Archive for November, 2020

Last year I photographed this doorway in Salamanca. What caught my attention were the eyes. I mean, they are so big, how could they not catch my attention? I came across this photo again yesterday and it’s actually one of two. The first one is a close up of the eyes, but it was only when I looked at this second one that I noticed the large circular painting at the top of the door. I’m pretty sure that when I was there I’d have thought it was a close up of an eye….the pupil….so, just another eye on the door. But today, in the light of this pandemic, it looks just like a “corona”! Check out this photo I took earlier this year of a corona around the sun –

Do you see what I mean?

How weird is that? Now, even when I saw that corona around the sun a few months back I thought it was strangely appropriate. I don’t think I’d ever seen this exact phenomenon before – these concentric rings around the sun which made it look a bit like a giant pupil. It was so new to me that I looked it up and discovered it is called a “corona”.

A corona! During the “coronavirus pandemic”!

Well, when I return to the Spanish photo I now see the painted door and gate as covered with images of eyes, and dominated by a closeup of an eye at the top, a close up which transforms that eye into a corona.

How could that not stimulate my thoughts about the virus, the pandemic and the massive increase in “bio-surveillance”. We are in lockdown number two here in France and I need to produce a paper every time I leave the house. France, like many countries, has an app, which will inform you if you’ve been near someone who has tested positive. France, like many countries, is running as fast as it can towards mass testing, apparently hoping to test most of the population frequently. Already there are ideas that you’d need to certify your recent negative test to be allowed to visit an elderly relative in a care home. You might have to certify a negative test to be allowed to board a flight. They are already well down the road to mass testing of pupils and teachers regularly to exclude and isolate those who are positive. In England they are proposing testing students at university before “allowing” them to go back to their families for Christmas. In many countries, although, strangely, not yet here in France, customers entering bars, restaurants or even certain shops, are required to register their presence, recording their location and time of visit via a QR code. You can already hear voices suggesting that vaccination certificates might be required to allow a person to use public transport, enter public buildings, go back to work, or to travel.

We have slipped so easily into mass surveillance.

I understand all of it. I can see the logic. I can even see the sense of it. But there’s still something a bit spooky at having these eyes all over the place, watching over us, checking we are complying with the decrees and the rules.

Is this the price of freedom? Surveillance.

Is the alternative option, “confinement” as they say here in France, or “lockdown” in English speaking countries. Less freedom and coupled with more surveillance?

Have we reached a turning point? Is this part of the “new normal” that people talk about?

Honestly, I don’t have the answers. But I think it’s important to know who is doing the surveilling, and that everything they do is as transparent as possible to allow us all to hold them accountable and responsible. And that side of things isn’t going terribly well so far in many countries is it? Centralised power, autocratic power, cronyism and secrecy, hidden contracts allowing rich companies and individuals to get even richer…..that’s not the kind of system which will allow the average person to accept mass surveillance – even when it is done for the best of intentions.

So, can I make a plea here, raise my voice, throw my hat in the ring…..the “new normal” is going to have to be different by becoming more democratic, more open, and with more de-centralised authority. We need to tackle inequalities of all kinds – economic, social, educational, racial, gender etc – and shift the balance away from greater and greater concentration of wealth and power in the hands of less and less people. We need to open society up and be able to hold to account those who are elected, or delegated, to take decisions for the rest of us. We need to limit the time any single person can hold such powers. And, finally, I think we need to shift from the failing “representative democracy” which currently dominates, to a healthier, fully functioning “participative democracy” where we can all be involved.

Maybe we actually need more surveillance – the surveillance of those who hoard wealth and power.

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The Boston Ivy plant which grew over the entire enormous ancient wall which ran along one side of my garden has continued to thrive even though the wall fell down dramatically just before Christmas almost a whole year ago. In that time the stones have been left where they fell and what was left of the vine continued to grow and, even, thrive.

