Archive for July, 2020

How’s your sleep pattern recently? A lot of people are discovering new rhythms or developing new habits since this pandemic began. If you’ve lived through a lockdown in your country then it’s highly likely your work life and social life norms have been enormously disrupted. How has yours changed?

Maybe you’re waking up and/or getting up at a completely different time and, if so, you’re probably finding your bedtime has changed too. What’s interesting about this is that it could well be that your body has eased itself into its natural diurnal rhythm.

So what? you might ask. Well I think we can learn a lot about ourselves by paying attention…..paying attention to our bodies and what they are telling us.

One thing that might have become clear is how much sleep you actually need. That’s something you can take forward because even when life opens up and your need to be out of the house at a particular time returns you now know when you should head to bed each night.

Another thing that might have become clear is when your “best” times are….are you more a “morning person” or a “night owl”? Knowing that helps you to decide when to do certain tasks (up to a point!)

A lot of people are finding that this period of stepping out from their norms and from their externally imposed tasks and schedules is leading them to reconsider a lot of aspects of life. Some people are thinking about moving, hoping never to be trapped in an inner city flat with no outside space again. But that’s tied up in work, income, schools or all sorts of other aspects of life.

How about you? What new life patterns have emerged for you, or old life patterns been rediscovered?

What are you reassessing, and, importantly, what are you going to do about that?

There will be no “return to normal” so what changes would you like to make?

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I love a sky like this. It’s so richly textured. The clouds look both solid and insubstantial at the same time covering the entire sky yet somehow hinting that they could disappear in minutes.

I always find that combination of the ephemeral yet solid reality so appealing. It seems to capture the core characteristic of life – brief, fragile and transient AND filling the entire moment with substantial touchable feel-able presence.

I also adore the rich patterning of a sky like this. Not a featureless grey cover stretching from one horizon to another but shaped and varied and changing over every square metre of the sky.

What creates a pattern like this out of water? How do those millions of normally invisible little water molecules link up and shape themselves into those delightful shapes?

I don’t know

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The essence

Certain images capture something of the essence of a place. Or, maybe better, capture some of the most prominent themes of a place. This is one such image for me.

I took this from the window of my study. It shows an old Citroen 2CV car in the middle of the vineyards. Both the vineyards and this particular model of car are SO French!

I used to have a car very similar to this one. It was my first brand new car and probably one of the most fun cars I ever had. You could roll the roof back on sunny days and you could lift out the back seat to either carry bigger objects or use it to sit on while having a picnic. I transported a far too large Christmas tree in it one year, with most of the tree sticking out through the roof!

As was typical of 2CV owners of the time I had a bright yellow “Nuclear Power? No thanks!” sticker on the back. I guess people probably thought they had a good idea of my values when they saw me in that car. And maybe they were right!

Somehow cars have become way more indistinct these days. Do you agree?

I live in a small village near to the town of Cognac and the entire countryside around here is vineyards. Cognac production is THE major industry in this part of the world with dozens of distilleries, barrel-making and bottle making plants, stores selling tractors and other vineyard machinery, factories which make corks and so on.

Cognac is the essence of Cognac!

Since this pandemic began our horizons seem to have shrunk and expanded all at once. Shrunk because we have been spending our lives within tighter limits, traveling less, visiting less, shopping closer to home. It’s kind of refined our habits I think. You might say it’s “distilled” them!

On the other hand it’s expanded our consciousness making us more aware than ever of how interconnected and interdependent we all are on this one small blue marble of a planet.

What would you photograph to capture an essence of the place where you live?

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Some boats have such great names. This is one of my all time favourites. I can’t see this without thinking someone likes to prove the impossible is, actually, possible after all!

Maybe one of the reasons that I like to claim that the impossible isn’t impossible is that through my working life as a doctor I was frequently surprised by the turn of events.

I know that prognosis is one of the skills doctors are taught. However my experience was that individual patients didn’t conform to the predictions we’d make based on our knowledge of pathology and the natural history of disease.

I learned that the hard way. In my first few days as a junior hospital doctor I admitted a seriously ill elderly lady to a ward. Her two, also elderly, daughters were sitting in the corridor visibly distraught. They asked me if their mum was going to be ok, and wanting to reassure them, I said “Oh yes, of course.” The words were no sooner out of my mouth when one of the nurses called me over to tell me the old lady had just died. I didn’t make that mistake again!

Of course none of us can predict the future. One day one of patients told me her husband had recently been told he had only three months left to live. I asked her how that made her feel. She replied “Really angry”. That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. “Why angry?” I asked. She replied “Well why does he get to know how long he’s got and I don’t know how long I’ve got?”

I guess a lot of impossible things are impossible but it’s just hard to know what the future holds so, sometimes, what seems impossible isn’t impossible after all.

I think of that these days when the world seems so full of crises and difficulties. Can we make a better world? Can we learn from these crises and change direction?

