Archive for September, 2021

In good shape

This is such a common sight for me. There must be thousands of such streams, or “burns” tumbling down through the hills in Scotland. This combination of lively, gurgling water, centuries-smoothed rocks and green moss and grasses twisting this way and that is just so beautiful, so pleasing. The sound the water makes as it hurries downhill is like a magnet. When you’re out walking in the hills or in a forest this special noise draws you towards it. It’s a sort of compulsion. Once you hear it, you feel magnetically drawn towards it, to go and see it, to stand or kneel beside it, to slide your hand into the cool, clear waters.

I often wonder about the shape of streams and rivers – thinking of how it’s the relationship between the water and the earth, the rocks and soil, which creates their shape and path.

The exact shape of any stream or river is constantly changing. It emerges as the co-creation of day by day, moment by moment, interactions as the rocks contain the water and the water shapes the rocks.

Mostly the daily changes aren’t obvious but then there will be a downpour or a storm and both the size and shape of the river can change dramatically.

You can feel that power as you stand beside it. You can sense it’s potential.

When I started to think about this image the phrase, “in good shape” or “good form” came to my mind.

We say that when we mean someone is healthy don’t we? “They are in good shape” or “they are on good form”. We aren’t usually referring to their bodily statistics when we say these things. We’re thinking more of their vitality, their energy, their that slippery overused word, well-being. In short, we’re commenting on their state of health and/or their mood.

Many years ago I read a collection of essays by Hans Gadamer, “The Enigma of Health”. They made a huge impression on me. One of the points he made about health was that it involved are certain kind of fitness – not so much in the sporting sense but in the way we say something is “a good fit”. This captures the idea of comfort, ease, and something “just right”.

Hard to pin that down really but we know it easily. We know it intuitively. We sense it with our whole being.

Gadamer’s essays in that collection are all about how difficult it is to pin down that state we call “healthy”. He comments how we notice our thumb when we trap it in a door but we don’t really notice it when it’s healthy, when it’s in good shape. Strange that, isn’t it? How it’s trauma or disease which draws our attention to parts of our body, and how health, by contrast, is pretty invisible.

Thinking then of the phrase “in good shape” and looking at this photo, I get to wondering how our lives take the shape they do. That too is a constant interplay of forces and flows, of resistances and movements.

It’s both beautiful and strange.

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The edge of change

Once upon a time a king commanded the poets to write a phrase which could be inscribed on his ring and which he could use appropriately in all circumstances…..

You know how these stories go. After several failures resulting in a few poets having their heads chopped off, one finally succeeded.

These were his words…..

This too shall pass

I thought of that when I saw this rain cloud passing over Ben Ledi. I’ve had the experience of seeing a rain cloud approaching and knowing the rain will arrive soon. I’ve even had the weird experience of walking from the front garden where it was raining round the house to the back where it wasn’t. But I’ve rarely seen such a distinct edge to a rain cloud dropping its rain onto the earth below.

It’s not that easy to see change coming.

Here we are still in the midst of a pandemic and it’s hard to see when, how, or even if Covid is going to disappear. Will there be more waves, will it trundle on with flare ups here and there, will it bed in and become endemic or will it weaken to nothing more than a common cold? We don’t know and we sure don’t know when.

We can’t see the edge of change.

I’ve often thought about how difficult it is to see the edge of change. Think of any city on the planet. Can you imagine London not being there any more? Can you imagine Paris, New York or Tokyo not being there any more? Yet we find the scattered ruins of great cities around the world, some shadows of their former selves, some reduced to mere traces.

Once thriving and powerful empires have gone but it would have been impossible to imagine them disappearing if you were living in them.

It’s only when we look back through history that we can see the edges of change. Only then do we trace the beginnings and the endings. But we have the superpowers of imagination, hope, determination and creativity. We should be able to see a different path ahead.

The big cities, the powerful states, the current economic systems, structural inequality, the political and social elites…..none of them will last forever.

That gives me hope.

Perhaps we can’t see the edge of change but we can imagine a better world, and that’s a start.

As Greta Thunberg said yesterday at #youth4climate in Milan….

We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah blah blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action.

Perhaps we can’t see the edge of change but we can choose a different future.

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The soundtrack of your life

Let me set this in context. I was born in 1954 in a small town in the middle of Scotland. I say the middle because Stirling is pretty much equidistant from Glasgow on the west coast and Edinburgh on East. But it’s known as “The Gateway to the Highlands” because, historically, THE crossing point between the south and the north was over Stirling Bridge which spans the River Forth.

When I was 10 years old my family moved from the house where I was born (yes, I was born at home), to a development of brand new houses. I can’t remember how many houses were built there but I think it was a couple of hundred or so. I spent my teenage years with a group of a couple of dozen friends, most of whom lived in those houses.

