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Archive for the ‘art’ Category

I love spirals. I find them quite captivating. My attention is caught by them and I’m drawn close to contemplate them. I’m not sure what it is that makes them just so beautiful, but, to me, they are amongst the most beautiful shapes in the universe. You can see them around you in many places of course….in plants, especially climbers which use this method of finding places to hook onto, then pulling tight to hoist themselves upwards. But also in ferns, and in plants which throw out creepers and tendrils which stress across the ground. We humans often create spirals in our art. Maybe it’s because I’m Scot, because like most Scots I’ve been steeped in the traditional Celtic and Pictish complex knots, three armed spiral shapes which we call the triskele, and intertwined ribbons which swirl around each other. However, I suspect it’s not just those of us with Celtic backgrounds who like spirals.

One of the things I like best about the spiral is that it seems to me that a person’s life story often has that sort of trajectory. There are issues, problems, difficulties which we meet, attempt to address, or run away from, which just keep spiralling back again and again. In fact, human development too seems to have a spiral path.

I don’t think time flows in a straight line. It loops, and it spins, slows down, pauses, runs forward. The past and the future both have their part to play in my ability to make sense of the present. They don’t exist in three separate, sequential boxes, but rather, they loop, cycle and spiral together to create the intricate patterns of the tapestry of a life.

There’s a special thing about this photo. You have to look a bit more closely to see it. Right in the middle of the main spiral in this photo you can see the world clearly – it’s as if you are looking through a lens.

Isn’t that magical?

It reminds me that if I really do want to see the world clearly, then the lens of the spiral can be a pretty good way to do that. What do you see more clearly about your life, when you consider it through the lens of a spiral?

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I took this photo in a steampunk themed cafe in Capetown a few years ago. There’s no doubting this is a work of art. There is a beauty in technology which we can admire in both some of the latest devices and machines we have available to us, and there’s also a certain beauty in old technologies, which are the source material for these steampunk creations.

But we humans have become almost hypnotised by the machine model of reality. Everywhere we go we see machines. We use the concepts of components, parts, processes with inputs and predictable outputs everywhere. The human body is often thought of as an elaborate, perhaps complicated, machine. But it isn’t.
If there is one big modern myth I’d like to counter it’s the myth of the machine. Life is NOT machine-like. Human beings are not like machines….no not even computers! Animals and plants are not like machines. Reality, in fact, is not machine-like.

Why not?
Because reality, Nature and Life are not assemblages of components. We are not made up of discrete parts which can just be replaced.

Reality, Nature and Life are non-linear and massively interconnected. Nothing exists in isolation and every movement, every behaviour, every birth, life and death makes changes which ripple through the entire world. Life is dynamic, never fixed. Life is emergent….it changes in ways which cannot be predicted at the individual level. Life is adaptive, constantly detecting and responding to changes in the environment and in the vast networks of relationships.

Reality, Nature and Life are inter-dependent. All that exists is implicated in the co-creation of all that exists.
Some scientists have defined life as possessing a quality of “auto-poiesis” – self-making capacity – all living creatures grow, mature, reproduce, replace cells, repair damage throughout their entire lives.
Others define life as having “self-moving capacity” – a stone can’t move itself, but a bacterium can, a bird can, a human can.

In fact, it’s still pretty amazing to look at Biology textbooks, check the index and see if you can find a definition of Life. Let me know if you find any! Similarly, textbooks of Medicine don’t seem to have even index entries, let alone whole chapters, about “health” – it isn’t even defined!

There are many other arguments to consider which make the case for just how UNLIKE machines reality, Nature and Life are. So, why do we persist? Thinking we can deal with reality as if it is a giant machine. Why do we persist in giving such attention to short term thinking and reductionist science? Because the longer the time scale, the less and less machine-like, reality appears.

In the last fifty years or so there have been great advances in our understanding of networks, of systems, and of “complex adaptive systems” in particular. We are waking up to the inter-dependent nature of this little planet we all share. My hope is that these insights will shift the balance and the machine-like model will be put back in the box where it deserves to be – the box marked “machine”. Let’s not put anything else in there!

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There’s a bird reserve near Nimes, in the South of France, where you can see flamingos. I’ve visited it several times, and each time I take a host of photos. They are SUCH beautiful creatures!

I’m reading Gary Lachman’s “Lost Knowledge of the Imagination” just now, and this morning read these lines about beauty –

We perceive beauty, the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus said, when we perceive something that is in accord with our soul.