This is an amazing plant which goes through extremely distinct phases. There are little beak-like buds on the ends of the woody stems which open up in the Spring. The glorious green leaves which unfurl are so dense that many birds make their nests in them and in the Summer the whole plant buzzes loudly to the sound of thousands of bees collecting pollen. It produces seeds which pop out of their shells once the Sun passes towards the Western horizon beyond the wall each day, and they cascade down in the millions, sounding for all the world like a fountain. The first time I heard it I actually went looking for the water pouring down the wall, but, of course, there was none. Then in the autumn the leaves turn yellows, golds and reds, then fall off, revealing foot long bright yellow stalks, one for each leaf. These fall next. As each layer is shed other structures and colours appear….dark purple berries, and bright red stalks.

This photo, which I took a couple of days ago, shows the pattern of red stalks, now that the berries and leaves have now gone. This is a distinctive form – I recognise it from my days of anatomy study at university. The human body uses this form a lot….this structure of ever branching pathways, from large trunks to a myriad of small stalks. You can see that in our lungs. Air passes down from our noses and mouths via the trachea which branches into two – one for each lung. Then in each lung there are many further branchings, creating ever smaller, narrower passageways until finally they end in little swellings like bunches of grapes – the alveoli. You can look at how blood circulates around our bodies, through arteries, veins and capillaries and you see this same continuously branching structure. You can see similar pathways in our kidneys but the direction of branching seems reversed, starting with a myriad of small tubules, which collect together to form bigger ones, all of them ultimately draining into the ureters, one for each kidney – just like we see streams joining to form rivers which flow down the mountains to the sea. I could go on….you see this sort of structure everywhere in the body and you see it everywhere in plants as well.

At first glance it looks complex, but in fact it’s a pretty simple, straightforward form. It looks like there is more of it than necessary….wouldn’t it be better to channel all the flows down major routes instead? After all when you fall your SatNav doesn’t it tell you the quickest way to get from A to B is to avoid all the small, branching, “side” roads?

But Nature knows better. Not only does this pattern allow for the greatest interaction of, say, the plant, or the human, with the air, by creating the greatest surface area contained within a relatively compact space, but it is incredibly resilient, robust and flexible. If the flow were to be obstructed in one small section, it would soon be re-established, or increased through the myriad of other passageways.

This is what is called “redundancy” and Nature loves “redundancy” – it’s the opposite of modern management systems of “efficiency”. The idea is to always have more options, more resources, than you think you need. We design aircraft this way – they have so many backup systems, so much “redundancy”, more engines than it needs to fly, so that even if there is a failure, other systems and resources will immediately kick in so that the plane continues to fly – planes aren’t “resilient” – they aren’t designed to recover quickly from damage – they are “robust” – they are designed not to fail in the first place.

If there is one thing this pandemic has revealed, it’s the wisdom of Nature and natural systems. We have pared back our Health Services and Care Services to the bone. We have closed hospitals, beds and facilities, and failed to employ enough staff to deal with any more than the basic needs of the population – and even that not very well.

Surely it’s time to resource these services much much better. We need vastly more trained doctors, nurses and other staff. We need more facilities, more equipment and more flexible to systems. We need different, diversified, localised and devolved structures of power and organisation.

That’s the way Nature works. That’s the way the human body works. Why not design our organisations and societies on the same principles?

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I don’t know if it’s partly due to going into the second significant lockdown here in France, or mainly down to the wider disruption of normal routines and activities which we’ve all been experiencing for almost a year now, but I recently felt pretty dissatisfied with how my days can so easily drift.

I decided that were two areas of activity which have always increased the quality of my day – creative activities and learning activities. I so enjoy writing, photography and playing music – my main creative activities. And I have a life-long, curiosity driven, passion for learning.

Do you know the “pomodoro” time management method? Based on the classic Italian tomato shaped kitchen timer. The idea is that you set the timer for 20 minutes and start your activity. When the 20 minutes is up you take a short break, then set it for another 20 minutes, and go again. Well, starting from there, but deciding I wanted sessions to last longer than 20 minutes, I came up with the idea of one hour, timed sessions – ones for creative activities, and ones for learning activities.

I didn’t want to schedule entire days….well, I’m retired now and don’t need to schedule entire days the way I had to during four decades of work as a doctor. But I reckoned that even if I managed one of each of these timed sessions a day, the day would feel better. And you know what? It does.

My one hour of creative time and one hour of learning time are my minimum. I can have other ones if I want and if it’s feasible to have them on a particular day. So, there’s nothing to stop me having one hour of learning a language, and one hour of learning piano, for example, to make two learning sessions. Or one hour of one writing project, and another hour of a different one, to have two creative sessions.

