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Archive for January, 2020

TS Eliot wrote, in “The Rock”

What life have you if you have not life together?
…………
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this City?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other?’ or ‘This is a community?’”
Take a look down your street. Down any street. Imagine all the people who live there. Some of them you might know, others, not so much. Or maybe you don’t know any of them at all. But, here’s my question.
Why shouldn’t all the people living in the same street have the same rights?
The same rights to live, love, learn, work, to garden, to shop, to go out for something to eat, out for a drink…..take part in the same concerts, enjoy the same museums and galleries, see the same movies…..same rights in law, same rights to health care, education, same freedoms to move, to speak, to write, to vote?
In other words, why separate people who live in the same street?
Why separate them according to the place of their birth, or the place of their parents’ birth?
Who benefits from doing that?
Is that any way to create a community? A town? A city? A country? A world?
What do you think? Is it better to set limits on some of the people who live in this street? To say some can stay but some can’t? To say some can vote but some can’t? Some can have access to health, education and social support, but some can’t? And if you think that’s better, how do you think we choose? Who should we include, and who should we exclude?
Because I really don’t see the point of all that separation, and categorisation, and exclusion.

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One of my favourite parts of Cognac is the Place Beaulieu (“beaulieu” means “beautiful place”). When I was there the other day I was struck by the shapes of the pruned trees. It’s not uncommon to see trees pruned as hard as this, and I thought they looked both beautiful and rather shocking.

One glance and you know these are not trees allow to grow free and wild. Someone has a clear vision of what shape they’d like them to be, and cuts them back severely each year to channel their growth, to become the shape which matches the clear vision.

I remember thinking only human beings interfere this much with other parts of Nature, to make plants grow where they want them to grow, to weed out the ones they don’t want. Only humans create gardens and tame animals to make “pleasing” spaces and comforting pets.

But is that true?

Suddenly I remember a scene from one of David Attenborough’s films – the puffer fish –

I mean, that’s pretty something, huh?

Then I thought I’d find a wild tree in my own photo collection. A tree which is obviously untamed. Two sprang to mind.

This one, which I saw a while back in the Charente Maritime. I mean, what’s been going on here? Just what’s the story this tree could tell if only we spoke its language?

And, this one…..

…which I photographed twenty years ago, in Scotland, on a trip to Skye.

When I glanced at this photo I thought to was two or three separate trees on the horizon. Then I looked more closely, and in the underexposed foreground you can see this is a single tree, growing at the side of the road. Isn’t it beautiful? It’s really a classic of the “tree-shape”, of that iterative branching and re-branching that creates a pattern we can see rivers make as they approach an estuary, when we look at them from high above, like from a plane or a satellite. The exact same pattern we can see inside us when we look at the anatomy of our lungs, or our circulatory system, because both the air and the blood flows around inside our bodies along channels which look a lot like this.

See where a thought can go? This one just started with looking up and noticing the shapes of the pruned trees against a blue sky. I think it’s good to let your thoughts flow. I mean, who wants clogged up thoughts?

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Here they come! The first little crocus flowers.

It’s the middle of January, and here in the Charente we have blue skies and a bitingly cold wind blowing from the North East (the literal opposite direction from the prevailing winds which come from the South West).

Every year in late autumn I poke some more holes in the grass around the mulberry tree and plant some crocus bulbs. Last time I planted about fifty of them. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve planted in the last five years. We have an image in mind of a carpet of yellow, purple and white crocus flowers covering the ground at the foot of the tree, but, so far, it’s never looked remotely like that, so I just keep adding a few more every year.

Did you know that there is no scientific way to tell if a seed is dead or alive? No way to know which have the potential to burst out of their shells and make their way through the soil towards the Sun. Any botanists out there can correct me, but I suspect the same applies to bulbs. There’s no way of knowing which will produce full-blown flowers, and there certainly is no way of knowing which of them will appear first.

That means that every single year the sight of the first crocus is a surprise and a delight. It’s like making a discovery. Even if I know it’s me who planted the bulbs there. That delight doesn’t go away with the appearance of the first flower either. Every single new plant brings an equal measure of delight. It’s the gift that goes on giving!

This is one of the occasions where I am struck by how we humans can welcome and embrace uncertainty. We’d like to think we can control things. We’d like to think we can predict things. And there are certainly cases where we can, but more often than not, we can’t. I worked as a General Practitioner for four decades of my life, and the core skill of a GP is to be able to handle uncertainty.