Knowledge of beauty is knowledge of soul. It is self-knowledge, and when we discover beauty we are discovering part of ourselves.

The knowledge we receive in this way is not of fact but of quality, of value and meaning.

We perceive beauty, are open to its presence, through a change in the quality of our consciousness. Only like can know like. We must have beauty within ourselves to see it in the world.

I hadn’t thought of beauty this way before. When I read it I thought about the old adage of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which always seemed to me to be a statement that beauty was in fact a matter of taste. But this perspective from Gary Lachman describes that sort of third way interpretation which I like so much. It’s not that beauty is “outside” us, as some kind of measurable object. I think we all know that. Beauty can’t be reduced to data, can’t be captured by mere facts. But neither is it just a matter of taste, as if it is entirely an experience of the individual rendering the rest of the real world unimportant.

The third way is that beauty is a resonance. It’s a harmony. And therefore it emerges in the lived quality of an experience, of an engagement, of a relationship. We need both parts of the relationship to be present…..something “within” us, let’s call that “the soul”, and something “outwith” us, let’s call that “the other”.

We know instantly when we find something, or someone beautiful. We don’t need to way it up, analyse the inputs, stimuli and signals. We just know. We know because our inner being resonates with whatever it is we are looking at….or it doesn’t. When it does, we have the sensation of joy, delight, and gratitude which accompanies all engagements with beauty.

Beauty, I reckon, is good for us. It’s good for our souls. It’s good for our consciousness. It’s good for our health.

So, here you are, a few photos in this post, all taken during one visit to the flamingos. I find them beautiful. I hope you do too. And I hope that appreciation of their beauty nourishes your soul, warms your heart, adds some positive quality to this present moment.

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At Otagi Nenbutsu-ji outside of Kyoto, there is an extraordinary display of sculptures – read more about them here. They are all small figures, but the emphasis is on the faces. Each one was created by a different person, so each one is completely unique. You can see several of them if you click on the link in the first sentence of this post.

This particular one has a gorgeous expression. What does this convey to you? To me, it conveys delight, happiness, contentment, and a certain open hearted, loving sense of wonder. I know, I know, what we experience is an interplay that emerges from the connection between ourselves and whatever we have engaged with, so a lot of what this conveys to me comes from personal disposition and preferences. But that’s just how life is. You can’t take your subjective reality out of your daily experience!

What effect does this expression have one you? Because it does have an effect. It calms me. It soothes me. It stirs feelings of love and kindness in my heart. And as those emotions start to flow, they will change the complex balance of chemicals in my body, boosting my immune system and calming down my inflammatory system. Isn’t that amazing? I can change the chemical status of my “inner environment” and so my state of health by what I choose to engage with.

We do this all the time. Subconsciously for the most part, but we do it all the same. Our inner state, and our wellbeing, change constantly in response to the signals and triggers we encounter every day, and according to our own reaction and response patterns and habits. We can become more aware of them, and when we do, we can move more of our lives from react-mode to response-mode which frees us up from living in auto-pilot, or what I call “zombie living”. That lets us become more autonomous, more able to develop new patterns of response, and, yes, even reaction. More able to develop new behaviours, new habits, and new patterns of thought.

That’s the first thing I wanted to share with you when I looked at this image again today, but there’s something else too.

As we walk around our every day world there is one face we don’t see – our own. OK, we can see the mirror image of our face (which isn’t what other people see) and we can see photos of ourselves (look how many selfies people take nowadays!) so we do have opportunities to be able to see our faces. But we have to stop what we are doing and change our expressions to do both of those things. We can’t see the “live view” which other people have…..the expressions on our faces when we meet them, when we converse with them, when we engage with them.

Yet, look again at this image – it’s clear, isn’t it, that the facial expression has an effect on you? Well, that’s true of you as well. Your facial expression is having an effect on everyone who sees it. So, I wonder, what kind of effect do you want to have on other people? What kinds of responses and changes within them do you think might occur when they see the expression on your face?

I’ve said before that we can’t not influence the world we live in. We change it moment by moment by our breath, by our movement, by our actions and behaviours, whether we choose them consciously or not. But here’s another way we influence the world we live in – through our facial expressions.

Of course we can’t go about our lives consciously fashioning particular facial expressions all the time, but when we spend part of each day generating feelings of love, kindness, gratitude and wonder, then that will all play out in our faces, and we will literally radiate those vibes.

In contrast, when we spend a lot of our day in fear and anger then……guess what? That reminds me of the old story about the hungry wolves inside us.

