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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

I took this photo recently when visiting the Caumont gallery in Aix en Provence (before France closed down!).

I was attracted to the light shapes on the wall of the building opposite. The one on the right looks like a cocktail glass, but the other two are vaguely like kanji – which, given that the gallery had a special show of Japanese prints, is highly likely!

When I look at the photo now I’m reminded of two things – a famous painting by Magritte

And, a photo I took in the New Carlsberg Museum in Copenhagen of ancient biblical scripts written in Aramaic and found in Palmyra.

The room with the scripts showed the letters projected across the images on the walls as a soundtrack played of someone speaking words in Aramaic from the book of Genesis. That was one of those moments where the hairs on my arms stood up on end and my eyes got watery.

I have long since had a love of words. I have hundreds of books. I read all the time, often several books at once. I love stories and I am insatiably curious. When I qualified as a doctor I bought a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica with my first month’s salary. I know wikipedia might have surpassed that now but I can still get the thrill of serendipity by leafing through its pages and falling down a knowledge rabbit hole. At work I looked forward to every Monday morning because I knew it was the start of a week where patients would come and tell me their stories. Every single one of them unique.

I taught in Japan at one point and tried to learn a little Japanese. I didn’t get very far but I am still enthralled by their three alphabets – yes THREE! I chose to emigrate from Scotland to France when I retired to have the experience of living in another language and I’ve got a little collection of favourite French words for which I can’t find any direct English translations, or where the English translation feel somewhat inadequate. I love that. (Emerveillement would be my first example!) I’ve also been trying to teach myself Spanish over this last year, just because I’ve discovered Spain since moving to South West France, and have had a number of fabulous road trips there (I’m using the Duolingo app).

Words, and stories.

I’m also quite an avid reader of poetry, and I recently heard a fantastic interview with the American poet laureate, Tracy K Smith, on Ezra Klein’s podcast. Highly recommended!

With more and more of us having to put our normal lives on hold and stay at home I think this is a great opportunity to explore more books, more poems, more stories, words and art. Are you finding that too?

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Yesterday I wrote about sunsets. This morning when I opened the shutters I saw the most gorgeous example of “The Belt of Venus”.

It was every bit as compelling as the sunset I had just described…..and it was in the exact same direction…..looking West.

If the Sun was the greatest magnet we’d be drawn to watch it rise at dawn (if only we were awake and up early enough!), and it’s true that the rising of the Sun can be every bit as impressive as its setting. In fact, that phenomenon often makes me think of the scenes from “City of Angels” where the angels stand on the beach to watch the dawn. But the dawns are not usually as colourful as the sunsets, are they? When they are, when they fill the sky with rosy pink clouds, then what pops into my head is “Red sky at night, shepherds delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds warning.” I know there are other variations of that saying in different parts of the world, but it does somewhat detract from the delight and attraction of the dawn sky versus the one at dusk, doesn’t it?

Most mornings, however, the sky isn’t pink and I’m not that aware of the Sun rising above the Eastern horizon. After moving here to the Charente I began to notice that the Western horizon was definitely pink some mornings and that spiked my curiosity. It turns out to be a phenomenon called “The Belt of Venus” and it comes about just as the Sun rises in the East but casts a shadow of the Earth just above the Western horizon. Well, both the phenomenon itself, and it’s rather romantic and glorious name, really engaged me, and now I’m much more likely to spot it. (That makes me wonder just what else we miss every day because we don’t recognise it. How much is invisible to us, passes us by, because we don’t pay sufficient attention, and we don’t know what we are looking at?)

Well, this is February now, and according to my monthly themes, February is the month of Love. So, how appropriate that Venus should make herself known so clearly this morning. Actually, we’ve had really clear skies these last few nights and one of the brightest objects in the night sky here is currently the planet Venus, so she’s around at night, as well as leaving her mark on the dawn.

