Archive for January, 2021

I took this photo about twenty years ago. I’m not brilliant at organising my photos, so I’m not totally sure where this is. I think it’s Genoa. Well, it sits between photos taken in Florence and others taken in Genoa and it looks a lot more like Genoa than Florence to me. Either way, it’s definitely Italy.

What I love about this photo is that isn’t static. You know I’m a great fan of “becoming not being”. I love the concept of the constantly changing, every evolving, moment. I love the experience of the present emerging from the streams of the past, and fashioning the possible futures in every lived moment.

I have many photos of paths, and when I look at a path, I feel pulled towards it, to go exploring and discover what lies along that path…..not just where the path might lead, but what I might find as a follow that path. This street adds another level of dynamism, in my opinion, because of the steps. The steps entice you to climb, or to pause, and look back to see where you came from.

The first thing I notice in this image are the two people, a woman wearing a white shirt, and striped skirt, carrying a bag in her right hand, and a young man, dressed in black, hands jammed into both pockets of his not quite full length trousers, his black dog keeping so close to him that at first I didn’t even spot the dog was there! Both of these characters are heading towards the archway, but haven’t quite got there yet.

Above the archway is a statue of, I presume, the Madonna. Her gesture catches my attention. It looks as if her arms are positioned to hold or caress an infant, but there is no infant there. So I see her, I interpret her gesture as caring, and I see a void, a space waiting to be filled? Maybe that’s one of those half glass of water events – is she preparing to care for a child, or has she just lost one? Either way, I find the statue surprisingly emotional. Well, that’s what art can do.

The next thing I notice is that this seems a residential street, with many apartments in all the surrounding buildings, each painted in, what is for me, the typical colours of the North of Italy and the South of France (more Italy than France). I see the washing hanging out of one of the windows, and, again, I’m on the Med…..at least, that’s where I remember seeing washing hanging from the windows of old city apartments.

So, I don’t just feel physically drawn to move up or down this stepped, narrow street. I feel my heart stirred. I feel my curiosity provoked. I feel the rising of my desire to hear what stories these people have to tell.

This might, at first, seem like a static, urban landscape shot, but, pretty quickly it becomes something which declares and demonstrates life and movement.

It provokes the movement of curiosity, of wonder, of the heart.

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In this pandemic much has been said about “the economy” as if there is such an entity. What are the critics of Public Health measures talking about when they talk about “damage to the economy”? Profit? Well, a lot of Tory cronies in the UK are sure making plenty of profit, so I guess it’s not “profit” as such, it’s some business profits. Probably what most people think about are the shopping and hospitality sectors of society, as shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels and so on have had to close to reduce the spread of the virus.

As best I understand it this is a false choice – you can’t choose either the health of the population or the health of the economy. Both affect each other, and probably you can’t have a healthy economy if your population is sick.

But there’s another whole aspect of life which has been hit hard by this pandemic and the measures taken to reduce social contacts – culture. Now, what is “culture”? Well, I mean all of the “arts”, from performance arts, to expressive arts, from music concerts to gallery exhibitions, to dances, theatre and cinema. And more besides.

I took this photo in Florence almost twenty years ago. It’s the kind of scene you can see in many cities around the world. You could say, it’s just an entrepreneur making a living drawing portraits in the street, but this image tells us more than that. Look at that crowd. They aren’t all buying drawings, or paying to have their portrait painted. They are enjoying witnessing the act of creation.

We humans are, amongst other things, profoundly creative. We apply our creativity to our daily lives, with our problem solving, our aesthetic choices, and our own, individual acts of imagination and expression. Here in France you can find fabulous examples of “wall art” in caves, deep underground. That art goes right back to palaeolithic times. There is no way humans have ever been content to merely survive, to simply invest in getting shelter, food and drink. We have always needed culture. We have always needed visual arts, music and dance. We have always needed storytelling and songs. In fact, I think that need for culture – both personal and shared – is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

I suppose that during these lockdowns we have shifted our creativity and culture online, and that’s great, but it isn’t a replacement. My hope is that the online expansion will continue and will feed into the physical/social world of museums, theatres, cinemas and concert halls once this is over.