I’m thinking about the music which is still so important to me. I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t music in my life. I listen to it every day and have done for most of my life.

I’ve read a number of articles about the influence which music has on our well being, our moods, and even our cognitive abilities. Those articles don’t really tell me anything I don’t already know from personal experience and intuition but they reinforce the significance of music in my life.

So I saw this photo in my collection this morning and I heard a line from a song in my head. I’ll tell you which song at the end of this piece. The experience of that song popping into my head got me thinking of some of the musical landmarks in my life…the songs, records and concerts which created my personal landscape through which my story unfolds.

The first singles I bought were by The Beatles….I Want to Hold Your Hand, She Loves You, Twist and Shout and Can’t Buy Me Love.

The first time I heard stereo (yes, folks, that happened in my lifetime!) was when my friend Tom played Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends on his dad’s “stereogram”. Wow! I still remember the thrill!

A bit later we all bought stereo record players and the first album I bought and played on it was “Stand Up” by Jethro Tull.

We formed a record buying club. We each put a pound into the kitty every week and we grouped ourselves into threes or fours. Each week one of the groups would go to one of the record shops and buy as many albums as they could afford. Each member of the group could have one of those albums for up to a week then would pass it to another group member. Once the whole group had had their turn they’d pass it to the next group and once all the groups had had their weeks we auctioned the albums amongst us all and put the proceeds into the kitty.

As you might imagine this gave us all a fairly wide exposure to different styles and artists but there were definitely favourites we almost all shared.

So from those years I developed my own favourites….Genesis, Jethro Tull, Van de Graaf Generator, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Wishbone Ash, Colosseum, Caravan…..oh, I could go on! Do any of those names resonate with you? Probably you’ll have a completely different list.

We went to fabulous concerts…..Pink Floyd at the Refectory in Stirling University where they used a joystick to send the music round the whole audience, Genesis with Peter Gabriel at the Usher Hall performing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the Eurythmics at their peak in the SEC in Glasgow…..again I could go on. Which concerts made the most lasting impressions on you?

Radio was also important to me. I listened to a lot of John Peel and recorded some of my favourite sessions from his programme on a portable cassette recorder. I listened to Radio Luxembourg whose signal would regularly fade away to almost silence before surging back again, and the pirate station, Radio Caroline. Later I’d become a regular listener to whispering Bob Harris and I’d record his late night show on a minidisc which I’d listen to as I walked to the railway station each morning.

Nowadays I listen to Spotify – I have a playlist I’ve called “A lot more than good” which is a collection of tracks I totally love. Many of them go right back to those early Stirling years. I read that playing music from your youth keeps your brain young. Does it? Do I care? I also read that playing new music keeps your brain young because your brain loves novelty. Does it? I’m not sure. However, you know me and my “and not or”! I listen to favourites and I explore new music too.

I’ve recently found Radio Paradise online and I love it. Usually I select the “mellow mix” which plays me a brilliant selection of favourites and new songs. It’s as if they know me! By the way the best way to experience Radio Paradise is on a large screen TV – the hand crafted slideshows are breathtaking.

So, let me tell you which song popped into my head when I looked at today’s photo (have you guessed?)

In the Land of Grey and Pink by Caravan.

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Look at these beautiful berries. The rain is making them sparkle. They are like precious stones, a small cluster hanging like an earring, adorning the plant. They are some kind of celebration, an achievement, a kind of destiny almost.

They are the manifestation of fruition.

It’s easy to think of fruition as the stage in a plant’s life when it reaches an apex. They seem to represent a plan come good, a success, an achievement after a year of effort and growth.

This is the plant saying “I survived this year. More than that, I flourished”.

But can you look at this stage in a plant’s life without being aware of the fact that this isn’t an ending, it’s a season. It’s a flourishing which will take the plant on to a new level. It’s a phase where the plant holds her potential to expand beyond the immediate ground on which she is growing. These berries contain the possibility of new growth on new territory.

I love what the seasons of plant life teach us. They shift us beyond the simplistic, disconnected, cause and effect, goal oriented processes, procedures and concepts of industrialised living.

They show us instead that all of life is connected and cyclical.

They remind us that life is about more than survival. It’s about maturing and flourishing. It’s about manifesting our potential, expressing our uniqueness and sharing the fruits of our efforts.

They remind us that a healthy life is an open hearted and generous one, a creative path looping around, season by season, taking us to places we discover are both new and familiar.

Each season stirs memories of similar seasons gone by. Each season reminds us that life is cyclical, not a straight line from A to B, but a constant flow studded with sparkling moments.

Fruition is not a dying, it’s a call to celebrate, a time to enjoy and to share.

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Who am I?

