folklore about the rowan tree is that it was used to make magician’s wands, dowser’s wands and druid’s staves. It had a reputation for being able to protect you from witches and enchantment.

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I think poets have not only the keenest powers of observation but their words illuminate. The world looks different after reading poetry. I’m not referring to particular passages which have changed my perception or understanding of particular places or experiences. I’m referring to, well, what would you call it? The poetic stance? The poetic viewpoint? The poetic way of living maybe……

When I was a teenager (a LONG time ago) I bought a little book by the poet Stephen Spender. It was called “Life And the Poet”. It was a small paperback with a darkly yellowed cover. It was published in 1942 apparently. I’m sure I must have it somewhere but I can’t lay my hands on it right now and it’s almost 40 years since I opened it and read any of it. But I seem to remember two things he said. One was that he said poets should be like visitors from another planet. It was his way of saying a poet should approach the world with wonder and amazement (a bit like those French philosophers I read recently). I liked that a lot. It stuck. And he also said, I think (bare with me, this memory is a long way off!), that poetry taught us how to “make life anew” and that was a reason to live. That stuck too. (or maybe I’ve invented that for myself after all these years……I’ll need to find my old copy, or another one, and read it again)

I paid a visit recently to the lovely Watermill Bookshop in Aberfeldy
Watermill Bookshop Aberfeldy

As I browsed the shelves my eye was caught by a book entitled “Findings” by Kathleen Jamie (ISBN 978-0-954-22174-4). Never heard of the book before, and I’d never heard of the author either, but the back cover described her as an “award winning poet” who has an “eye and an ease with the nature and landscapes of Scotland”. I opened the book and the paper under my fingers made me stop and wonder. It felt lovely. A soft roughness if you can imagine such a thing. Immediately it felt natural, and special, and thrillingly sensuous. This feels like a lovely book, I thought. Now that doesn’t happen often. I can enjoy the weight, the feel, the scent of a real book (no, computers will never replace the book), but I can’t remember when I ever before picked up an unknown book like this and felt transfixed. It caught me. Physically. So I sat down in one of the many comfy, leather armchairs and I started to read. Did I have any doubts? From the moment I held it in my hand, did I have any sense that I’d put it back on the shelf? I don’t think so. I think I knew I’d relish, yes, that’s the right word, relish this book. I bought it of course.


It’s not a book of poetry, but a book of essays – a poet’s living.

Some of the subjects she writes about are familiar to me. Orkney, salmon ladders, prehistoric stone markings, the Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh and the Edinburgh skyline. But even the familiar seemed brand new in her eyes, in her words. She’s a keen observer of nature, especially birds, and in the essay entitled, “Peregrines, Ospreys, Cranes” she writes this…..

This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, “My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis? – don’t be silly, its just a weird heron”. Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says “Don’t be stupid” and learn again to look, to listen. You can do the organising and redrafting, the diagnosing and identifying later, but right now, just be open to it, see how it’s tilting nervously into the wind, try to see the colour, the unchancy shape – hold it in your head, bring it home intact.

That’s what I want to learn too – to notice, to look, to listen, without processing it all, but taking the experiences home and turning them over later. My camera helps me do that, but Kathleen Jamie’s words inspire me to write more down, to write it down as soon as possible……not the analysis, the experience, the perception, the observation. To relish the “emerveillement” of living.

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Here’s an interesting article you can read at timesonline. It’s about the writer Colin Thubron. He says that he had a car accident back in 1978 and fractured his spine, some ribs and dislocated his shoulder. As a result he ended up in hospital for a few weeks.

The enforced idleness of lying flat on my back in hospital sent my mind into overdrive; I became more and more of a megalomaniac, and there was now some element of wanting to confront the fear. I decided there must be something bigger to write about, and I conceived the idea of walking the Great Wall of China and driving round Russia. Those ambitions were what kept me afloat. The Russian book was my first success, and it might not have happened without the accident. I don’t think the accident changed the trajectory of my emotional life, but it left me with a greater sense of my own vulnerability, and the need to maximise whatever time is left.

There are a number of points there which caught my attention. First of all, none of us would choose to have a serious accident, just like none of us would choose to be ill. But stuff happens! Accidents, illness and death don’t always happen to other people! How you react to the event is what determines the course of life thereafter. For Thubron it was a time of enforced “idleness”. He used the time to reflect on how life was going (holidays and “artist’s dates” are nicer ways to do this than accidents and illness!), and in that reflection decided it was time to think bigger. There’s the second point. He took the time to dream and he dreamt big! That led to what he describes as his “first success”, his book about Russia. Thirdly, look what he says in the final phrase……

but it left me with a greater sense of my own vulnerability, and the need to maximise whatever time is left.

You can be too aware of your vulnerability. Some people I meet are paralysed by insecurity and fear. But some awareness of it is a good thing. It’s a good thing if it leads to what he describes as “the need to maximise whatever time is left.”

Making the most of today. A wise counsel.