I have another hope, which is that this pandemic might have raised our awareness of the importance of creativity and culture, that many people will be shifting their priorities and values from consumption and “running the rat race” to relationships and creativity. Because if that happens, then the future could look very different from the past.

I think art is important. It nurtures us. It sustains us. It deepens the meaning of our lives. It enhances the quality of our lives…….even when we are, apparently, not paying attention to it……..

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I don’t believe the past was a better place or a better time than the present. I just know it was different. But as I look at this image of the old glass in a window, I see how the patterns in that old glass act as a kind of lens on the present, and that makes me think about how it seems to me, that in many ways, we are too focussed now on the immediate, the instant gratifications, and always on what might come next.

But don’t we learn from the past? Isn’t how things were before, or what actions we took before, a useful lens through which to view the present?

Let me be clear, I am very, very keen on living with awareness of this present moment. I think that too often many of us are living on autopilot. That’s one of the big themes of this blog – “heroes not zombies” – encouraging us to wake up, become aware, and become the authors/heroes of our own stories, rather than living a life of semi-conscious manipulation by others. I’m also keen on looking forwards, though, to be frank, I’m not a big fan of predictions! But I also think that unless we pause, reflect, consider, and look back, then it is pretty difficult to learn. It seems true that if we keep doing what we are doing then we are going to keep on the same track. So, if we want to learn, want to grow, to improve, to develop, then we are going to have to learn something from how things were before.

I don’t think that means a romantic longing for an imaginary idyllic past when everything was wonderful. That’s not real. I mean learning what led up to this present moment, learning what it is we’ve been doing which might have contributed, at least, to our finding ourselves here, in this specific present, today.

I think about that as I watch this pandemic unfolding. I can’t help wondering about the countries of the world, like Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam, and others, where the case numbers and deaths are, frankly, tiny compared to those in Europe, America and Brazil. And, whilst there is no doubt something to be learned from each other, from comparing how each country tackled this pandemic, I think there is also something to be learned from how we humans have managed infectious disease, and epidemics in the past.

Time and again we see that there is a basic principle – separate the sick from the well. In times gone by that was done in what now seem pretty cruel and crude ways, expelling the sick, putting them in colonies outside of the towns. I don’t think we’d want to repeat that particular strategy, but the basic principle remains a key one. To control an infection you have to identify who has the infection and limit their contact with the rest of the community. We can do that now in much more humane ways. We can treat the sick in hospitals. Actually, there was a time when there were quite a number of specifically infectious disease hospitals (and “asylums”) but most of those seem to have been closed down. Maybe it would be a good idea to create new centres for the treatment of those who are suffering from infectious disease, and staffing them with doctors and nurses who can work in the community when there are no epidemics raging. That might be better than diverting the resources for treating cancer, heart disease, etc towards infectious disease, leaving those non-covid patients to suffer (which is what is increasingly the case).

Maybe it would a good idea to have a really effective, community based, human-centred system of testing, contact tracing and genuinely supported isolation – in isolation hotels, and in peoples own homes with daily visits from health care staff?

One of the things we are seeing with Covid is how many people get very, very slow recovery, relapses and lingering, debilitating symptoms. In the past we used to have convalescent hospitals, spas and rehabilitation centres. A lot of them got closed down too. Maybe it would a good idea to open those up again, to make new ones, to support and treat those who are in for the long haul.

Finally, in epidemics in the past, people controlled their borders. The countries which have the lowest case rates now did that too. The countries which didn’t bother, have the worst rates. Isn’t it time to do that? And not just to insist on a negative test and advise someone to quarantine for 10 or 14 days. But to insist upon supported isolation during mandatory, supervised quarantine periods for all those who cross borders? OK, I know, there will be those who need to keep traveling and who can’t keep doing those quarantines, but let’s vaccinate them, and monitor them more carefully.

Just some ideas I’ve been having about how we could better manage this pandemic, by looking at the present through the lens of the past.

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I must admit I have a penchant for bridges, and I have several photos of beautiful ones I’ve seen in different parts of the world. It’s pretty amazing how different a bridge can be. You could say that every single bridge is unique. Even two bridges of the same design will be built over different rivers, or different parts of the same river, and will connect two quite distinct, and particular areas of the Earth (banks, fields, towns, or whatever)

I think we need bridges more than ever. We need to make better connections between ourselves, and between human beings and the rest of the living world. In fact, between human beings and the rest of the entire planet.

