Archive for August, 2020

Yesterday I wrote about new beginnings, about choosing what and when to start, but I’ve been thinking about it since then and I realise beginnings are paradoxical. They are both easy to find and impossible to find. Why do I say that?

Well they are easy to find because every action, every thought, every experience is, in fact, brand new. Life moves and flows continuously. This present moment has never existed before, not for you, not for anyone you know, not for the planet, not for the universe. So every present moment is a beginning (and, yes, it’s an ending too, because no experiences are exactly repeatable)

They are also impossible to find because everything is connected. We human beings are “complex adaptive systems”. That is we are massively interconnected, both in our own being, and in our contexts, relationships and environments. We are “open systems”. That is there are no impermeable barriers between an individual and the rest of the universe. The atoms, molecules and cells which make up our bodies are changing all the time, as we breathe in, ingest and absorb new materials, and breathe out, expel and excrete other ones. Energy and information flow into and through us continuously.

So what? Well, all this means it can be very hard to trace back from now to a “start point”, or a “beginning”. For example, when a patient would come to see me and complain about a particular problem, and I diagnosed a certain disease, where did that disease start? With the first symptom? With the first symptom which was troublesome? With the pre-conditions before the first symptom began? I was taught to explore a patient’s “past history” to see how this illness might fit in the trajectory of their life. I was taught to explore their “family history” to see if there were family patterns or dispositions. I was taught to explore their “social history” to find out what was happening in their work and social life. I could go on……

A beginning is pretty much arbitrary. It’s where we choose to begin. Think how you would tell your life story to another person. What would you say first?

As I progressed in my work experience I changed my introductory question to each patient, from something like “What’s the problem?”, or “How can I help you?” to “Tell me your story”.

Yep, “tell me your story”. Sometimes a patient would be a bit taken aback with that beginning, but I’d just maintain eye contact, show I was listening and wait. Sometimes I’d have to say a little more to get things going, for example to explain that I wanted to understand what they were experiencing and how it might have come about so I’d like them to just tell me about it in their own way, but usually, people would just start to speak.

Where a person chose to start, and how they told their unique story, was always interesting and relevant. As the consultation progressed I’d often ask another question “When did you last feel completely well?” This was a particularly useful question to be followed up with “Tell me about the weeks and months leading up to that time”.

Those were beginnings. Different beginnings. All useful and all relevant.

I came across this photo of the seed head of a poppy the other day and it’s so beautiful that I just decided I’d like to share it with you. How does it fit with today’s thoughts about beginnings? Well, all plants live cyclical lives, with phases passing through seed, germination, growth, perhaps blossoming or fruiting, and scattering the new seed before dying back for the next cycle. Does the beginning of that cycle start with the seed in the ground, or the seed in the seed head waiting to be dispersed? Or somewhere else?

So, back to beginnings. Whatever you want to begin, begin today. Even if its a habit, a routine, a task you’ve experienced before and stopped, because even when you stop, you can start again. You can start today. After all, you’ve never lived this day before.

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I remember reading that Paulo Coelho, the author, had a practice of starting a new book whenever he came across a white feather. I’m not sure if he still does that, or whether or not he always started a new book every time he came across a white feather……however, this has got me reflecting on the issue of beginnings.

Here I am, sitting in my studio office, near the French town of Cognac. It’s the second last day of August 2020 and we are now….how many months? into this COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve had some recent experiences of thinking the pandemic was easier to cope with when we were in full lockdown than it is now. It seems that life was simpler because it was so constrained. Now there are an ever-changing host of regulations, laws and guidelines depending on where you are. Different in different places in the town, different in different towns, different in different countries. And the stats seem to be changing all the time as well now, as testing numbers increase, positive cases increase, hospital admissions and COVID deaths don’t increase…..just how widespread is this virus? Just how lethal is this virus? What are the best ways to minimise its impact? The answers to all these questions and more seems to change almost by the week now.