So, I’m just reminding myself of all this today…..that February is a month to practice love, and loving kindness. That fits in with one of my two words of the year as well…..”bienveillance” – which is about “meaning well”, or acting with good intentions.

I like it when things come together like this….a phenomenon, how we name that phenomenon, and all that we attach to that name, the stories which spin off in all directions along a common theme, and the influence all that has on our daily behaviour.

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Do you do that “word of the year” thing? Where you choose a word at the beginning of each year, a word which will be some kind of touchstone, theme or “north star” for you?

This year, I’ve decided to choose two…….because I received two books as presents for Christmas and it immediately struck me that between them they lay a foundation for a way of living I highly value.

These are French books, so here’s another innovation for me…..up until now my Word of the Year has been an English word, but, hey, I’ve been living in France for the last five years and I’ve read a LOT of French, so, I reckon it’s high time I choose a couple of French words.

Here’s where things start to get interesting, because I can’t find direct, single word translations of these two words into English. Perhaps, more accurately, I should say I can’t find any direct translations into English which I find satisfying. I think that’s a great example of how learning a second language can both widen and deepen your world.

If you’ve read other posts on my site here you’ll have come across my use of the term “émerveillement” already. The first time I read the phrase “l’émerveillement du quotidien” I was entranced by it. It sort of means “the wonder of the every day”. The word “émerveillement” captures my core value of curiosity, of amazement, of awe and of wonder. I adore those moments when you notice something and it stops you in your tracks, where you pause, savour, and reflect. The more that happens in my life, the better my life seems to me. To really experience “émerveillement” you have to be open minded. You have to be curious, aware and non-judgemental. So the pursuit of “émerveillement” every day brings along with it a whole set of other attitudes and behaviours which I value.

Here are a couple of pages from the book which give you a flavour of why it entrances me –

The second word is “bienveillance” which could be translated as “well-meaning” but again, that direct translation doesn’t quite cut it for me. It is used to cover well-meaning and well-wishing, but also kindness, gentleness and care. So, another set of values and behaviours I really rate and aspire to every day.

Here a couple of pages from that book which might stir the same feelings in you. If they do, then, yet again, a picture will have proven to be worth a thousand words.

That quote in the middle image is from the poet Felicia Herman and it translates as “Happiness doesn’t grow in the gardens of anger”, which is an interesting line to consider in these days of conflict and polarisation.

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For the last five years I’ve lived just south of the town of Cognac (that’s Cognac in the distance in this photo).

I’m on the edge of a village surrounded by vineyards.

If you look closely at this photo you’ll see there are actually multiple vineyards covering the landscape. Here’s another view

Here you see at least three distinct vineyards in the foreground to the mid-ground, with several others stretching as far as the eye can see.

One of the things which struck me straight away when I went for my first stroll through the vineyards was that there are no fences, no walls, no hedges between them. Yet, from what I’ve learned, these different vineyards belong to different people. Another thing which struck me was that anyone can wander freely amongst them. There’s even a map of different trails posted up on a large panel outside the village church, and wayfarer wooden signposts with coloured markers to guide you along the different routes.

I’ve made a number of road trips to Spain and Italy since moving here, and every time I’m amazed how I can just drive over the border into, and back from, those countries without showing a single document, or even speaking to a border guard.

Last month I flew to Copenhagen, spent a few days there, then flew on to Edinburgh to visit family. Although I had my passport our of my bag and ready to join the queue for Passport Control when I got off the plane at Copenhagen airport from Bordeaux, I was struck by the fact there was no Passport Control. Instead I just picked up my bags from the conveyor belt and walked out of the airport to the taxi rank. Needless to say, it wasn’t the same flying to Scotland where I had to join a queue and use the automated passport check gate to be allowed in.

I am definitely no expert on the pros and cons of borders and border controls but these experiences get me wondering about both what such procedures and laws are supposed to do, and, whose life is made better and/or safer by imposing them?