I had a day out in Aubeterre recently. It’s one of “Les plus beaux villages de France” (an official designation given to several French villages considered to be “the most beautiful”. I’ve been several times before but on this occasion there was a pottery festival underway. It’s striking to see just how different and distinctive each potter’s work is, laid out on the various stalls around the village.

However, this work wasn’t even on a stall. It was laid out on the upstairs windowsills of a house. The potter had a notice at ground level inviting you to look up and see if you could identify the different characters – several were listed – the thinker, the doubter, the sad one, the reckless one etc.

I love how the potter has managed to make each little person so expressive and I was reminded of Anthony Gormley’s “The Field”, one of my all time favourite works (search on my blog for “the field”).

I took a while to photograph them all and see if I could identify some of them. But you know what struck me after a few moments?

This is something we do. We pick out a characteristic or trait we have spotted in someone then we give them that label in our minds. We think of somebody as a complainer, as shy, as extrovert or as fearful. And the danger is we reduce them in the process.

We don’t do this just according to behaviours or emotions. We do it in other ways too….nationality, race, or gender for example.

Sometimes we do it with medical diagnoses. A doctor or nurse might refer to a patient as “the diabetic”, or “the heart failure” etc. Some people even identify themselves by their diagnosis, wearing a chronic illness as a kind of badge.

I get it. Labels and categories can be a useful way of starting to understand someone. But, oh, are they dangerous!!

They are dangerous because they reduce. They reduce the complexity of reality to categories, hiding uniqueness by turning individuals into “examples of”.

They are dangerous because they are judgements and “judgement stops thought”, as the general semanticists taught.

They are dangerous because they feed prejudices, oppositions and the tendency to see the world in terms of “us and them”.

So I prefer to look again at these little pottery characters and see them, not as different people, or worse, different types of people, but to see them as some of the aspects of the Self.

After all, we can all identify with a selection of these characters, maybe even all of them. We are complex, nuanced, multidimensional, vastly interconnected beings and within us all we can see different facets, different modes, different adaptive responses and different archetypes, all of which become activated for a time according to the events and experiences of our lives.

What we have in common are these themes, these threads, these archetypes, and what makes us unique is the fact that not a single one of them captures “who we are”.

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If you’ve been reading my posts for a while you’ll probably be familiar with the French word, “émerveillement”. It’s one of my favourite French words, yet it’s a hard one to capture in a single word translation into English. It includes qualities like “wonder”, “amazement”, and “marvel”……so it’s that experience of noticing, of paying attention to, something, and being thrilled and intrigued by it. There’s a delight which emerges as well as a stoking of the fires of curiosity.

Here’s one of those experiences from the other day. I mean, just look at this! What an astonishing flower! Look at the colours, the shapes, the structure and see how it’s perfectly created to attract and involve the bees. In fact, look at the bee too, collecting the nectar and getting covered in pollen!

This is the kind of experience which makes me feel alive!

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I was walking around Western Harbour between Leith and Newhaven recently. There are a collection of high rises there built at great speed during the last house building boom.

It’s not a pretty development, and it hit the buffers when the financial crash came so there is more green space between the blocks than the developers had planned.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of living in one of these flats is the view across the Firth of Forth.

I noticed the plants growing on this one balcony on the second floor. Somebody here is creating a green space right outside their window by filling the balcony with plants. If you look closely you’ll see a climbing, flowering plant is heading on upwards to the third floor.

I wonder if it will start to make it along that next balcony and if the residents will see that as a bonus and encourage it, or as a nuisance and cut it back.

There’s quite a boom in interest in gardening and green spaces. The lockdowns which accompanied the pandemic forced many people to confront the realities of their immediate living space and three things have happened.

Those with gardens have spent more time in them, enjoyed that space and realised how much a garden can add to your quality of life so they’ve started to learn a bit, to tend the garden more and to grow more of what brings them joy. There’s a growing body of evidence that time spent close to Nature in green spaces is good for health and well-being.

Others have started to put more indoor plants into their living rooms, their kitchens, and to plant up window boxes. Why are they doing that? Because it brings them joy, and adds to the quality of their everyday.

I wonder if this caring and tending does something else. I wonder if spending some time nurturing, looking after and encouraging plants develops our capacities to nurture and care more generally? I don’t know if it does but I know that whatever we pay attention to, whatever we focus on, whatever we practice tends to increase.

There’s a third thing which is happening since the onset of the pandemic. A boom in house sales outside of cities. In France the most active housing market is in Brittany, right out there on the Western tip of the country and I’ve read several reports saying there’s big demand for houses with gardens within an hour to an hour and a half of all the big cities in France. Teleworking is part of that shift, and changes in work patterns to spend only a day or two at most every week in city centre offices, while the rest of the time is spent at home is also a growing trend.