So this feels a particularly unsettled period. And, here’s a weird thing, so is the weather! I’ve never known a summer like this here. More wind, cooler mornings and evenings, high afternoon temperatures, unexpected showers, thunderstorms, and weather forecasts that are literally different between going to bed and waking up in the morning.

I find I can’t help wondering from time to time….”when is this all going to end?” Then, I realise, it might not end. The world might be changed by this. Life might be changed by this. We are not in a cycle of return where we will re-inhabit the past, pick up our “old ways” and carry on as if nothing had happened.

I think some people were thinking this way. Sure, a lot of people have talked about the “world after COVID” suggesting many things that could, and should, be changed. But others are more cynical and expect the predominant forces and power groups to steer things back to what suited them up till now.

The truth is none of us know. The truth is none of us can know. We haven’t lived through this particular event before and we haven’t even lived through an event which is “just like this”. We are still trying to understand what we are dealing with. And the future is never a place sitting like the next destination along the railway line just waiting for us to arrive. The future arrives as we live it. The future emerges from the present, from today’s choices and actions.

I got to thinking that maybe a bit like the “glass half full or empty” dilemma, maybe as life is lived it feels full of endings, but maybe it can also feel full of beginnings. Both are true. They are different perspectives. Isn’t there a saying somewhere about life being understood backwards but lived forwards? Something like that. How we make sense of things through reflection and memory, but how we live in a present which is constantly changing as possible futures come into being…..

So, maybe this as a good a time as any to concentrate on beginnings.

What shall I, what shall you, what shall we, start today? If the future really is like a path which emerges as we walk it, which path shall we take today? Which path will we start to create today?

This is my beginning. This is me just thinking of this. But over the next few days I’m going to devote some time and energy to this and ask myself, what shall I begin? How shall I begin to live now, in the light of this recent past, and this ongoing present?

Want to join me? Feel free. Share if you want, or just take some time this week to explore what you’d like to begin. Then begin.

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A few years ago I visited Segovia in Spain and saw all the storks which live there for part of each year. Here’s one feeding a chick….mind you that chick is looking pretty big already! The storks’ nests are huge and look pretty chaotic really. They’re built on roofs, on the tops of towers and tall trees.

If you look carefully you’ll see that each nest is constructed on a kind of wire basket. Now, I don’t know who makes the wire baskets or puts them there but I’m pretty sure it isn’t the storks! So, there’s no doubt the people of Segovia welcome these birds and help them create their homes here. Not all storks are migratory but I think these ones are. Their nests are used for many years, with each season’s storks adding to the material. In amongst a copse of trees I came across there were quite a number of large twigs and branches scattered on the ground, but I don’t know if they fell off during construction, were thrown out by some of the birds, or just fell down because the nest grew too big.

Looking at these photos again I’m reminded of some of the basic needs and drives we share with all living creatures – the need for a home and the need for food. I know there’s a lot more to human beings than that, but we are all motivated to get both food and a home….neither is optional.

Ah, you might say, but some people are nomadic. That’s true, but nomads have “homes” too, they just take them with them, or build new ones wherever they settle for a bit.

We humans are apparently the most highly developed species on the planet. Don’t you think we could manage to provide both home and food to every single human being? Is that beyond us? Or do we have the means, but not the motivation?

When I consider this pandemic I’m struck by the importance of both home and food. If we had better housing, less densely occupied and less densely clustered together, don’t you think it would be harder for an epidemic to become a pandemic? In France, it’s been striking that most of the infections have been in cities with populations greater than 100,000 people – mainly the cities of the “Grand Est” – Paris, Lyon, Marseilles. Incidentally I read a study recently which surveyed populations for life satisfaction and the highest rates were in those who lived in cities or towns of less than 100,000 people.

The second striking feature has been about food – on the one hand, the difficulties faced by many families in getting enough food, because so many people live in precarious conditions, with hardly enough money to get to the end of each normal month. When a crisis comes along, they are hit the hardest. Another aspect of food is the contribution of obesity to the incidence of severe COVID-19 disease. Obesity is a true pandemic, and unless it is tackled by addressing poverty, well-being, inequality and the industrialised agriculture and food production systems of our societies I don’t know how it’s going to be resolved – certainly not by fat-shaming and hectoring people to eat less and move more!