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I have a real love hate relationship with statistics. I’ve heard it said that all men love figures. Well, I’m not any different that way. Numbers interest me. On the other hand, however, I hate statistics! Actually, that’s not really true. What I hate is when statistics are given as “the truth”, or are given greater weight than human experience. My preference is always for stories. I am completely hooked on stories. The work of Gigerenzer really impresses me and I was reminded of his work yesterday when I read a piece on the BBC site about statistics. The piece is written by Michael Blastland and I enjoyed his style. He started off by picking up on a news item which claimed that vitamin E increased the risk of death by 14%. As he rightly points out the risk of death for all of us is 100%, so what point was the journalist trying to make? That the risk of death if you take vitamin E is 114%?! The thrust of the article is that we need to reconnect figures to human experience. He suggests we do this in two ways –

First, we need to remember that not much in life is either/or. According to the research, there’s something in the claim that Vitamin E supplements can be harmful. But, as with the consumption of salt, or even water, much that can kill is also essential to good health. The world does not divide easily into what’s toxic and what’s not, what’s safe and what isn’t. Risk is simply a way of measuring where we stand on the messy middle ground – which is almost everywhere. What matters in that messy middle is the relevant human quantity: how much supplementary vitamin E? A little won’t do any harm (or, probably, much good). A lot, especially if you are getting on in life, might. So a 14% increase in risk of death does mean something, but only if you say at what dose (high), for which group (the elderly), over what period (a single year, not in a lifetime).

The second common problem with any percentage increase like this, also crying out for a dose of real life is: what’s it increased from? Because 14% might be a lot if you start somewhere big, next to nothing if you start somewhere small. A 100% increase from one in a million becomes two in a million. So what? A 100% increase in the number of bullets in a revolver – if you are playing Russian roulette – well, that makes a difference.

I loved his concluding paragraph –

A percentage is not really a number, it is a share. The simple question to keep in mind is one that always strives to put it into a proper, human context: “A share of what? A share of a lot – or a share of a little?” Better still: “A share of who?” Keep it real.

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The dominant concept of disease is still a lesional one. The first task for a doctor is to diagnose. This should mean “to understand” or “to explain” but the way doctors are educated and trained gives priority to pathology ie to disease within cells, tissues or organs. Almost all the technologies used to “diagnose” aim to illuminate and/or identify a physical lesion. So, when you present to your doctor with some disturbing symptoms, he or she will set off on a hunt for the physical lesion. If they find a pathology, they will use their knowledge and experience to settle upon a conclusion that your symptoms are the manifestation of that pathology. Treatments offered will be chosen according to this understanding. The intention of the treatment is to either remove the pathology or to act against the symptoms which the pathology is assumed to be producing.

But what happens if there is no physical lesion? If the “diagnosis” from either the story and the physical examination, or from the “normal” findings produced by the investigative instruments, excludes (or, more realistically, fails to identify) any pathology, any physical lesion? Well, the default is to say the problem lies in the mind. In other words, there are two options – either a physical cause, or a psychological/psychiatric one.

This model is creaking at the seams. Increasingly we are demonstrating how diseases do not fall into one of those two neat compartments. The symptoms experienced, and the sense a patient makes of those symptoms, usually involves both the body and the mind.

If you’ve ever had pain which lasts for some time, you’ll know how that affects every aspect of your life. If part of your body doesn’t work because of damage to nerve fibres, then living with the resulting paralysis affects every aspect of your life. The simplistic view is that if the physical cause is treated the psychological distress will just go away. Life actually isn’t that simple!

The other direction is explored through psychosomatic medicine – the physical manifestion of the diseases of the mind. If you are anxious, or depressed, then your physical body is affected – breathlessness, pain, diarrhoea, palpitations etc etc.

As we improve our understanding of human beings, we discover that this old “cartesian” model is not as helpful as we used to think. Problems which have a focus in the body affect the mind and vice versa. In fact the body and the mind are so intricately interconnected that it would be rare for a problem to be so isolated into one of our “compartments”!

I’ve written before about some of the interesting work on the links between symptoms and diseases – see the posts about Meaning-full Disease and Why Do People Get Ill?

It’s also true that as human beings are intensely social beings, that sometimes the problem lies not within a single being but within a relationship, a family, or a community – see the work of Eric Cassell who has illuminated a lot of this by focusing on the patient’s “suffering”; and the work of Wilkinson on inequality.

However, let me postulate another explanation – maybe sometimes the problem lies in the “system”. Thanks to the explanatory model of the complex adaptive system, we now see that an organism can dysfunction, not because single parts of it have gone wrong but because the way everything works together has become damaged or disordered. This is still a new idea in medicine. There aren’t any scientific tests to help us “diagnose” such a problem. But look at all those chronic disorders where no lesions are found and there is really not a reasonable psychological explanation either. The fact that many people are ill without lesions and without psychological disorders shows us that there is something else going on which we have so far failed to grasp. This should undermine those who make psychological diagnoses in everyone who has normal “tests”! It’s intensely frustrating for an ill person to not be taken seriously or to be told that something is “all in your head”.

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