I think we can.

I don’t think it’s impossible.

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There was a craze hundreds of years ago for “chimera” – originally an idea from Greek mythology, medieval peoples took it a whole stage further and created all kinds of bizarre animals.

The chimera is an invented animal made up of the parts from other animals…so maybe a human head, a lion’s body, wings, a serpent tail etc. You can see lots of them carved onto the sides of old churches, and they illustrated old texts as well.

What do you think of them? Are they horrifying? (I think they were often intended to be so) or are they fun? Fascinating?

They just aren’t “natural” are they? You would never imagine that a creature like this existed anywhere. Maybe, once upon a time, some people did. Maybe they believed that they lived in unexplored regions…..remember the old maps with the unmapped areas labelled “Here Be Monsters”?

Probably the commonest reaction to them is a sort of disgust. We find them a bit repulsive….even the more beautiful ones!

I wonder if both chimera and genetically modified plants and animals touch that same core discomfort in us. There’s something a bit unsettling about cutting some DNA out of one creature and splicing it into another, don’t you think?

I think it’s no surprise that many people want GM foods labelled so they can choose not to buy them if they don’t want to. I think it’s not a surprise either that many people think there are complex ethical challenges to be addressed, and a need for intense oversight and control of the whole business of mixing DNA from creature into another……

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There’s something which really bothers me about modern management theory and practice – “efficiency”.

“Why should that bother you?” you ask.

Well, because it seems to me that it usually means getting the greatest return from the least input or effort. And I’m not sure that’s always a good idea. I’m coming from the perspective of health care. I despaired of the annual cuts after cuts after cuts in the NHS. Every year I saw colleagues who retired or moved away, not replaced. Every single time someone left the remaining staff were asked to “absorb” the missing colleague’s workload. Every year there were more budget restrictions, more closures of beds and services, all in the name of “efficiency”.

So what has happened now that a pandemic has hit? Not enough beds, not enough equipment, not enough staff. Even now, weeks into the crisis, frontline staff lack adequate amounts of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). All the pressure to “protect the NHS” was due to the fact it had been pared down to the bone over at least a decade. There was, and there is, no, or little, resiliency in the system. Yes, they redirected staff and reallocated beds to deal with the COVID-19 patients, but did so at the expense of the care and services which those staff and beds were normally employed for.

Is it really a good idea to have “just in time” ordering and delivery systems for something like the NHS? It doesn’t look like it. Is it really a good idea to have as few beds as possible, as few hospitals as possible and as few staff as possible? It doesn’t look like it.

Nature doesn’t do it this way.

Nature goes for abundance. Look at the seedhead in the photo at the start of this post. How many seeds are there from that single plant? Way more than you’d “need” for reproduction and spread you might think. Would it not be more “efficient” for the plant to produce, say, half that number of seeds? Or maybe only ten percent? It doesn’t look like it.

Complex adaptive systems are Nature’s way of enabling adaptability and resilience. All such systems have what scientists call “redundancy” – by which they mean there are “belt and braces” approaches, there are several pathways to achieve the same thing. It’s by drawing on those “extra” resources and methods that Natural living organisms survive and thrive.

I think we need to learn that from Nature. There’s been way too much paring back, stripping down, and minimising going on. If we want resilient services, and resilient societies we aren’t going to get there by “efficiently” going for the least, the cheapest, the quickest and the meanest.

Here’s what Nature does –

It goes for more……

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What happens as new technologies, new designs and new fashions appear? Do they replace the existing and past ones? Do we throw away the ones we have and replace them with the new ones we just bought?

Well, I suspect that happens a lot. What do we do with the old “stuff’? Stick it in a drawer, or in the attic? I read that most of us have old phones, old cameras, old laptops etc stuck in the house somewhere….no longer used, out of sight, out of mind, just occupying space (although, to be fair, it’s usually dark space……somewhere hidden where nobody can see it)

Dark space, huh? There’s an interesting idea! Sounds a bit like “dark matter” or “dark energy” which between them are apparently mainly what the universe is “made of”. I wonder how much the “dark space” in our houses affects the way we live? Or do you think all that stuff has no effect because you don’t see it on an everyday basis?

If we don’t stick the old stuff into dark space, then maybe what we do is throw it away, give it away, or sell it. There are increasingly good reasons to do the latter two, rather than the former one.

Nature doesn’t do waste. There is no waste in Nature. So why don’t we try to be more natural?

Be more like Nature!

How are we going to do that? Well, reducing waste would be a good idea. Longevity of products would help that. In other words making things which last. We used to call that quality. Wouldn’t it be good to have better quality in our lives?

But longevity isn’t enough. Our lives change, our needs change, there is just a lot that we don’t need any more, don’t use any more, don’t wear any more. What to do with that?

Share it – “toy banks”, “clothes banks”, “community swaps” etc.