Is it beyond our abilities and/or our will to create more robust, healthier, happier societies by at least dealing with these two key needs…..the need for decent homes and the need for nutritious food?

Oh, and just so you don’t forget what this is all about……

Let’s do this for the babies, the children, the chicks!

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Yesterday I shared a post about two forms of growth….unfurling (unfolding, opening, flourishing or blossoming) and connecting (reaching out to make bonds, relationships and links).

Today I came across a couple of photos from my garden which show both of these processes occurring at the same time. In this first photo you can see how the tendril or creeper which is reaching out is doing so in a kind of spiralling or un-spiralling way. It doesn’t consider that a straight line is the shortest distance between any two points! Perhaps there is something to learn from this – a sort of melange of meandering and spiralling around.

But what really struck me was this photo because I took a close up of these beautiful spirals and because I was focussing on the near distance the background has gone nicely blurred (something photographers call Bokeh I believe!) – but, wait! Look more closely! Look at the centre of the spiral which is in the bottom left corner of this image!

Through that spiral the distance suddenly becomes clear as crystal.

I don’t know what you think, but that reminded me of my favourite “And not or” theme – when you take BOTH of these processes of growth together suddenly you can see the world more clearly!

If you’re interested to read more about “And not or” check out my book.

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Both of these images are beautiful and I think that in each of them we see a way of growing.

The image on the left is an unfurling. It’s an opening up, a revealing, a bursting out. The outer surface splits apart to allow the inner flower to come into the world. Buds are a powerful example of growth. We see them everywhere in the Spring. They start as small swellings, then their appearance becomes more complex as they grow, then they open up. This opening up, this “flourishing”, is one of the main ways of growing in the world. It’s a blooming, a blossoming. Beautiful. Isn’t this what we hope for in ourselves and our loved ones? That we are able to realise our potentials, that we are able to unfold and reveal our uniqueness, that we develop, grow and mature in a way which we could only call “blossoming”?

The image on the left is a connecting. This is a reaching out, a stretching out, a spiralling upwards, downwards, along until we find something else to catch on to, then investing power and energy is creating a strong, resilient bond. This is a second, equally important, way of growing. We grow by making connections, forming bonds, developing strong, resilient relationships. We grow by finding and connecting to “the other”…..to other beings, other parts of our environment, other parts of ourselves even.

So, in these two images I see two of the most fundamentally important ways of growing and developing – unfurling and connecting.

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In the chateau down in Blaye there are some abandoned buildings. Look what happens when a man-made structure is left unattended. Nature begins to reclaim the territory. In the photo on the left you can see the advance of the ivy over the window, and in the one on the right you can still make out where the window is, you just can’t see it any more.

During the lockdown and even during this time of eased restrictions, it is clear that human beings have to a certain degree retreated and the rest of Nature has been left to reclaim the world. Many people have commented on the amount of birdsong they can hear now, and that’s not all down to there being less traffic. Some of it seems to be there are more birds in and around our gardens and streets now.

This summer has seen a sudden surge in wasp numbers in this part of the world and one of the explanations given for that is also the temporary retreat of human beings into their houses and gardens. It seems there has been less vigilance on the part of park and grounds authorities so wasps’ nests have been left unattended and allowed the wasp populations to proliferate.

I think each of these examples reveals how intricately interconnected we all are on this planet…..and by “we” I don’t just mean “we humans”, I mean “we living organisms”……humans and other animals, birds, insects, and plants too.

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I’m pretty keen on creativity. I have an eye for what’s new. In fact, I’ve been pretty impressed with the old philosophy which says to treat every day as if it’s the first time you’ll have experienced it. Because it is. Each patient who came into my consulting room was coming in to tell me a new experience, a new story. Even if I already knew them quite well they’ll still come and tell me something I hadn’t heard them say before. Everyone had the capacity to surprise me.