Rutger Bregman, who wrote “Utopia for Realists” makes an argument for open borders throughout the world, but it’s hard to find much support for such an idea. Will Hutton’s broadly positive review of Bregman’s book writes –

I understand that open borders and being welcoming to strangers is a great statement of common humanity – and that immigration is an economic benefit. But no society on earth can welcome unlimited numbers of strangers, keen to enjoy the benefits of whatever civilisation, without having made a contribution to it. Human beings believe that dues should be paid. Far better to manage our borders and let in as many immigrants as we can rather than open them indiscriminately.

Caroline Lucas’s review in The Independent doesn’t even mention his promotion of the idea of open borders even though she seems to rate the book highly.

Britain is still in the midst of Brexit with a prevailing rhetoric of “control immigration”, “bringing back control of our borders”, and forcing EU citizens in the UK to apply for “settled status”, even if they’ve been “settled” in the UK for decades.

So, what do you think?

I’m not suggesting anything utopian or fantastical here, I’m just reflecting on what it feels like to move around a countryside without obstructions and boundaries, and to move back and forth between countries without border controls versus travel into and out of countries with strict controls. Is it better to have the queues and checks at the UK border for people arriving from Denmark, France or Spain? Or better to allow the free movement of people across each others borders as the 26 “Schengen” countries do?

What are the real life consequences of these policies and procedures?

As I travel around the “Schengen” countries without border controls I feel free, welcome and even that I belong in each of these different countries. It’s life enhancing!

Sadly, with the anti-immigration, pro-border control policies of the UK now a lot of EU citizens no longer feel welcome there and UK citizens are about lose the freedom to live, study and work in the other 26 countries. It’s not at all clear yet what bureaucracy will be introduced once the UK leaves the EU, but how will any extra application processes, fees and documents make life better for the British? Just asking……..

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Just before sunset I looked across towards the horizon and saw first of all a winter vineyard, the old vines standing dark and bare on the earth, then just beyond them a vineyard of young vines, still in their individual protective cylinders.

Beyond them things begin to appear less distinct. I can see a tree just before the next vineyard over, then there is a blanket of smoke from peoples’ chimneys mingling with the last few minutes of sunlight before the sun sinks over the horizon.

I think it is beautiful.

It’s what winter looks like around here.

As I stand watching the changes in the light and colours as the sun sets, I feel a certain timelessness. Well, I think its because I look at the foreground, the mid ground and the far ground and I see the past, the present and the future. But in that same moment, it is all in the past, all in the present and all suggests a future.

I enjoy that particular sensation of time. I think I’ve had many days where time feels linear and running fast. The future rushing towards me, the present gone before I really see it, and the past receding off into some dusky distance. But time doesn’t feel linear here. It feels cyclical and co-present. It doesn’t rush towards me, through me and behind me. It lingers, inviting me to savour each and every moment.

How delightful. No need to measure time, just live it.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Burnt Norton. T S Eliot

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Maps…..representing the world by making maps is one of the most characteristic skills we humans possess.

We don’t just draw maps on paper, but we make them inside our heads. Dan Seigel, who wrote “Mindsight” says we create three particular maps in the most forward part of our brains – the prefrontal cortex. He says we make a “me map”, a “you map” and a “we map”. He means we have an image, a pattern, or some other form of representation in our minds by which we recognise ourselves, the people we meet, and the relationships we have with them. These maps do more than allow us to recognise ourselves and others, they enable us to navigate our way around them. They help us predict, plan and choose which actions to take.

I don’t know about you but I LOVE maps. There’s something magical about them. I love to see maps over the ages which reveal how we have come to make sense of the world. So, when I was in Tordesillas, Spain, earlier this year I was delighted to find a whole host of astonishing maps in the Museo del Tratado de Tordesillas.