I did have a notion to apply a similar technique to other activities in my day and on reflection reckoned there were two other major kinds of daily activity – there are all things you have to do just to keep life going – washing, cleaning, food shopping, meal preparation etc. And there are all the things which are just done for enjoyment – listening to music, watching movies, reading fiction etc. So I thought of “Doing sessions” and “Enjoying sessions”. But I abandoned that idea before I got going – it felt like a slippery slope to something too micro-managed – and, hey, even without trying I find that every day I do the “doing” things and the “enjoying” things anyway, so I really don’t need to do anything to enable them to happen. What I needed to pay attention to, and to consciously create, were the creativity and learning sessions.

I share this with you today, because maybe you too are feeling you’d like to have more quality in your day, or maybe achieve that nice balance of quality and structure. Anyway, if you like the idea, please develop it the way it will work for you. Play with the types of sessions, and the specific activities you want to include in particular sessions. Decide how long you’d like a session to be, and how many you want to include in an average day. Then just start.

Why not let me know how you get on? I’d be delighted to hear from you. All comments on this blog are “moderated” – that means I have to approve them before publishing them – so if you want to tell me something but don’t want me to publish what you tell me, just make that clear in the comment you send me, and I won’t publish it.

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Picking up on yesterday’s post about threads and weaving life stories, I thought I’d share this photo I took in an old weaving factory in Aubusson. Isn’t this a fabulous stock of yarns? Look at the colours!

Probably because I was thinking about the metaphor of threads and weaving in the way we create our reality through our stories, I looked at this image again today and thought “Well, that’s what they have to work with. That store of colours and shades” So what if we think about how that idea might apply to how we create our daily experiences?

What is there in your palette? What can you select to weave together to create your unique, singular experience of today?

What if these yarns are like beliefs, ideas, thoughts and emotions? Which ones do we have to draw on, and which do we keep going back to, perhaps over-using, when we could be shifting our attention and using a different section of the palette if we want today to be really different?

I remember reading about a theory, which seemed to be validated by studies and observations, that when a baby is born, at the moment when the umbilical cord is cut, they experience their first existential threat. In those first few seconds if the baby doesn’t take their first breath, they won’t live. Perhaps, in those few seconds, the baby experiences certain strong emotions. We don’t have access to those memories because in our early years, our consciousness and memory functions haven’t formed to allow us to access them, but that doesn’t mean to say they aren’t happening, all the same. After all, most emotions occur below the level of consciousness, and becoming aware of them takes time, attention and practice.

So, what emotions might a baby experience in the midst of this first existential crisis? The theory proposes three – fear, anger or separation anxiety. Makes sense to me. So, the idea is that maybe which of the three dominates is genetically determined, but, whether it is or not, that particular pattern of those three emotions sets itself up as a core as we continue through life and try to make sense of our experiences.

So, some people have fear at the core, and that’s the main colour they use in their daily palette. For others, it is anger, and for yet others it is separation anxiety. You can try this for yourself. See if you can think back to your very earliest memory. Preferably one form before the age of five, from before you started school. When you recall that event, what emotions do you associate with it? Is it fear, anger or separation anxiety? I found with patients that some would identify one of these very clearly, some would identify a mix, or find more than one strong early memory, each with a different dominant emotion. Others would find none. They either couldn’t access any early memories at all, or they wouldn’t be able to say which emotions they associated with any they could remember.

For people who can find one, it is interesting to then follow that thread through life. To what extent does that emotion seem a foundation to other significant life events? Remember that with each emotion, we might suppress it, express it, or deal with in some hybrid way. So, if it is fear, then both fear and courage might appear. If it’s anger, both temper and avoidance of conflict might appear. And so on…..

Well, that’s one way to start to think about what palette you have, and what section of the palette you draw upon most frequently to create your daily reality.

You can also become aware of your dominant emotions, thoughts and beliefs by journaling….for example by doing “morning pages”. In fact, there are many ways to become aware of our habitual patterns of emotion, thought and belief.

