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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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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I recently visited the Chateau de Clos Lucé in Amboise, in the Loire valley. This is where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life. He was invited to live there by François I in 1516. The king provided Leonardo with a place to live, 700 gold ecus a year, and financed his works, in turn for the pleasure of his company and daily discussions with him. Leonardo only lived three more years, dying in 1519, which is why, on this 500th anniversary year of his death, the chateau is hosting a major exhibition of his work. (As an aside I find it fascinating and inspiring that Leonardo was given free range “to dream and work” – what kind of society could we have if we funded creatives and academics to “dream and work” together, without goals, funding applications or publication demands?)

There are a number of Leonardo quotations around the chateau and the gardens. This one caught my eye –

You know that medicines when well used restore health to the sick: they will be well used when the doctor together with his understanding of their nature shall understand also what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are. Know these well and you will know their opposites; and when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy.

After a lifetime career in Medicine, I’m less sure now that medicines do “restore health to the sick”. I think it’s biology which restores health. Human beings are complex adaptive systems, and all such organisms have both “self-healing” and “self-making” capacities. The best medicines stimulate those natural processes of healing. The next best support the processes. Many of the ones we use reduce symptoms, or reverse an imbalance in the body, both of which are reasonable goals and acts, but are they directly involved in restoring health to the sick? Do you think that’s just semantics? I don’t. I’d have a hope for the future that we’d develop the treatments which really do support and stimulate the natural processes of healing, and that’s what Leonardo says, in other language, at the end of that quotation – “when this is the case you will know well how to devise a remedy”.

When what’s the case?

Oh, yes, understand “what man is, what life is, and what constitution and health are”.

Ah! Well, there lies both the problem and the signposts to the solutions…..

A couple of years into my work as a General Practitioner I started to wonder what health is. Nobody taught us what health is at university, and the clinical training of a young doctor focuses on learning diagnostic and therapeutic techniques – identifying pathologies and treating disease states. I went back and looked at my Clinical Medicine textbooks. I searched the index for “health” – no entries. Nope, not one. That set me off on an exploration, looking for an understanding of what health is. The medical school textbooks were no help. Oh yes, there was that old World Health Organisation definition –

“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

But all that really does is substitute the word “well-being” for “health”. It does suggest health is multidimensional – physical, mental and social – and it does suggest health is something positive, not just the absence of disease or infirmity. But does it really take us much further that irritating “Brexit means Brexit”?

While researching the issue of the absence of health in medical textbooks, I discovered there was a kind of parallel anomaly….biology textbooks didn’t have a definition of life. Really? Well, yes, it wasn’t uncommon to find a biology textbook without the word life appearing in the index.

So what is life?

One of the more satisfying descriptions I read was from Maturana and Varela’s, living organisms demonstrate a “self-making” capacity, which they termed “autopoiesis” and that lead me down the path of the complexity scientists and their definition of “complex adaptive systems”. I still find that a good starting place.

That leaves us with two more areas to explore, according to Leonardo. What is man? and What is a constitution? Remember he was writing 500 years ago, and we would probably now say “What is a human?”, rather than “what is man?”. Let’s leave constitution aside for just now, as it’s pretty embedded in the issues of what is a human and what is health?

What is a human being?

There have been a couple of books published recently which put this question centre stage again. Douglas Rushkoff’s “Team Human“, and Paul Mason’s “Clear Bright Future“. Both of these books are concerned about the impact of technology on human beings and on our societies. Rushkoff says –

being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human, alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our will.

In other words, he focuses on the innate sociability and need to act co-operatively in human beings. I’ve heard Paul Mason say at least two interesting definitions of what is a human – human beings “use energy to counter entropy” – in other words we are a creative species. And human beings are “co-operative, imaginative and linguistic” – the combination of which makes us a unique species.

All of these ideas are interesting to me. And I find it refreshing that these questions are coming to the fore now. Surely this is a timely and positive response to the mechanical, data and statistics driven reductionism which is so utterly de-humanising.

I continue to explore what it means to be human, and I find some of the more impressive answers in the works of philosophers, from the classical schools to Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze (to name just a few!)

Of course, I could write about this for hours! Ha! Ha! But I’ll stop here and leave the possibility that these are questions you might like to pursue for yourself.

Let me summarise – because I think this is a lifetime project as well as potentially the basis for a whole curriculum –

  • What is Life?
  • What is a human being?
  • What is health?

The answers which appear from those studies could, possibly, give us the remedies of the future – the ones which actually do “restore health to the sick” – and, yes, more than that, allow us to create healthier societies filled with people who fulfil their potentials, creatively, co-operatively, and artistically…..can I even say “spiritually?”

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I listened to an interview with Yuval Noah Harari recently. I read his “Sapiens” some time ago and mostly enjoyed it, but I haven’t been tempted to read his more recent “Homo Deus”. This latter book looks ahead to consider how things might go as artificial intelligence and robotics develops apace. He argues that our technology could give us incredible powers, so that we may end up more like gods, but he also says things could go the other way and create an increasingly large class of people he labels as “useless”.

That “useless class” terminology is certainly a way of getting attention, but when he specifies what he means by it, there’s a lot in it –

“I choose this very upsetting term, useless, to highlight the fact that we are talking about useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system, not from a moral viewpoint,” he says. Modern political and economic structures were built on humans being useful to the state: most notably as workers and soldiers, Harari argues. With those roles taken on by machines, our political and economic systems will simply stop attaching much value to humans, he argues.

He goes from there to imagine a future where this class spends its time on drugs and Virtual Reality games machines. Depressing, huh?

So, two things struck me immediately. Firstly, this connects to some of the debate about “Universal Basic Income” – the idea that every citizen should receive a monthly allocation because we are heading towards a system which will be “post-work” – robots and algorithms will take over most of the jobs and the increased automation will increase unemployment. Our current economic system will either be adapted to take account of that, or human beings will have to adapt to the current economic system. Or not. It’s this “or not” that Harari explores by describing the “useless class”. One question then is what do we value in society and how do we allocate resources to what we value? As a society.

The second thought was, what, if people don’t have jobs in factories, shops or offices, the only thing they’ll be able to do is take drugs and play VR games? What popped into my mind straight away were caring and creating.

Human beings are great at caring. Sure, we don’t do nearly enough of it, and we could sure do with developing our capacities to care, but take, as one example, the response to an earthquake, a storm, a flood, a terrorist attack. In all of those situations we hear story after story of human kindness, human sacrifice and human caring. With declining infant mortality and increasing life expectancy more and more people in the world are living longer and in need of more care. We won’t run out of opportunities to care for others.

Human beings are great creators. We are problem solvers, scientists, home makers, gardeners, cooks, and artists of all kinds – writers, sculptors, painters, musicians, dancers. We won’t run out of opportunities to create.

Thirdly, I’d argue, human beings are great learners. We have whole neural circuits primed to seek out what’s new or different. We have whole systems dedicated to learning skills, acquiring knowledge, understanding and making sense of things. We won’t run out of opportunities to learn.

So, when I visited the town of Blaye recently, I saw this artwork in a car park. Isn’t it beautiful? Simple, and beautiful. Doesn’t it capture something about the human ability to care and to create.

Isn’t there an opportunity at this point in civilisation to change our focus away from grabbing and consuming, to caring and creating? And learning!

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