I love the Spring time of the year because I love to see the new seeds pushing up the first green shoots, love to see the buds beginning to form and unfurl, love to see the first sight of the migratory birds returning from their winter travels.

But Autumn is sort of opposite to that. It’s a time of a certain paradox – a time of fruition and therefore harvest, but also a time when the world begins to wind down, go to sleep, or even die off. It’s a time you might call the “down cycle”. I love that too. I love to see the leaves turn yellow, red, brown, golden. I enjoy sweeping up the leaves that fall from the mulberry tree.

This photo reminds me of the down cycle. Here’s a piece of iron. Some large, once strong panel or plate which someone created. But it’s been cast aside for a long time, and Nature has begun to break it down. The once smooth and shiny surface is breaking up into these little chips and flakes. The chips and flakes will, finally, turn to dust.

Does that seem like a loss?

I suppose viewed from one perspective it is. But Nature has down phases as well as resting phases, waking, growing phases, and maturing phases too. Could anything exist if any of these phases didn’t exist?

I think we need to remember that sometimes, and not get too upset and anxious about change. Nothing stays the same. And because nothing stays the same we are able to start each day as if we had never lived it before….because we haven’t. Imagine! How much there will be to discover today. How many new experiences and sensations you will have. How many new thoughts and feelings you will experience.

Life is dynamic. As Carlo Rovelli, the physicist says

A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.

I think an awareness of the phases and cycles of life reminds us of that. There’s beauty in every phase.

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I came across this old photo the other day. I took it in Paris. In the foreground you can see some of the famous love locks. I’m not sure where this habit began but you can find it all over the world now. In this case these ones are along one of the banks of the Seine. On the opposite bank, the first thing you probably notice is the huge “Printemps” department store with its facade covered with scaffolding for building works. Rather than just cover the scaffolding with boring, bland material, they’ve made it look like a giant mural depicting a happy, carefree shopper swinging her bags of purchases as she almost flies over the ground. Right in front of the shop, but down a level on a promenade, you can see a gathering of people. Maybe if you zoom in you’ll make out that there are some musicians in this little crowd, because that’s what was going on. There was a jazz band playing by the side of the river. A kind of large busking event. They attracted people to gather around them and listen to the upbeat delightful music, but you can see a fair number of people also stopped on the bridge up above them to look and to listen.

Last night I watched a movie. A British rom-com called “Finding Your Feet“. I enjoyed it and had some real laugh out loud moments. For example, the character played by Joanna Lumley saying she had been married five times and the last time the marriage had ended “due to religious differences” – “He thought he was God and I disagreed”. But there are sad themes of loss and dying in the movie too. In one scene most of the cast go off to Rome to take part in a dance performance, and as they spend a day and an evening enjoying Rome together I was suddenly struck with a feeling of loss myself.

I realised I had the same feeling when I looked at this photo here. It’s a sort of nostalgia for what we used to call normal. There they are, all kinds of people, out in the city, no need for masks, no need for “social distancing”, as carefree as the character painted on the Printemps mural.

I have a longing for that normality again. I guess a lot of us are feeling pretty fed up with this pandemic by now. I guess many of us aren’t feeling that comfortable with all the measures introduced to “protect us” by making us wary of others, and constantly reminding us that we might catch this virus, get ill, and even die. It’s not getting much easier, is it?

So what are our options?

Mine is a mixture of acceptance and adaptation. The virus is present. It’s highly unlikely that I will catch it, and, apart from my age, I’m not in any of the groups likely to suffer the infection most severely. In fact, most people won’t catch it, and most of those who do won’t suffer much. But some will. Enough to overwhelm hospitals and carers….potentially. So, at the very least from a position of care and solidarity I need to change some of my habits. So I choose to go along with the increased physical distancing, the wearing of a mask to reduce the chance of spreading the virus, and to let go off some of the things which had become a normal part of my life – travel, day trips to cities, visits to museums and galleries, lunch in a seaside town during the holiday season. I’m sure you’ll have your own list.