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I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to visit Japan on a number of occasions. One of the things I always loved to do there was to visit temples and shrines (if I understand it correctly there are buddhist temples are shinto shrines). I’m not a Buddhist and I know only a bare amount about Shinto but I found these places to be what some would call “sacred” places. They feel sacred because they feel special, they stir something inside which surpasses wonder and appreciation of beauty. They are amongst those places in the world where the boundary between the material world and the spiritual world seems thin. I have had similar experiences in stone circles in Scotland, and in the cloisters of old monasteries in southern Europe.

What makes a place a sacred space? For you, I mean. What places in the world have you had experiences of stepping into somewhere enchanting, somewhere which stirs energies deep within you?

This photo is of a particular part of a particular place, but I want to focus on it today because every time I return to this image it calms me, it soothes me, it draws me out of myself and into a deeper connection with the whole. Let me just draw your attention to the elements (which I think are repeated in some form again and again in these Japanese temples and shrines).

There is running water. I do think this is a key element – not that you need running water to make a place sacred but in the context of these Japanese places it seems to be essential, and I love it. I love that the running water isn’t dramatic and showy like so many huge city centre fountains in France and Italy (although I must say I DO like those fountains too!). I like how it really demonstrates a continuous flow. It seems to me that this is the basis of all Life – continuous, always changing, but somehow also always constant, flow. We understand water so poorly, yet without it nothing of what we know would exist.

There are rocks and often one or more of them form a basin for the water to pour into. The rocks have age, they bring the past into the present, and they expand the range of time available to us as we stand in front of them. Have you ever stopped to wonder where rocks come from? Well, that’s a whole other story, but a truly fascinating one.

Lying on the rock are two strips of bamboo which are bound together to create a rest for the bamboo ladle. The ladle is used to scoop out some water and pour it over your hands…..a ritualised cleansing. I wonder if all religions have this element? This use of water to “cleanse” as part of a spiritual experience?

There is also a small sprig of flowers……Japanese flower arranging creates great beauty by simple and sparse combinations of plants. It inspires both wonder and delight. But the flower isn’t the only plant there…..there’s also moss. Now, moss has a particular special place in Japanese gardens and spiritual places. It’s revered in ways I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the world. Are there other cultures which revere moss? I would say it’s my encounters with moss in Japanese gardens and temples which completely changed my opinion of it. I love it now. I only saw its beauty once I had encountered it in places where it was revered. Isn’t that interesting?

This image still works for me, and I hope it brings you some delight and joy as well.

Here are my leaving thoughts – What places feel special this way for you? Do you have photographs of them? Did you paint them? Or write about them? How might you create such a special place for yourself? What elements would you like to include? And, don’t you think your life could be enriched by encounters with such places?

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Taking pictures is one of my favourite ways of improving the quality of my life.

I’ve taken photographs, on and off, at different stages of my life, and I’ve used several cameras over the years. Nowadays, most of us have a perfectly decent camera on our mobile phones. What do I mean by a perfectly decent camera? One that we have easy access to, are likely to use, and which can create images of a quality which we find pleasing. I know that “serious photographers” and professionals have different standards and needs and will have much more expensive, technologically developed equipment which will meet those needs for them. However, I’ve never had a really expensive camera and as well as several albums of prints, I’ve got a library of tens of thousands of digital images I’ve taken over the years.

Here’s why I like to “think take a picture” on an ordinary day –

  • First of all, having the intention to take a photograph today heightens my awareness of the here and now. It improves my ability to notice what is around me. Whether I am carrying a camera, or my smartphone, in my pocket, having the thought “take a picture”, puts me “on the lookout”. It just helps me to notice what might otherwise pass me by.
  • Second, taking a photo requires me to frame a shot. It involves paying attention to composition – to the elements, colours, shapes, and their inter-relationships. That “framing the shot” adds to my simple “noticing”. It engages me with my surroundings. I look this way and that, focusing in on this then that, re-framing, re-focusing, until I find an image which pleases me. Then I might look at the photo I’ve just taken, and revise it by picking out, selecting, or re-framing to make another image.
  • Third, as you can probably tell, from the second point, taking photos slows me down. It’s too easy to whiz through life on auto-pilot, never stopping to actually be present. Taking photos helps me to counter that. It literally slows me down and draws me into the immediate here and now. There’s an enormous benefit from slowing down and many ways to do it, but taking photos is one of the ways for me.
  • Fourth, when I review photos on my computer later, I see things I never saw at the time. I notice elements, juxtapositions, aspects of the scene, that I just didn’t see as I took the photo. This enhances my pleasure further – it’s a second bite of the cherry. It doubles, or more, the delight, the wonder, the awe, or whatever comes up for me as I look at the image.
  • Fifth, my images are my main source of inspiration and reflection. You’ll have noticed that my posts here all have one of my photos in them. More than that, every single post starts with one of my photos. I do that for two reasons – because I like to share the joy my photos bring, and because I don’t know what I’m going to write until I select the photo. It’s the photo which is the creative spark. It’s the image which sets off my memories, thoughts and imaginings. It’s the picture which is my creative muse. My inspiration.