Building bridges are about creating integrative relationships – the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts. In other words they are about connecting diversity and difference in ways which enhance, support and nurture both of the parts.

We need that physically. We need it emotionally. We need it socially. We need it metaphorically and literally.

Here’s to more beautiful bridges! Let’s make the connections!

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Yesterday I wrote about “unfurling” and this morning I came across this photo in my library.

It’s another example of this process we see everywhere in Nature – the opening up of a bud as the flower expands itself at the end of a stalk. It’s an “unfolding”, a “revealing”, or even, a “revelation”.

Really at this stage of a flower you get a strong sense of what is to come…a strong sense of potential. But it’s not quite there yet. It’s in the process of getting there. I like images which capture that concept because I have long been taken by the primacy of “becoming” over “being” – see the phrase at the top of the blog “becoming not being”!

I first encountered the importance of the concept of becoming in the works of Giles Deleuze, but having seen it there I went on to see it everywhere. Really, as I understand it, it involves a significant, and important shift of focus from looking at objects with fixed dimensions to looking at experiences and events which literally unfold before your very eyes. When you shift away from seeing, or trying to see, reality as composed of discrete, separate, bounded parts…..like marbles in a sac……to seeing reality as composed of flows and connections, then you stop wanting to pin things down and fix them. You delight, instead, in the dynamic, living, changing, nature of the universe.

This thinking helped me understand my patients and their illnesses, because instead of looking for discrete pathologies, I became more interested in how those pathologies arose, how they were affecting the person in their everyday life, and trying to understand how to influence the direction and nature of their development into the future. I became less interested in “outcomes” because every “outcome” is an arbitrary point, and more interested in a “life” and a “life story”, and therefore far more interested in following that patient over many years, rather than seeing Medicine as a tool applied to a thing at a particular time – not “getting it done” but “understanding, supporting, encouraging and teaching” instead.

I don’t know if that brief summary is enough to help you see what a radically different way this is to live and to make sense of the every day, but I suggest you try it…….try to notice the processes of becoming, the unfolding, the revelations, the unfurling today, and then let your curiosity follow the threads back to the past and origins, as well as forwards, to potentials and maturity.

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During this pandemic our horizons have been drawn closer, our worlds have become physically smaller and our social worlds have either diminished completely, or have been translated into the virtual world of messaging, video calls, and emails……something which can be enriching, even vital, but which still seem second best to the physical-social world of shared time AND space, and, especially of touch.

It’s a time where there’s a sense of collapsing into ourselves, of withdrawal, and of separation. Which is one of the reasons why this image is particularly appealing to me today. It reminds me of the fact that in Nature there are cycles and seasons. There are times, for example in the winter, when creatures and plants withdraw into themselves, hibernate, go dormant, on in old Scots “courie in“. In other words, there is a time in Nature when it makes sense to fold inwards, to snuggle, to curl up. But the appearance of a first crocus plant in my garden this week reminded me that there is another season around the corner – Spring – and that in the Spring time we see the opposite direction of movement…..a shift towards expansion, reaching up and beyond, of unfurling and unfolding.

I chose the French word “epanouissement” for my word of the year this year…..it means to flourish, to open up, to unfurl, in the way you see a plant move from the phase of a bud to a fully opened, multi-petalled blossom or flower. So I think of that word as I look at this fern unfurling.

I don’t think this unfurling motion is something we need to wait for. It’s not just that we are in winter and spring is around the corner (if you live in the Southern hemisphere, of course, you are in summer, and it’s autumn that’s just around the corner!).

No, I think that every day we can find a way to tune into this unfurling – this expanding, developing, growing, shift from potential to realisation. One way I try to do that is to deliberately choose two activities every single day – one activity of learning, and one of creating. Because I think learning and creating are our two most fundamental ways of growing and developing.

I have had a love of learning all my life, and my curiosity and appetite for discovery and understanding has only grown over the years. It utterly delights me to learn something every day. Amongst my learning activities I do language learning. Every day I learn a little French and/or Spanish. It’s become a habit (I use Duolingo to embed that habit) and I do it formally, following exercises, and informally reading in French, every day. I’m just a beginner at Spanish but I’ll move on to reading Spanish soon. I’m always learning other things too. Questions pop into my head as I live an ordinary day, and I pursue some of those questions online, using wikipedia, blogs, youtube, podcasts and articles.