The shift from city to smaller towns has the potential to revive local communities as people commute less, spend more time in local cafes, stores and shared spaces.

So seeing this single balcony starting to flourish and the climber spreading upwards makes me think of these changes and gives me hope. We humans are creative creatures. We have fantastic powers of adaptation and a love of Nature brings out some of the best in us.

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Outcomes and fixes

I took this photo at the “Cote Sauvage” (the wild coast) earlier this year. I hadn’t been to this, one of my most favourite beaches, for over a year because during the pandemic we were forbidden to travel more than a few kilometres from home for many weeks and public spaces including parks, forests and beaches were closed.

I think you can feel the sense of expansive openness I experienced once I got here. But the first thing which struck me was how much this landscape had changed. Storms and high tides had completely changed the dunes. It was no longer possible to walk down into the sand directly from the forest behind. The slopes had been turned into cliffs. And the wooden walkway from the car park had been totally destroyed.

Months later I returned and the walkway had been reconstructed. The new cliff edges of sand, however, are the same.

These large scale changes of landscape caused by the interaction of the sea, the wind and the land are amongst the most dramatic changes I’ve seen over a mere matter of months.

Partly this gets me thinking about the fact of constant change. Even large structures on the surface of the Earth are constantly changing – mostly slowly, but occasionally dramatically. We’ve seen a number of these dramatic events over the last couple of years – floods, forest fires and volcanic eruptions. Melting ice caps, shrinking glaciers, earthquakes. Hurricanes and cyclones and other extreme weather events.

But this image also gets me thinking about our somewhat delusional perspective on outcomes and fixes – in every area of life – but, especially in the context of the pandemic, in the area of health.

There is almost an obsession with so called outcomes in health care. That’s always struck me as odd. Human beings are complex ever developing creatures. Looking at only a small period of time in anyone’s life always runs the risk of failing to really understand them. We need to hear their full story, not just measure a couple of changes over a short period of time.

Choosing to focus on an isolated set of measures in a whole person seems to me to give too much importance to the “outcomes” instead of the lived experience of an individual. It seems precious little research looks at the life time consequences of interventions and treatments.

The focus on measurable outcomes shifts the attention from the long term to the short term, and to data from story.

And what this does is delude us into thinking we are “fixing” things.

There’s been a pursuit of simple fixes in this pandemic – we were told lockdown would fix the problem, then mass testing would, then vaccines would.

In fact, we need to address the factors involved in creating the pandemic and its devastating effects…..from the way we interact with Nature (forest destruction, over consumption, pollution, carbon production), to the way we run our societies (inequality, poverty, overcrowded housing, precarious jobs, run down under-resourced Public Services, lack of adequate safe care of the elderly) if we want to really deal with the pandemic.

Quick fixes don’t last. And they aren’t fixes. Despite what politicians and Big Pharma tell us.

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We have an old well in the garden. Its wall is very worn and covered with lichen and moss. Lichen and miss are strange life forms which seem able to grow on the most unlikely ground. I’m quite used to seeing that.

But a few weeks ago a little plant started to grow in a small indentation in one of the stones. Really this indentation isn’t much bigger than a button and it seems pretty shallow. Honestly I never considered it as a likely place for a flower to grow and I certainly didn’t plant one there.

But over a few days this tiny plant grew and blossomed. Isn’t it beautiful?

Really this is the kind of thing that astonishes me. I don’t know how the seed found its way into this tiny recess….either dropped by a bird, or simply blown in the wind. But having found itself there it sure didn’t need much to germinate, grow and flourish.

It reminds me of why I agree with the view that we live in a friendly universe. What I understand by that is whilst entropy shows us that ultimately everything falls apart, there are powerful creative forces in this universe which provide the conditions for life to emerge….more than that…for life to flourish.

Isn’t that astonishing?

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I thought I’d share a couple of innovations with you today. These are just two which caught my eye recently.

On the left is a dispensing machine with a difference. Everything on sale here is an organic vegetable. You can choose a basket of selected veg to make ratatouille or soup or you can just choose some potatoes or other vegetables.

I’ve never seen anything like this selling organic veg and the amazing thing is it was in a motorway service station just south of Saint Malo.

Surprising, huh? I’ve no idea how long it’s been there or if it is successful but it certainly caught my eye.

The one on the right is outdoor tables and seating set up for a festival down by the Charente in Cognac. The stools have been made from old gas cylinders. Looking pretty attractive and what a good use of old cylinders.

Ok, neither of these are a big deal, but they are examples of what gives me hope. We humans are a very creative species and we use that creativity to adapt to changing circumstances. There’s no doubt that in the light of climate change and the pandemic that we need to adapt and maybe this kind of innovation is just a signal that we are in the process of doing that. After all the big changes emerge from the interactions of all the individual ones, even small ones, don’t they?

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