In the Primary Care setting, a GP (Family Doctor), tends to be one of the first to be consulted when a patient becomes unwell and can’t manage their illness by themselves. In my training I was taught this meant I’d see a lot of patients with “undifferentiated illness” – because in the earliest stages of illness things can be pretty vague. There might be a bit of a fever, or just a symptom or two….feeling tired, or achey, of slightly nauseous. In these early hours or days there might not be much to find amiss on a physical exam, or at least, not much to find which is distinctive of any specific disease. A few days, or even hours, later, it can be glaringly obvious! Which is why GPs learn to assess the severity of a patient’s symptoms, the over all level of their health, and the need for any urgency. We learn to review the situation as quickly and frequently as appropriate. We also learn that the future is not predictable at the level of the individual patient. We can have a good knowledge of the likely progress of certain pathologies, but we can’t predict the future path of an individual’s illness. Same thing goes for any treatment. Whether or not a certain treatment is so-called “evidence based”, only the unfolding story of this particular patient in the days and weeks ahead will reveal the course of the illness and the appropriateness of the treatment.

I can see that you might read that and despair, thinking, surely the doctor can do better than that? Surely they can predict the future with certainty. Well, nope, they can’t. What that means is that the uniqueness of the individual can never be set aside. The particularity of the person can never be replaced by the categorisation of their illness by diagnosis, or by the likely effectiveness of any treatment. At all the times, the GP has to make a judgement, based on knowledge and experience, use that judgement to decide what to do, then, crucially, follow up.

That’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea to chop the delivery of health care into little pieces. Dealing with the whole person has got a time dimension to it. We need to know how things are progressing, and make another judgement, another decision, in the light of the changes.

So, I might have started writing this thinking about a little yellow crocus popping up, by I find my train of thought exploring uncertainty, unpredictably and the Practice of Medicine, (who saw that coming?!)

Where that takes me to is – I think there are at least three crucial elements to good Medical Practice –

  1. Time – sufficient time for the patient and the doctor to get a good understanding of what’s going on
  2. Continuity of care – follow through of every event into an emerging story over hours, days or weeks
  3. Open minds – never closing down the thought processes by ticking a box, or issuing a prescription, knowing that the future, in all individual circumstances is uncertain.

I’ll leave you with one of the “new”, newly emergent, crocus flowers, by which I mean one of the new variety I planted last year which has just popped up to say hello!

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Do you do that “word of the year” thing? Where you choose a word at the beginning of each year, a word which will be some kind of touchstone, theme or “north star” for you?

This year, I’ve decided to choose two…….because I received two books as presents for Christmas and it immediately struck me that between them they lay a foundation for a way of living I highly value.

These are French books, so here’s another innovation for me…..up until now my Word of the Year has been an English word, but, hey, I’ve been living in France for the last five years and I’ve read a LOT of French, so, I reckon it’s high time I choose a couple of French words.

Here’s where things start to get interesting, because I can’t find direct, single word translations of these two words into English. Perhaps, more accurately, I should say I can’t find any direct translations into English which I find satisfying. I think that’s a great example of how learning a second language can both widen and deepen your world.

If you’ve read other posts on my site here you’ll have come across my use of the term “émerveillement” already. The first time I read the phrase “l’émerveillement du quotidien” I was entranced by it. It sort of means “the wonder of the every day”. The word “émerveillement” captures my core value of curiosity, of amazement, of awe and of wonder. I adore those moments when you notice something and it stops you in your tracks, where you pause, savour, and reflect. The more that happens in my life, the better my life seems to me. To really experience “émerveillement” you have to be open minded. You have to be curious, aware and non-judgemental. So the pursuit of “émerveillement” every day brings along with it a whole set of other attitudes and behaviours which I value.

Here are a couple of pages from the book which give you a flavour of why it entrances me –

The second word is “bienveillance” which could be translated as “well-meaning” but again, that direct translation doesn’t quite cut it for me. It is used to cover well-meaning and well-wishing, but also kindness, gentleness and care. So, another set of values and behaviours I really rate and aspire to every day.

Here a couple of pages from that book which might stir the same feelings in you. If they do, then, yet again, a picture will have proven to be worth a thousand words.

That quote in the middle image is from the poet Felicia Herman and it translates as “Happiness doesn’t grow in the gardens of anger”, which is an interesting line to consider in these days of conflict and polarisation.