I also love to create – for me that’s primarily photography and writing – but playing music is part of it as well. Well, in the creative areas of life, I find there is also always something more to learn – whether that be at the piano, on the guitar, on the computer, or in writing exercises.

So, I think unfurling happens all the time for we, humans. We just have to choose to become aware of it and give it some time and attention.

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I think this skeleton of a leaf is beautiful. For me it reveals the often hidden, or difficult to see structures which underpin reality. But what it does most is make me think about the two forces of the universe….

The flowing force – the energies which vibrate throughout the entire cosmos. And the structuring force – which gathers some of the flowing forces together to make patterns, shapes, forms and objects.

I like this way of thinking. It’s definitely not new! The yin and yang forces of Chinese thought are sometimes described as “active” and “passive” and I can see how that relates to “structuring” and “flowing”. Others translate these forces into “masculine” and “feminine” and while I do love the ancient myths and legends, the rich symbolism of art throughout the ages, a lot of people find it difficult to apply gender to these forces, and, sadly, once you add in hierarchies and male-dominated culture, then the “feminine” seems to lose out to the “masculine”, so, for me, thinking of the “flowing force” and the “structuring force” is more helpful.

Clearly we need them both to be working in harmony, or in an “integrated” way with each other if we are to have the reality which we experience.

One of the key books I read which helped me understand these concepts was “The Crystal and the The Dragon” by David Wade. I highly recommend it. He uses the crystal as the symbol of the structuring force, and the dragon as the wild, flowing force. But “the universe story” as described by Thomas Berry in “The Great Work” is a brilliant, engaging, description of this same idea. Thomas Berry calls them the forces of “wildness” and “discipline”.

Whatever the metaphors, symbols and words you find work best for you, I think it really helps to understand and be amazed by the reality of every day life, if you raise your awareness of these two fundamental forces.

Try it, and see what you think…..

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When I lived in Scotland the first snowdrops to appear each year always caught my attention. These small white flowers hang like little bonnets, which gives them the appearance of being discrete. They aren’t showy, or majestic, but they are obvious all the same. I think it would be hard not to notice them.

Here in France we don’t have snowdrops. Well, not in this part of France anyway. I’ve never seen them growing wild, and I’ve looked many times in nurseries and garden centres for the little bulbs so I could try growing some in my own garden, but I’ve never found them. Somehow, that makes them even more precious, and, perhaps, somewhat obviously, it gives them a new significance for me. I see them now as emblematic of the country of my birth.

Snowdrops don’t appear for long but they are one of those flowers which marks the cycle of the seasons. There are many other flowers which do that, of course, but the snowdrops seem to manage to break through the winter soil, push up their thin, delicate, green stalks, and unfold their beautiful white petals before most of the other flowers do. In that sense, they are like the beginning of something for me. I know that after I see the first snowdrops, the crocus flowers won’t be far behind, and already I find I’m starting to look forward to the daffodils and tulips.

Every flower is new, of course.

No individual flower repeats itself. Every year each unique, particular bulb wakes up, pushes upwards and shares the beauty of its own petals in its own time, its own place, and its own way. That reminds me of the classical spiritual practice of approaching every day as if for the first time……because that’s the truth…..this day has never been lived before. Everything you see, everything you hear, everything you smell, taste and touch, everything you feel, everything you do, will be for the first time today. It might be a lot like yesterday, but, actually, it’s different.

Starting your day with the knowledge that this day is a new day, and that every experience and event which occurs will happen for the very first time, opens up your potential to wonder and to learn. It opens up your curiosity and your consciousness, filling your day with discoveries, delights, and wonder.

All of that is good for the health of your right cerebral hemisphere – this is the part of the brain we use to discover novelty, to see things in their singularity, to appreciate the holistic nature of reality. And just as we develop muscles by exercising them, so we develop mental functions and neurological structures by exercising them.

New every time – a great way to increase the quality of your life, a great way to encourage growth, a great way to become enchanted again by this world we live in.