Give it away – donations to charities, to relatives, to friends etc

Sell it – in France there are lots of “vide grenier” – which translates as “attic emptying” – in other countries you might call them “garage sales” or “car boot sales”. There are lots of online options too.

Or, in the case in the photo above, it seems to me, they’ve gone for “and not or”. They had a way of visitors letting them know they were there. It’s pretty attractive actually……a handbell with a cockerel on top. But, maybe because it’s not so easy to get to the door any more, they’ve added a smart video-doorbell, so they can see who is there, and, maybe, I don’t know, press a button to open the door. So why not just take the bell and cockerel down and throw it away, give it away, or sell it? Maybe it means something to this homeowner. Maybe their grandfather made it, or it was a wedding gift, or….well, use your imagination. We humans relate to objects in more than mere utilitarian ways. Sometimes we want to have a particular object because it inspires memories, symbolically conveys meaning to us, or to others…..and that’s absolutely fine.

(Mind you, it’s unlikely all that stuff in your “dark space” has got real, valued meaning for you…..because if it did, why would you keep it where you can’t see it??)

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There’s an amazing plant known as “Boston ivy”, or “False Vine”, which grows up the largest, old stone wall on one border of my garden. Actually the wall has fallen down now, but the vine is still growing, and has in fact made the gaping wound of the collapse considerably more beautiful.

I’ve had great pleasure from this vine over the last five and half years. It changes SO much with each season. This particular photo is taken in early Spring when the dormant, rather bare, plant is waking up and emerging from the Winter.

The first sign of its awakening is the appearance of the these bright red buds which look like pen tips, or the beaks of tiny finch-like birds. If you look carefully, maybe especially at the one which is most “top right” of the group, the woody part of the stem even looks like it has created an eye, which with the red bud bursting forth, makes this look even more like the head of a little bird with a bright red beak.

One of the things I find most attractive about a phenomenon like this in Nature is how it demonstrates symmetries and echoes of other parts of the world. As far as I am aware, there are no little finches with bright red beaks in this part of the world, so it’s only my awareness of them from other experiences that allows me to see these buds as suggestive of something else.

I think a lot of symmetries, echoes and resonances are like that. We have to have the other prior experiences and knowledge, we have to have an open mind, really paying attention to the detail of what is right before our eyes, but we also need imagination.

Without imagination could these resonances exist?

That question, suddenly, reminds me of the old “Does a tree falling in a forest make a noise if there is nobody there to hear it?”

Well, does it?

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These two images were taken within seconds of each other. Both are a picture of the full moon through the branches of a tree.

But they look very different don’t they?

In the first one, the tree is to the fore. We notice the pattern of twigs, buds and branches, with the full moon as a white, circular background. If you look carefully, you can even see different colours, some reddish, some bluish, in the tree….although I’m still not sure where those colours came from!

In the second one, I’ve allowed the light of the moon to dominate, whiting out the tree in front of it….almost completely, but what this has done is reveal the parts of the tree lit by the moon, but just outside of the intense white light of the moon itself. This does two things…..it creates a sense of a swirling circle of branches around the moon, with an opening in the tree which just happens to be moon-shaped. This is an illusion – there is no moon-shaped gap in the tree.

I love both of these images, and don’t actually have a preference, but I realise that just by altering the exposure setting in the camera, I alter the entire frame of the shot….and that the two different frames give very different experiences of reality.

That’s what frames do. They shape our experience of reality. The frames we use all the time are fashioned out of our beliefs, values, habits of thoughts, and established attitudes. They aren’t easy to change. They aren’t even that easy to see. But I think it’s important to try to become aware of them, given how powerfully they shape our perception of reality.

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Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Le Petit Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I often notice, and photograph heart shapes, but in this particular photo what I like best is that the heart is in a path.

I like that because I think this is the most fundamental value for me. It’s not a simple value….this heart-focused one….but its complexity adds to it, rather than diluting it.

The heart is a symbol of love for us. If I want to live the best life I can live, I believe it has to be a life of love. Love in all its forms. Love in the form of care and compassion. Love in the form of passion and desire. Love in the form of bonds and relationships. Maybe we don’t speak much about these forms of love these days, but it’s always something I think we can do with more of.

The heart is also a symbol of the soul. “Heart felt”, “heart warming”, “good hearted”, “heart to heart” are all phrases which suggest authenticity and depth. It is the antithesis of the superficial and careless. It nurtures. It supports. It nourishes.

The heart is an important part of the body for processing emotions. We now know there is a neural network, of the kind of cells we used to thought you found only in the brain, around the heart. What does that network do? It seems to be involved in the generation and management of emotions.

The heart also focuses us on qualities rather than quantities. What we see, what we feel, what we know, with the heart can’t be examined under a microscope, weighed, measured or have a monetary value attached to it.

A path of the heart is a path of love, emotion and quality.

What is essential is invisible – and can only be seen with the heart.

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