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For the last five years I’ve lived just south of the town of Cognac (that’s Cognac in the distance in this photo).

I’m on the edge of a village surrounded by vineyards.

If you look closely at this photo you’ll see there are actually multiple vineyards covering the landscape. Here’s another view

Here you see at least three distinct vineyards in the foreground to the mid-ground, with several others stretching as far as the eye can see.

One of the things which struck me straight away when I went for my first stroll through the vineyards was that there are no fences, no walls, no hedges between them. Yet, from what I’ve learned, these different vineyards belong to different people. Another thing which struck me was that anyone can wander freely amongst them. There’s even a map of different trails posted up on a large panel outside the village church, and wayfarer wooden signposts with coloured markers to guide you along the different routes.

I’ve made a number of road trips to Spain and Italy since moving here, and every time I’m amazed how I can just drive over the border into, and back from, those countries without showing a single document, or even speaking to a border guard.

Last month I flew to Copenhagen, spent a few days there, then flew on to Edinburgh to visit family. Although I had my passport our of my bag and ready to join the queue for Passport Control when I got off the plane at Copenhagen airport from Bordeaux, I was struck by the fact there was no Passport Control. Instead I just picked up my bags from the conveyor belt and walked out of the airport to the taxi rank. Needless to say, it wasn’t the same flying to Scotland where I had to join a queue and use the automated passport check gate to be allowed in.

I am definitely no expert on the pros and cons of borders and border controls but these experiences get me wondering about both what such procedures and laws are supposed to do, and, whose life is made better and/or safer by imposing them?

Rutger Bregman, who wrote “Utopia for Realists” makes an argument for open borders throughout the world, but it’s hard to find much support for such an idea. Will Hutton’s broadly positive review of Bregman’s book writes –

I understand that open borders and being welcoming to strangers is a great statement of common humanity – and that immigration is an economic benefit. But no society on earth can welcome unlimited numbers of strangers, keen to enjoy the benefits of whatever civilisation, without having made a contribution to it. Human beings believe that dues should be paid. Far better to manage our borders and let in as many immigrants as we can rather than open them indiscriminately.

Caroline Lucas’s review in The Independent doesn’t even mention his promotion of the idea of open borders even though she seems to rate the book highly.

Britain is still in the midst of Brexit with a prevailing rhetoric of “control immigration”, “bringing back control of our borders”, and forcing EU citizens in the UK to apply for “settled status”, even if they’ve been “settled” in the UK for decades.

So, what do you think?

I’m not suggesting anything utopian or fantastical here, I’m just reflecting on what it feels like to move around a countryside without obstructions and boundaries, and to move back and forth between countries without border controls versus travel into and out of countries with strict controls. Is it better to have the queues and checks at the UK border for people arriving from Denmark, France or Spain? Or better to allow the free movement of people across each others borders as the 26 “Schengen” countries do?

What are the real life consequences of these policies and procedures?

As I travel around the “Schengen” countries without border controls I feel free, welcome and even that I belong in each of these different countries. It’s life enhancing!

Sadly, with the anti-immigration, pro-border control policies of the UK now a lot of EU citizens no longer feel welcome there and UK citizens are about lose the freedom to live, study and work in the other 26 countries. It’s not at all clear yet what bureaucracy will be introduced once the UK leaves the EU, but how will any extra application processes, fees and documents make life better for the British? Just asking……..

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I remember how surprised I was to discover how the days of the week share a naming tradition across many languages. The key to understanding the links is to see how each language attributes the same planets to the same days.

Starting with Sunday, the sequence is the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. It’s consistent across many, many languages. Learning a little about the symbolism and mythology of each of the planets allows us to create a rich daily experience with a different theme, or focus, for each day of the week. Try it for yourself. Get yourself a notebook or diary and pick a theme related to each planet and note the themes for each day, then return to that theme throughout that day and see how it colours your experience.

I have since felt quite frustrated that the same principle can’t be applied to the months of the year. Not only are the names of the months not shared through the various languages of the world, but the European model isn’t even based on a consistent naming system. Some of the months are named after Gods, like March, named after Mars, some are named after Roman Caesars, like July and August, and others just get a number, as we see in October through to December. I don’t like it! It feels clumsy and inconsistent. Especially in the light of the names of the days.