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Stone circles, dolmens, single standing stones, cairns and burial mounds…….I have a fascination for all of these objects. There are a lot of them in Scotland (like this one at Lundin Farm) and there are a lot in France.

I was born, grew up in, lived and worked in Scotland. I emigrated after I retired from the NHS in 2014. I now live in the Charente, near the town of Cognac….a small town with a big reputation, not least due to the spirits made and exported around the world from here.

I had an intention to come and live in France for a long, long time. I wanted to live at least a part of my life in a different culture, a culture fashioned in a different language. I feel this move has widened and deepened my experience of life. But I don’t feel I’ve lost my Scottishness. It’s fascinating to live that weave of two languages, and two cultures. It really does give me the sense of an enriched, enhanced life.

I think we humans all share the same small planet. We all breathe the same air, drink water from the same water cycles, eat food grown in the same biosphere. Frontiers are artificially drawn lines on the globe. We all came from the same nomadic first tribes. We are all descended from the same first humans. When I come across these ancient neolithic structures I feel connected…..connected vertically back down a family tree to the past, and horizontally around me to everyone, and everything, else currently sharing planet Earth with me.

There’s an old classical spiritual exercise about standing back from your immediate surroundings. You can think of it in the same way as looking at the world once you’ve climbed a hill. You can think of it in the same way as those images from space which show our blue and green planet spinning slowly. When you look “from on high” then you get a different perspective. You see something whole. You see something inter-connected. You see the flows of clouds in the atmosphere, the flows of water in the oceans, and you realise you are a small, but unique, individual in a much greater whole.

Well, I think something similar happens when you encounter a stone circle. I’ve often had the sensation that I feel different inside the circle from what I do on the outside. I don’t mean that in any spooky way, but I just mean that the action of stepping inside one of these ancient structures, created surely with immense effort by men and women with rudimentary tools, lets you have a different perspective. You can feel connected, not just to multiple generations of ancestors, but to those deep currents which run through every human being – the desire to create, to interact with what is around you, to make something new, something special, to make a work of art, a work of the spirit, a work of quality.

We human beings don’t just survive. We change the world as we live in it. We create the world as we live in it. We discover and we make meaning. We create experiences, and the opportunities to have experiences, for ourselves and for others.

What kind of world are we creating now? What experiences are we making for ourselves and for others? What opportunities to enhance and enlarge life are we making and seizing?

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Water fascinates me. Maybe it fascinates you too? Because it’s pretty universal to find that little children love playing with water, isn’t it? They love to play with it in their bath, in a tub, at the beach, in a pool or a pond…..they love to make snowballs and snowmen, to sledge down snowy slopes, to jump in puddles in the rain.

I don’t think that fascination leaves us. It’s a core energy which courses through us for our entire lives. Hey, around 60% of the human body is water. Water, in various forms, flows around us, into us, out of us, circulates within us. We need water much more quickly than we need food.

Maybe one of the most fascinating things about water is how it is present around us in gas, liquid and solid form. We see it in the air when we breathe out on a frosty day, creating little, temporary clouds which vanish, quickly, into the air. We don’t see it in the air as we speak and sing (which is why we’ve ended up wearing masks during this pandemic – that coronavirus rides the water droplets from one person to the next). We see it mostly as liquid….in a glass, in a puddle, in the rain, in the oceans, rivers and lakes.

Sometimes you can see a mist rising from the surface of a loch, float above the surface, and drift across the face of the forested hillsides like ghosts. Other times, like in this photo, you can see the water turn from liquid to solid. Do you remember that lesson from school? How cooling most substances down causes them to shrink, but how freezing water expands it? Weird, huh? Water is weird. We really, really don’t understand it.

In this photo you can see the edge between the solid frozen water, and the still liquid form. You can see the trees reflected in the mirror-like surface of the liquid water, and you can see the white frosted edge of the solid ice. I think, in this image, that gives the lock a nice “yin yang” appearance. Somehow, by doing that, it captures the sense of dynamism, of how the one form exists in the presence of the other, and of how the liquid and solid forms are constantly shape-shifting, from the one into the other.

As water freezes it takes on all manner of shapes – you know that no two snowflakes are identical, don’t you? Don’t you think that is astonishing? I do. But when water freezes on the surface of something else it is also able to create the most incredibly beautiful shapes.

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