Look at this one, pictured above, it’s part of the Quesques Abraham map, otherwise known as the Catalan Atlas, from 1375. These first couple of sections depicts the world around the Mediterranean. You’ll probably recognise the British Isles, the Iberian Peninsula, the land we now call Italy, the North of Africa and so on. It’s pretty fascinating but it’s typical of the kind of geographical maps with which we are familiar. I think the Catalan Atlas gets even more interesting in the next set of panels –

This is the world to the East of the Med. The physical structures are way less recognisable, and that’s largely due to the fact that the world to East of the Med wasn’t known very well in those days. In fact, this section of the map is drawn from stories. It’s drawn from the stories of Marco Polo and other explorer/adventurers who travelled in the East and then wrote their travel journals, and from stories told in religious texts and passed down in various oral traditions.

I don’t think I’ve seen a map created that way before.

A map made from stories!

But then, I thought, isn’t that exactly what we do when we create these “inner maps”? The “me map”, the “you map” and the “we map” that Dan talks about?

So, I wonder……what stories do I draw on to create my “me map”? What stories do I draw on to create the various “you maps” and “we maps”? The stories of our encounters? The stories of other peoples’ encounters? Wow! What an idea!

I think I’m off to explore that further…..I wonder what those maps look like, and what stories created them?

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Do you know what I said just before I took this photo?

“Look at the light!”

It stopped me in my tracks as I was walking down this narrow road. I took that photo, then I stepped forward and took this one –

I don’t know which one I prefer so I thought I’d share both.

I know, you’re thinking…..was it the light which caught your attention or the colours and shapes of the wall?

The truth is, I’m not so sure. But I do know that the first thing I said was “Look at the light!”, so there was something about the light itself which caught my eye. Of course, as I look at these images now I see the amazing, subtle colours, and the higgledy-piggedty (is that a word??) nature of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar which have been put together to make this wall. Was it build like this from scratch? Or is this some kind of repair job? Does this particular section of wall have a story to tell, a history? What events has it experienced, and who made this wall like this anyway?

It’s easy to get lost in these questions which we have no possibility of answering….except with our imaginations.

But this is beautiful to me.

This is a moment of experiencing beauty.

It’s also a moment of experiencing light. And, to be frank, the photograph doesn’t capture that experience. You had to be there.

When I think about this dual experience of witnessing light, and what it illuminates, I remember an old essay written by C S Lewis. Oh goodness, I read that when I was a teenager. Can I remember it clearly? I think it was called “Meditation in a tool shed” – off to google it (actually, I shouldn’t use “google” as a verb like that. After all, I have “duckduckgo” set up as my default search tool) – I mean off to duckduckgo it!

Oh, yes, here it is! 

Gosh, it’s quite dated now. The references to “savages” kind of took me by surprise there! Still, the basic idea is still clear. In this essay, Lewis is thinking and writing about seeing a shaft of light coming into his dusty toolshed, then moving to look along the light itself and seeing the sky and trees outside. He uses this experience to juxtapose two kinds of experiencing – looking at an object, something “outside” of ourselves, and experiencing as a “subject”. Well, I don’t think he actually uses that language but that’s what I’ve always taken out of it.

There’s a difference between observing and experiencing.

We do both all the time of course, and the objectivity of observing continues to be debated, but nobody can deny what you experience as a subject. That’s all yours. Or, in my case, all mine!

I think of myself as a realist. I’m not convinced by the arguments that there’s nothing “out there”, that everything comes into existence only in the moment of being observed. After all, the universe has been around for a heck of a long time before human beings emerged to observe it! As best I know!

I’m not really convinced by the relativist arguments either….that there is no objective truth, that truth is different for each and every one of us. But it seems kind of obvious to me that my subjective, day to day, moment to moment, experience is unique. As is yours.

More than that, this subjective experience I have of my one unique life is inescapable for me. I can’t avoid it. I can’t stand apart from it and take another view entirely. That’s partly why I take these photos and write these words.

I’m just expressing my unavoidable uniqueness.

I should also stress, however, that I absolutely love it when others express their uniqueness too.

Go on….share what only you can share!

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