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Apparently we are the only creatures on the planet to create works of art. I know, you’ll have seen some painting done by a chimpanzee or an elephant, but they aren’t exactly spontaneous acts of self expression or interpretation are they? No, Art is something unique to being human. There are many examples of “wall art” or “cave art” in France, discovered in recent years but painted some tens of thousands of years ago. It seems that even way back when our ancestors were nomadic hunter gatherers supposedly spending most of their days on the survival needs of food, water and shelter, they still had time to create astonishingly complex art, and, for some reason, often carried them out in the most difficult locations deep underground.

I’m using the term “art” here as broadly as I can, but I mean the kind of art which included drawing and painting. I’m not excluding the fabulous arts of sculpture, of music, of storytelling, poetry, dance, and so on, but, for today, I’m focused on visual art.

For me, Art is an experience. I don’t regard Art as an object, or a collection of objects. It’s an event. It’s an engagement. It’s a moment where we connect to what is greater than ourselves. It stirs our emotions, sparks our imaginations, and stimulates our empathy……we connect to the artist and/or the world as experienced by that artist.

Every work of art was created in a particular place at a particular time, and I mean that not just in the externals of geography and history, but in the internals of a personal life story, an individual, subjective, lived experience. So when we encounter that work of art at some other time, in some other place, we experience a (sometimes) powerful connection with the artist, with the life of the artist. I put “sometimes” in brackets there because it’s certainly not the case that all art has a powerful effect, and I’m not even clear about what it is that makes the difference. I do know, however, that the power of art is dependant on both the person creating the art, and the person experiencing it.

All this came to mind when I looked at this old photo I took in Japan many years ago. It just looks like a work of art to me. It reminds me of the classic traditions of “Still Life” (which I find such an odd term because no life is still), or, as it is called in French “Nature Morte” (which translates as “Dead Nature” – nope, can’t say I like that any better!). The twig, the leaf, the petals and the stone all look as if they have been arranged in the most beautiful way.

But here’s the thing….I don’t think this was created by human hands. I just stumbled upon some fallen parts of plants, lying on a stone in a garden, crouched down, framed it, and took this shot. OK, so maybe I’m the artist. Maybe the work of art is the photograph. But what I mean is that so much of everyday Nature looks like a work of Art. Creation, the cycles of birth and death, the seasons and the weather, the light, the water and the air, the myriad of diverse lifeforms everywhere, all adds up to an infinite number of opportunities to encounter deeply moving Art.

Because this moves me, this image. Yes, I know, I have a set of memories connected the to event of taking the photograph, which you don’t have, but there’s something about the colours, shapes and nature of the elements in this arrangement which I find deeply moving……which stir in me, memory, imagination and wonder, which provokes joy and delight, which makes me amazed to be alive in this, this most astonishing, small blue planet, we call Earth.

In an image like this, the artist I connect to is Planet Earth.

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Can you think of any works of art which changed you? Any which changed your worldview? Changed how you understand yourself, your life, your world?

I was reading about Stendhal Syndrome the other day, which is the phenomenon of overwhelming emotions and physical symptoms experienced by some people in front of particular forms of art. Stendhal described it in relation to his visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce –

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

What grabbed me about this concept is how art can have a profound impact on us – not just on the way we think, the emotions we feel, but in changing our inner physical reality…..speeding up the heart, releasing a whole cascade of different hormones, causing us to feel a little breathless, a little light headed, to give us butterflies in the stomach, to make us weak at the knees…….but it actually does something else too….

Every experience we have sets off patterns of activity in the neurones in the brain. In neuroscience there is a phrase used which is “what fires together, wires together”. That’s a description of how these patterns of activity, when repeated, actually change the shape of the microstructures of the brain. Art, literally, can sculpt our brains. No wonder it can change us!

Well, this image here is of Anthony Gormley’s work entitled “The Field”. I saw this for the first time in Inverleith House, in the middle of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. I stood in the doorway and looked at these thousands of little creatures, all looking up at me, all the same. Then, as I looked a little more closely I realised that each and every model was different. Not only were they not all the same, but every one of them was unique.