So, I have this nostalgia for “normal” and I hope “normal”, at least as an experience will return soon.

Meanwhile I’m drawing my focus in to the everyday wonders of life here and now. Enjoying the glimpses of the “Little Owl”s, or the “Barn Owl” which flew over my head the other night in the dark. Gazing at the sparkling night sky wondering what I’m looking at. Sunset bathing…..basking in the glorious colours of the clouds as the last minutes of the day turn the world pink, and rose, and violet. Losing myself in wonder at the drunken stumbling movements of bees gathering nectar deep in the big yellow pumpkin flowers. I could go on.

I’ve started the practice of “morning pages” again (if you don’t know this practice, google it. Or check out this older post of mine). I’m writing these daily posts, compiling and editing photos and texts for my next book (remember to check out my last one – “And not Or“) I’m reading as avidly as I’ve ever read, and pretty much each day feels like a good one.

What are you doing?

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One thing this pandemic has done is it has broken a lot of habits and traditions. Perhaps one of the biggest of these is working from an office.

I wonder how many people have been working from home now instead of from an office, and I wonder how many of you, at this stage, have decided that, actually you prefer it this way.

There are, of course, pros and cons. When you break down the boundaries between work and the rest of your life there’s more of a danger of work seeping into other areas of your life, than there is of other areas of your life seeping into your work!

There’s a freedom, a flexibility and a release from long commutes. But there’s a change of human contact from face to face, to screen to screen, and, for many people that feels like something lost rather than gained.

I wonder what this experience will do to the future of work. I don’t mean just the shrinking of certain forms of work and the complete loss of others, but of the way work continues for those whose jobs remain secure.

2020 is turning out to be a sort of “bardo” – a gap, a pause, a space – it’s got an in-between quality to it. In the future people will talk about life “BP” and “AP” – Before the Pandemic and After the Pandemic. Two things these in-between times give us is the opportunity to do things differently AND the opportunity to reflect, reassess and revalue.

How’s that going for you?

Has your life changed now in ways which will make your “AP” years significantly different from your “BP” ones?

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I took this photo in Capetown many years ago. It wasn’t my intention to take a photo of a seagull, but, somehow the bird’s presence adds to the image, rather than taking anything anyway.

What I was wanting to photograph was this very common phenomenon which the locals refer to as “The table cloth”. It’s when white clouds form on top of Table Mountain and steadily spill over the edge to tumble down the cliff face.

They don’t tumble that far before disappearing. It’s mesmerising. I watched it for ages. It seemed like there was an endless supply of white cloud on the mountain top. No matter how much spilled over, there never seemed any less on top. It’s a constantly moving phenomenon. The cloud tumbling over the edge is continuous. At the very top it looks like a waterfall, but, as you can see, it’s a waterfall which completely disappears within the first few metres of its descent.

Where does it go?

As you stand and look at it, you are watching the visible become invisible. Right before your very eyes.

Isn’t it amazing that all that water which creates the white cloud is already present in the air, but invisibly so, and it all just vanishes back into its natural invisibility as you watch it.

I know I often think of the relationship between a wave and the ocean when I think of our individual existences…..how we emerge from the ocean, the way an identifiable wave emerges, without ever leaving the environment in which it exists.

This “table cloth” phenomenon is like another example. The water exists in the air, then it coalesces to from clouds like these, before slipping back into the invisibility of the air.

Each of us, in our short, transient lives, is fashioned out of all that exists, appearing briefly in our distinct, unique form, before slipping back into the continuity of Existence.

As the physicist, Carlo Rovelli, wrote…

A handful of elementary particles which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and non-existence and swarm in space even when it seems that there is nothing there combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies of the innumerable stars of sunlight of mountains woods and fields of grain of the smiling faces of the young at parties and of the night sky studded with stars.

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