I’ve looked around but haven’t found any alternative naming system. What was I looking for? Well, a set of names which had symbolic or mythical meanings, as we have with the days of the week, so that I could play with the themes each month which related to those symbols.

So I came up with my own set of themes, one for each month of the year. Here they are, each one with a sentence or two to explain why I came up the particular theme for the specific month.

January is the start of the new calendar year. It’s named after Janus who faced both forwards and backwards, and can be symbolically represented by a gate. At a gate, we stand on a threshold, about to step from one place to another. January is like this. It’s the time of taking an overview of the year, of starting a new calendar, a new diary, a new journal. It’s a time of reflections and resolutions, looking back at the year just finished and forward to the one beginning.

February has Valentine’s Day right in the middle, but why restrict this loving theme to only one day? How about making February the month of acts of loving kindness?

March is named after Mars, the God of War, or, perhaps more positively, of strength and power. This would be a good month to pay attention to your personal autonomy and your strengths. Maybe a good time to explore the “Signature Strengths” of the Positive Psychologists.

April is the month of the tree blossoms. In Japan, it’s the month of the annual appearance of the Cherry Blossom. This month is a month to celebrate transience. As we celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of transient blossoms, we become aware of the transience of everything in life, not something to fear, but something which enhances our appreciation of every moment. It’s a time to celebrate and enjoy what we have for just a short time.

May is the month of the flowering buds. It’s a time when Nature reveals some of her potential. Make this the month you do that too. Make May the time to wonder about what may come to pass, to imagine how things in your life can flourish.

June is the month of midsummer. The month with the longest day. This can be the month to celebrate the light.

July is the beginning of the second half of the year and for many, is the beginning of the holiday season. This is a month to consider rest. A time to take a break, to pause, relax, and take it easy for a while.

August is “Le Grand Depart” in France, the month when everyone sets off to have a holiday somewhere. To get there, they have to travel. It’s good to enjoy your home, but it’s also good to broaden your outlook by travelling and discovering other places.

September tends to be the start of the academic year. Schools, colleges, universities begin their year here. But you don’t need to be a student to learn. We can all learn throughout our whole lives. What would you like to learn this year? Are there any courses you’d like to take? This is the month to plan and begin new skills and new knowledge.

October is a month of berries. It’s a time of fruition. Maybe this is a good month to celebrate that aspect of life? A time to enjoy what’s come to fruition. A time of congratulation.

November can be a time to reflect as the year draws towards its end. This reflection can be on any, or all, aspects of your life. How is your year going? How are you?

December is the month for gratitude and giving. What are you grateful for, and how could you give to others?

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I don’t deny there is a beauty in fog.

But when I looked out the window this morning and saw that the vineyard covered hillside had disappeared, the word “obscured” popped into my head.

Fog “obscures”. It prevents us from seeing the world so clearly. It draws the horizon closer, sets a nearer limit to our perception.

Well, with that in mind, I spotted an article in Wired magazine……”To fight disinformation we need to weaponise the truth

Through social media, mainstream media and mass media, we are being manipulated on a daily basis. We are bombarded with propaganda and advertising, trying to get us to think what someone else wants us to think, to buy what someone else wants us to buy, to believe what someone else wants us to believe, to vote they way someone else wants us to vote.

When I started this blog over a decade ago I chose the title “Heroes not Zombies” because I had an idea that we tend to drift through life on autopilot, but that if we wake up, become aware, and claim the authorship of our own stories, then we become the heroes of our own stories. But, of course, it’s not just that we drift along on autopilot, it’s that we allow others to sit in the driving seat.

So, here, in that Wired article, is a wake up call, but also a kind of education. The author explains how we are being manipulated.

Cybersecurity researcher Ben Nimmo describes Russia’s approach in terms of the “4Ds”: dismiss critics, distort facts, distract from other issues, dismay the audiences. And indeed Russia has been leading the way in using disinformation-based warfare against other nations. But others are now joining them.

The article is worth reading but I thought I’d summarise the 4 “Ds” here. Just so they are nice and clear. Just so that I don’t forget them.

  • DISMISS critics
  • DISTORT facts
  • DISTRACT from other issues
  • DISMAY audiences

So, as you browse through your timelines on your social media accounts today, or read the headlines on the front pages of the newspapers, or watch the news on TV, why not write these four words down on a post-it and see what the messages you are reading look like in the light of the 4Ds?

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