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Archive for June, 2017

We’ve had a very hot, dry spell recently here in the Charente. Temperatures rising to the mid or high 30s (centigrade) each day which made the leaves of the plants curl up and wilt. Then this last week we’ve had rain, wind and storms. Yikes! What chance have they got?

Well, look what all that varied weather has done to this bush in the garden.

First it suddenly bloomed, going from zero flowers to dozens of them over about 48 hours. Then the wind and rain has knocked off more than a few of them.

But when I walked outside yesterday evening and the bush caught my eye I was transfixed.

Just look how beautiful this is! Not just the bush itself but the way the fallen flowers have made a pinkish purple circular rug on the grass around it.

This is the kind of beauty which Nature makes.

In “The Great Work”, Thomas Berry talks about the interplay between discipline and wildness…..between order and chaos (or disorder). This is a great example, I think, of the beauty the wildness and disorder brings…..effortlessly.

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Every year I’m amazed to watch the butterflies appear in the garden the very same day the buddleia bushes flower. I’m convinced they both appear at exactly the same moment. No idea how that happens! Are the butterflies just hanging out around the corner somewhere waiting for the blossoms to appear, then zip round as fast as they can the moment that happens?

However it happens, it’s a delight to see so many varieties of butterfly (and the hummingbird moths, which are incredible creatures!), to watch how they fly in such utterly unpredictable directions, how they spread their wings in the sunlight, or close them up so they look like little leaves.

But here’s one thought which comes up for me time and time again when I see butterflies….they make me more aware of the cyclical nature of life. These little creatures have such different life stages, so different you wouldn’t realise they were stages of the same life. Do we think of them as having a beginning and an end? Starting with an egg, progressing through their caterpillar stages, becoming a chrysalis, then emerging as a butterfly which lays eggs, then dies. Is that the life?

I suppose we do all think of ourselves as having a beginning and an end. But where do we begin, and where do we end?

It depends on whether or not you want to reduce a person to just a physical body. My physical body began with a single fertilised egg and this body will die.

But what about ME?

Do I really think I’m only a physical body? Don’t I have a sense of something immaterial too? A consciousness? A sense of Self? A personality? Characteristics, behaviours, values, beliefs, creative acts, destructive acts? Is there anything I can do which doesn’t ripple out into the world beyond me?

When I look at Rodin’s “The Kiss”, or “The Thinker”, what do I see? The product of the imagination and creative skill of the man called Auguste Rodin. When I listen to music composed and performed by people who are long since dead, isn’t there something I’m sharing there which only they could have created? Aren’t these great works of art the ongoing ripples of unique human beings? Or do you think these are just their footprints? (It doesn’t seem that way to me….these works seem full of life and the potential to continue to create and send out ripples into the universe)

And what about those characteristics, quirks or tendencies that I have which others in my “family tree” also exhibited, even perhaps before I was born? Anyone who explores their genealogy encounters remarkable “coincidences”, talents, life events, behaviours which echo down through the generations. Weren’t those threads present even before the egg which became me even existed?

I think it’s inadequate to narrow a person down to a physical body.

But even if we did, there is still the fact that the body changes continually. It never stops. There is a constant turnover of cells, new beginnings, new endings, every hour of every day. There is a continuous exchange of energy, materials and information between my body and my environment, and we all share the same environment, the same atmosphere, the same air, water…..we are all made from the same molecules, all created from the same “star stuff”.

So it seems to me that beginnings and endings are everywhere……wherever, and whenever, we happen to look.

But it also seems to me that they are nowhere. They just don’t exist. We all emerge from, and dissolve into, the great cycles of the universe.

Beginnings and endings are just where we choose them to be. But we can always make a different choice. We can always take a broader view, a bigger view, a longer view, a more holistic view.

I’m reminded of a song from my school days….it’s by Jeff Beck, and it’s called “Hi Ho Silver Lining” – he sang this truth right there in the opening line of this song…in the first five words……

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A couple of little finches have built an astonishing little nest almost at the very end of one of the branches of the mulberry tree. The next looks pretty precarious but actually it’s well hidden amongst the leaves and it’s brilliantly woven. Just how do they do that? How do these tiny little birds gather bits and pieces from around the garden and actually weave them into these tight, sturdy nests? I mean how do they manage that with just their beaks? And where do they get their knowledge from? I can’t see that they learn it from any older birds. Is it actually programmed into the DNA sequences of their genes? Really? Isn’t that utterly mind-boggling? I’ve read similar musings about spider webs. Because every single web, and every single nest, is created in a unique circumstance. A new circumstance of time, place, wind, rain, sunshine, heat, cold…..I could go on. So even with a DNA coded programme for web creation, or nest building, each creature has to adapt that knowledge to the present circumstances. Honestly, I’m amazed!

But my amazement doesn’t stop here, because after finding about four little light blue eggs in this nest a wee while back,

Now they’ve all hatched, producing these chicks. What on earth do they look like? This is one of them about a week old. Now, about two weeks old, they are starting to develop feathers. If I understand it correctly, within the next two, or three weeks, they’ll fly. You get that? They will fly! From emergence from the egg to FLYING in about four weeks.