I think it’s good to explore this, but we can take it a stage further by deliberately choosing certain part of the palette, or even adding new sections. We can decide we want to colour each day with more joy, more wonder, more love. We can decide we want to see each day through more half full glasses than half empty ones. We can do that with affirmations, with visualisations, with making more conscious choices about where to focus our attention, our time and our energies.

But all that is maybe for another day. Today, I’m just suggesting an exercise in awareness. Can you become more aware of what your personal palette looks like? Can you become more aware of which sections of that palette you keep going back to again, and again, and again? Finally, which underused sections of your palette would you like to pay more attention to? Or as you look at the vast range available, which colours of yarn would you like to add now?

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I love stories. I always looked forward to hearing the stories patients would tell me, and I’m sure a significant part of my work was to be an active co-creator of stories. It would be common for a patient to sit down next to me for the first time, and I’d begin “Tell me your story”. Quite often that opening would be met with surprise or even some puzzlement, but I’d just stay quiet, maintain eye contact, and show I was waiting with undivided attention. Sometimes people would ask “Where will I start? How I am now, or what went wrong first?” I’d suggest there wasn’t a right or wrong place to start so just choose to start wherever they like.

The first part of the story would be up to the patient, but then I’d ask certain questions to explore particular aspects of the story, or to open up other areas which hadn’t been covered. So, together, we’d enable the telling of a unique story, a life story, with a certain focus – health and disease. Because, I am a doctor after all.

Now when I see this photo of threads beginning to be woven into a tapestry I think that rather than “focus” in that last paragraph, maybe I’d be better using the word “thread”. Because often the life story of health and disease is a story which needs unravelled, untangled, to identify the important threads, colours, textures, and images, or the important events, themes, experiences and patterns.

Maybe, in fact, the life story of health and disease is just one of the tapestries we create from all the threads and colours which allow us to create and experience our one, unique, and singular life.

So, threads, tapestries and images turn out to be as important for me as stories.

Where do the threads come from? The ones we weave into our personal experience? Some come from our genes. There are threads of lineage which run through each of us. Some come from our birth experience, and our response in those first few seconds to the cutting of the umbilical cord. Others come from our experiences, from the events of our lives and both our reactions and responses to those events. Yet others come from our relationships and from the physical environments in which we live.

Then there are other kinds of threads which we pick up and make our own. The threads of myths and legends. The threads of other peoples’ stories, beliefs and values. The threads of culture, music and art. In other words, the threads of our collective imagination.

Finally, as well as threads, the weaver has to have some idea of what they want to create. They have to have a vision, have imagination, maybe even have a pattern or a plan to follow.

I wonder what threads you can find in your life. I wonder what visions, thought patterns, feeling patterns, behaviours and influences create what you do with those threads…..

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I find that sometimes when I look at the bark of a tree I see eyes, or faces, or other recognisable patterns. This tree definitely seems to have the outline of an owl! Do you see it?

I like owls. I know the symbolism of owls is different in different cultures and that for many people they are associated with death and/or bad luck. But for others they are symbols of wisdom.

That difference reminds me of two other superstitions – there’s the thing about a black cat. Some people say they are sign of luck, but coal miners would turn back if a black cat crossed their path while they were on their way to work. So for some, they are lucky, and for others, very unlucky. Similarly, the horseshoe has opposite meanings, especially when it comes to which way up to hang it on a wall. Some say if you have the opening at the top then it is a witches swing and will bring bad luck, whilst others say if the opening is to the bottom then all your luck will run out.

I suspect the truth is that all of these beliefs and superstitions are social and cultural creations. But I also think they have power. When we get into a mindset of bad luck or being a victim, then it seems to bring more of those experiences into our lives. Luckily, the opposite works too, which is why I am such a big fan of positively valued symbols. So for me, I stick with wisdom, and have a notion that strengthening my connection with owls helps me to develop my wisdom.

Which positive symbols work for you?

I look for those to do with love, hope, wisdom and wholeness. Well, that’s a start anyway……

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Have you ever grown any beans? You know there’s something really wonderful about choosing different kinds of beans from a seed supplier, planting them, watching the little green plants poke up through the earth, then following their incredible climb all the way up to the top of a wall, or a fence, then seeing the long skinny pods form and hang down. Breaking open the dry pods to scoop out the beans is such a thrill.