That’s it, I thought! This is the paradox at the heart of my work as a doctor. Every single patient who I meet has some characteristics, some symptoms, some signs of change in their body, in common with other patients I’ve met before. That’s why I needed to learn anatomy, physiology, pathology, the natural history of disease. That’s why I had to learn how to make a diagnosis. But, at the very same time, every single patient who I meet is unique. Every single patient has a story to tell me which I’ve never heard before because nobody has lived an identical life to them. The diagnosis of the “pathology” or “disease” isn’t enough. I need to understand it in the context of a life story, and a present life. What exactly is this person, today, experiencing? How has this present experience and change come about? What sense do they make of this “illness”? What does this “illness” mean to them, mean in their life, mean to the others in their life?

Well, that became the core of my understanding of the Practice of Medicine.

But it went further than that, because I realised, just as quickly, that this insight wasn’t relevant only to my work as a doctor. This is the essence of what it is to be a human being. We share a lot, you and I. But we are also unique, you and I. We can’t be reduced to a single characteristic, demographic, or “data set”, but we can be gathered into those groups…..we can find some common values, beliefs, desires in those features and factors. But we can never, ever, stop there. We can never rest in our understanding of a person by summing up their data, by figuring out what group we want to put them into. We have to discover the individual. What makes this particular person different? What is distinct and different about this person’s life story?

Even as I write this today, I find this excites me. It delights me. It moves me. It activates my thinking, my feelings, even my body.

Art really can be that powerful.

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What caught my eye here was the juxtaposition of the advert for the photographer and the statue in the alcove.

The older work is the statue. It’s a representation of prayer. France, Italy and Spain are three of the countries I know best on the continent, and all three share a rich religious tradition. To be more exact, they share a Catholic tradition. Representations of the crucified Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of various saints can be found everywhere…..not just in churches and cathedrals, but on street corners, city centres and in small villages. What struck me about this particular statue was the act it portrays – prayer.

I know there are many different kinds of prayer, not least prayers of intercession (asking for help), and prayers of gratitude, but the image of the wedding photos in the windows just next to it led me quickly onto thinking of dreams, of hopes and desires. So, that context drew me into the consideration of prayers of that type – prayers of hope.

I don’t think we can underestimate the importance and the power of hope. I don’t think people can live without it. I’ve seen that many times in my medical career. People with no hope slip into despair and decline. I once I had a patient I knew say to me that her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer and that the doctors had given him six months to live. I asked her how she felt about that and her response surprised me. “Angry”. I asked why, and then came the bigger surprise. “How come he gets to know how long he’s got and I don’t know how long I’ve got?” Well, I didn’t see that one coming. However, it did lead to an interesting discussion about prognosis and what we can, and can’t, predict. Too often predictions like that turned into self-fulfilling death sentences. Because the reality is that, in any individual, we cannot make such accurate predictions. I learned that the hard way as a young doctor.

But let me return to prayers and dreams. I’m sure you’ll have come across the idea of visualisation? Of creating “mood boards” or “vision boards”? Of creating “goals” and “targets” even? Well, those are psychological methods we can use to create the life we want to lead. And isn’t that one of the things which prayers and dreams can do?

Have you noticed how many athletes seem to say a short prayer before the start of their race? Have you noticed how many perform an act of gratitude to the heavens, or to their god, when they win? I’m sure in our more materialistic, so-called rational, times, that prayer, belief, faith and dreams are dismissed more than ever before, but I always wonder if that’s really a rational response?

Because without hope, without dreams, without prayers, without vision, then what kind of life can we co-create?

My answer would be – the kind of life other people create for us! “Heroes not zombies” folks! We human beings really are the co-creators of our own lives. A person cannot be reduced to molecules and random events if we want to understand them. More than that, I suspect that fear and resentment are powerful factors in creating the kind of world we live in, and that there are plenty of players out there who know exactly how to stoke up both.

So, I’m a fan of prayers and dreams. I’m a fan of dreams and visions. I think that what we imagine, what we put our energy into, what we pay attention to, all contribute to both our personal experiences of daily life and to the reality of the world that we share with every other living creature on this little planet.

What kind of life do you want to lead? What kind of world do you want to live in? One focused on fear and despair, or one focused on love and hope? I do think we have a choice. Not in an “either/or” way, but in what we give emphasis to, what influences our world view, what lenses we use to understand the world, and as an act of co-creation.

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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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