Now, embryology has always fascinated me. Probably my most favourite teacher at Medical School was the professor of anatomy who drew the stages of development of the human embryo on a giant blackboard using a pack of multicoloured chalks. Wow! How impressive was that! Sheer works of art, lecture by lecture. Sadly, we didn’t have mobile phones in those days, so none of us were able to capture those blackboard works. But I do still have them in my memory. Beautiful as they were I still remain utterly astonished that the cells of an embryo can replicate and differentiate and move into entirely the correct places to develop a human being with all the organs, tissues and networks of systems which form the new born child. When I look at this tiny chick I think the same. I think how on earth does the fertilised egg develop this head, this beak, these eyes……and now, the beginning of feathers and wings. And within two weeks from now these chicks will launch out of this nest and fly. How long does it take for a human baby to walk by him or herself? This little bird takes a month from “birth” to flying.

If you don’t find that astonishing and amazing…..well, you do, don’t you?

We take so much of our lives for granted. There’s so much we don’t know and don’t understand. But, can I recommend this?

Take a moment or two to reflect on how one cell (an ovum), joins with one other (a sperm), to become ONE cell which almost immediately becomes two, which become four, then eight, then sixteen……and hour by hour, day by day, a unique creature emerges, with millions and millions of cells, different kinds of cells produced from the original ONE, producing a body, with eyes, a mouth, all the necessary organs……You don’t have to go any further. Just consider any stage along this path and wonder.

Doesn’t it make you feel awe?

Doesn’t it make you feel humble?

Just allow yourself to enjoy that for a moment or two.

It’ll shift your perspective on the world.

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I see this sort of thing a lot when I look at old buildings in either France or Spain. This one is in Segovia.

What’s the first thing you notice?

The window?

Or the window in an arch?

See, when I look at something like this I really get to wondering….how did this come about? Did the original builders build a nice big entrance way, two verticals and a horizontal? Building a frame like a picture frame for an entrance? Maybe not….well, maybe not exactly anyway, because it looks like exactly the same bricks have been used to make the archway and some of the bricks seem to run between the two frames….the square frame and the arched frame. So maybe the original builders built an arched entrance and surrounded the arch with a frame?

But then it looks like somebody decided not to have an entrance there after all and filled in the space.

Then somebody else thought, hey, wait a minute, I’d like a window here and put in the window….but did they fit bars around the window at the same time?

So, has this window, this barred window, emerged over many years from a wall which was built in the space formed by an arched doorway?

And what was the thinking behind each of those steps in the development?

Make an entrance, an attractive, obvious entrance…..then block it up…..then make a window, but not one for letting that much light in, and certainly not one somebody might climb into, or out of…..was that, is that, a problem around here? People climbing in and out of windows?

Bear with me here but because I worked as a doctor for almost forty years this image sparks my thinking about patients and the problems they talked about in the consulting room. They’d bring the equivalent of this window….let’s say they’d talk about a pain (instead of a pane….ha! ha! sorry!)…..and I’d ask about the pain, asking them to describe it….its features, its characteristics, its exact location, what surrounded it, or accompanied it……and then I’d want to know how it arose. Tell me when it wasn’t there. What was there before it? What was happening when it began? And so, gradually, what a first glance might be a simple symptom turned into a unique, never before told, story…..and that’s where I began to understand what the problem might be.

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Poppies are such striking flowers. They radiate colour and they pull you towards them to have a closer look, or to take some photos. Their petals are often huge but somehow delicate and fragile, and they don’t last very long.

I do adore these flowers, not least because they offer you a second chance to be entranced by them after their petals fall.

Wow! Just look at this! Click on the photo to get a closer look! Isn’t it just a perfect design? A glorious pattern?

It’s like a jewel, isn’t it? Something precious, something valuable, something simply beautiful.

So here’s an impossible question…..what is more beautiful?

The petals of the poppy, or the poppy after they fall?

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We all live embedded in multiple environments, or contexts…..webs of connected flows of energy, information and materials. I wonder how aware we are of them? I wonder how conscious we are of the signals and messages we are receiving as we go about our every day activities?

When I was in Segovia recently I took a couple of photos, which, with hindsight, I think say something important about one kind of environment – the cultural one. By that I mean the web of meanings and values which bathe a town, a city, or a region in waves of a certain kind….the kind which contribute to what someone means when they talk about “a way of life”, or “an identity”.

The first photo is of these two nuns walking around the corner of a building. Segovia has a history of convents, and many of them are still active.

The second is more secular.

The matadors. Local heroes. Bull fighting evokes strong reactions in people, with some deeply attached to it, and others considering it barbaric. Whatever your reaction, however, you can’t deny this aspect of the cultural environment in a place like this, exerts a powerful influence on the minds and lives of the people who live here, and the people who visit.

I was born in Scotland, in Stirling, the city on the edge of The Trossachs, an area rich in lochs, forests and hills. Stirling Castle stands on a rocky outcrop high above the town and casts its own historic influence on it, and on the people. My gran used to tell me that boys born in Stirling were “Sons of the Rock”. Is there any better example of how culture and place intermingle to create influential environments where ideas of how to live and who I am have their roots?

What is your cultural environment like?

Could you take a photo or two which would give someone else a sense of it?

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I noticed this emblem in the Alcazar in Segovia, Spain. This is where Isabella “The Catholic” was crowned queen Isabella I of Castille in 1474.

The most prominent part of this image is the magpie. So, here’s my first question – what is the symbolism of the magpie in this context? I know the magpie represents both good luck and bad (the old rhyme starts “One for sorrow, two for joy….?) but what’s it’s significance here, in the Alcazar? Secondly, there are two trees, clearly different species. The one on the right looks like a palm tree, but the one on the left? What is that? What are these trees symbolic of? The tree of life and the tree of knowledge? Islam and Christianity? Does anyone know?

Finally there is the five pointed star. A symbol of the Divine?

I’d love to hear any ideas or insights you might have……

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