Here are a few beans from just two pods. First of all, don’t you think they are beautiful? They are like tiny works of art. Second, isn’t it incredible that every single one of them is different? The particulars of the patterns on each bean are unique. Is this always the case? I don’t know. But it kind of looks like each bean is as unique as a fingerprint. Have you ever tried to find even two completely identical beans which are patterned like this? I mean, imagine, this level of uniqueness and diversity in beans! How much more amazing are the depths of uniqueness and diversity in human beings (or human beans if you like 😉 )

Thirdly, do you know that it is impossible to tell which of these beans is alive? There isn’t a single scientific test which can correctly tell if a particular seed is alive or dead. There is no way to know that this one will germinate and grow, but that one will just decompose. There are some statistical methods which can attach a figure suggesting the chances of a certain portion of seeds in a batch being “viable”, but no way to tell for each single, unique seed. Don’t you think that’s astonishing?

But I guess Life and Death have always astonished me. I’ve been present at the births of many children, and I’ve been present at the deaths of many people too. But that first breath a baby takes, and that last breath a dying man or woman takes, astonish me every time. Both these events seem mysterious to me. When does life begin? And when does it end? You’d think those would be simple questions, but they are not.

Then what about levels of consciousness? After all, aren’t many of these beans sort of sleeping, just waiting to wake up and start to grow when the time, the place and the conditions are right? How do we humans change consciousness every night and every morning? How do we slip from being awake to being asleep? And how do we wake up when we do?

I expect a lot of people are finding they don’t need their alarms to wake them up in the mornings any more, during these periods of lockdown. When our daily routines have been put on hold, for many of us, our patterns of sleeping and waking have changed too. Maybe for you, you are waking now without an alarm? What wakes you, and when? Sure, sometimes it’s a noise, isn’t it? Even though we are sound asleep, we are still aware of our environment somehow. I remember waking one summer morning in an apartment we rented in Carcassonne. As I woke I heard a nearby church bell ringing the hour. I counted, “seven, eight, nine”, then the bells stopped. I checked my phone and, yes, it was nine o’clock. How did I do that? How did I wake up thinking “seven, eight, nine”? When did I think “one, two, three, four, five, six”? I had absolutely no awareness of the first six bells. Well, not absolutely no awareness of course, but no conscious awareness and no accessible memory of them. I find that astonishing.

So these are still quite miraculous to me – these moments of coming to life, these moments of dying, these moments of falling asleep and those of waking.

Maybe that’s ok. Maybe that just keeps me curious. And maybe it actually adds some quality to everyday life to be aware of the mysterious, the unexplained, and the wonderful.

Hey, isn’t it amazing where a handful of beans can take your mind? How did that happen?

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The sky above where I live often used to look like this.

It doesn’t any more.

It hasn’t looked like this since March, and, frankly, it feels like it might never look like this again.

I guess you’d call this a busy sky, and even though trains and cars and boats don’t leave visible trails like these, the same phenomenon must be repeating itself everywhere. We humans are just not moving around the planet this year in anything like the numbers of the previous few years. For obvious reasons of course – COVID!

Here in France we are in “Confinement” 2.0 – totally locked down with only essential shops and services open, the need to print out an “attestation” if you go out at all – that’s a sort of permission slip where you have to say what you are going out for (there are only a limited number of legitimate excuses), and if you’re going out for exercise you can only be out for a maximum of an hour and not further than one kilometre from home.

Well, I’m retired, so I don’t commute any more – which is one of THE biggest differences in my life. But many people are either now working from home, or have been laid off, temporarily hopefully, but many businesses are folding up and those jobs will be gone for good. I have travelled quite a lot since I retired – mainly by car, with trips to explore different parts of France and Spain – but some flights back to Scotland to see family and had plans to attend a conference in Toronto last week but that was cancelled months ago.

On the plus side I suppose it’s good for the planet that there are less planes flying here and there, and several people I’ve spoken to find the opportunities to work from home at least part of the time a real bonus. I’m not sure many people regret not having to spend so many hours commuting each week.

But the main thing I thought about when I looked at this photo today was how this pandemic is doing more than give many of us an opportunity to reassess how we are living our lives….it’s forcing us to. By applying the brakes to what we came to know as normal we have the time and space now to ask “how do I really want to live?” – and/or “how can I live now in the light of this 2020 year of pandemic?

What about you?

How is commuting less and travelling less affecting your life? And, once this pandemic is over, do you think you’ll choose to re-establish those old patterns if you can? Or have your values and priorities changed now?

Have you already started to live differently?

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How much do you think love motivates you to do what you do, to say what you say, to think what you think?

Are there serious arguments against making love our priority, our touchstone, our foundation, our core?

What couldn’t be improved by bringing a loving attitude to bear?

I think good health care requires love….love in the form of caring about, caring for, and wanting the best for, every patient. Love in the form of non-judgemental listening and attending. Love in the form of respect for the unique individual. Love which values personal relationships above techniques, tools and processes.

I think good education requires love…..love for children, love for knowledge, love for wisdom, love for growth, development and maturity. Actually, education isn’t something we should restrict to children, we could all do with learning all our lives. We could all benefit from life long education based on loving each person and wanting to try to help them realise their potentials.

I think good work requires love….love for craft, for skill, for quality, for service to our fellow workers, our families and our communities.

So how about a politics of love and an economics of love ….. love of Nature, of Planet Earth, of our fellow creatures, and of other people? What would that look like?

Maybe it’s time for us to be less shy about love. Maybe it’s time for us to speak up and say it’s important. More than important….essential.

Can we learn from this pandemic and move towards a society based more on creativity and care, than the present model which is based on consumption and competition? Can we move towards a society based more on qualities than on quantities, challenging the current dominance of figures, statistics and “data”, and insisting instead on loving, caring relationships, on experiences, on individual uniqueness, and on diversity?

I’d like to see that. How about you?

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I love to be able to look over the vines and see the rain falling in the distance. Where I’m standing it’s dry. No raindrops keep falling on my head. But across there towards the horizon I can see where the rain is falling….and where it isn’t falling.

It looks like I can see the edges of the rain. The rain is appearing as sheets, veils, or fingers reaching all the way down from the clouds to the ground. You can see it too, can’t you? You can tell that some parts of the land are getting wet, and that some aren’t.

In other words it appears that we can see the boundaries of the rain – it’s reach, not just vertically from cloud to soil, but horizontally, over a certain distance, left to right, or west to east, or whatever. If we see these boundaries so clearly, then surely, we could measure them. I could find out exactly the height, the breadth and the depth of that rain over there.

The thing is, as best I know, I can only do that approximately, and only if I stay at a sufficient distance from the rain. Because the closer I get, the harder it is to see exactly where the rain is falling, and where it isn’t falling. If I did do a measurement then something interesting happens. I have the impression of exactness. I have the impression that I have a more accurate, more complete knowledge.

But that’s a delusion.

We can prove it’s a delusion just by actually standing in the rain. When we are being rained on, it’s pretty impossible to know if we are in the middle of it, at the beginning of it, or nearing its far edge. It’s a lot easier to see a shadow approaching or receding, than it is to see the rain. That’s at least in part due to the fact that the rain has no hard edges. Those clear boundaries we can see in the distant rain, disappear the closer we get. By the time we step into the rain, the boundaries dissolve. We can no longer see where the rain begins and where it ends.

Yes, I know, there are two exceptions to that……if we look far enough away through the rain we can sometimes see outside of it to land where the rain isn’t falling. That can give us an idea of the rain passing through, knowing that in a short time, it will be gone again. And the other exception is sometimes rain falls in intense highly localised bursts. I’ve been able to see the rain pouring down just outside my garden while I stand, perfectly dry, inside the garden. But that’s rare. And even then, the exact boundaries are far from clear as I approach them.

What this image and these thoughts inspire in me is wonder……wondering about how everything is connected, and how it only looks separate if we don’t look closely enough. The closer we look the more the boundaries dissolve, the more connections and gradations we see.

It also inspires me to think about the difference between observing an object and experiencing an event. I can see the rain in the distance as “something”, maybe even something I could measure. Certainly something with particular dimensions. I see it as an object. But when I stand in the rain I experience it as an event. I don’t see it as an object. I can’t measure it. I can just live it.

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