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Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category

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 think it’s pretty well established that being out in Nature is good for us – good for our physical and our mental health – but also good for well-being and just feeling that life is worth living.

I know that since I moved from a second floor flat in Central Scotland to a house with a garden in the Charente that I’ve been out in nature much more, that I feel closer to nature, more a part of nature even – that I feel more in tune with the birds, the seasons, the plants, the rhythms of Life and this World.

I think it’s also pretty well established that one of the aspects of being human which distinguishes us from other creatures is Art. The philosopher, Giles Deleuze said there are three ways of thinking – philosophy, which is thinking about concepts; science, which is thinking about function; and art, which is thinking about percepts and affects. I’ve always found that model useful. I enjoy all three ways! In terms of visual art I do enjoy galleries, but there’s something especially impressive I find when I come across art in Nature.

Here are some examples from a recent trip I made up to the Loire Valley –

What about you?

Have you any favourite examples of art in natural settings to share?

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jan17

In January each year I like to make my own calendar for the coming year. Maybe it’d be a better idea to make it in December so it was ready to go in January, but that’s not what I tend to do.

The way I do it is to select twelve images from my photo library, one for each month of last year. I select them first because they are images I’m really happy with. After all, I’ll have to look at each of them for a whole month at a time for the next year. If I find I’ve more than one to choose from then what I do next is select the image which evokes the strongest memories for me. That way I’ll recall, month by month, a beautiful, wondrous, or amazing experience throughout the year. Each image evokes memories, but also inspires me.

I find this is a way of harvesting the experiences of one year to inspire the choices I’ll make this year.

It’s really easy to find and collect your own photos. Of course, you don’t need to make an actual calendar. You could simply select and collect twelve images into a separate album on your phone, your pad, or your computer. Or share them on Instagram or Facebook. You choose. Oh, one other tip – file names – as I save each image into the “2017” folder I name it “Jan17.jpg, Feb17.jpg” and so on. Makes it way easier to organise and use them in the future.

I’m a great one for “and not or”, so I make a special album/folder of the twelve images and keep that on my desktop. I use those images to make a physical calendar, browse through them from time to time, and use them on various posts and sharing platforms through the year. The service I use for the physical calendar is Redbubble. It’s not cheap, but it’s really fabulous quality and their service is fast. There are plenty of other web based services out there, or you could print your images at home and make your own calendar by hand. There are also photo print machines in various outlets but I’ve never tried any of them. Have you?

The image above is my January image. I took it one foggy morning in the vineyards which surround my house. Isn’t it gorgeous? Reminds me just how beautiful winter can be, and how amazingly wonderful trees are.

Here’s February –

Feb17

In February 2017 I spent some time with my friends who live in Capetown. We took a few trips and one of my really favourite areas was Franchhoek. It’s like a French enclave in the South African countryside. As I now live in France the unique blending of French and South African culture in Franchhoek really appealed to me.

Mar17

In March I returned to Scotland and had a day out in the Trossachs. Stopping at the side of one of the many lochs I was astonished by the brilliant reflections of the sky in the absolutely still water. This shot includes the rocks at my feet as well as the reflections of the overhanging trees and the clouds above me. It’s quite a disorienting image and that’s what I love about it. Really draws me in to work out just what I’m looking at.

Apr17

April is the time of blossom in my neck of the woods. Cherry trees, plum trees, almond trees….it’s a beautiful time of year. I can’t look at these blossoms without feeling a surge of new life and creativity. At the same time, I’m reminded of the Japanese veneration of the cherry blossom time of year. The cherry blossom doesn’t last long so it heightens our awareness of the inextricable links between beauty and transience.

May17

Last May we were blessed with an abundance of sweet peas. The previous year we sowed a number of seeds but they really didn’t come to much. This year, they were everywhere! That was a lesson. Take your time. Sow your seeds and let Nature nurture them on her own timescale.

Jun17

For my birthday in June we took a trip to Segovia in Spain. We’d visited there the previous year and loved it so much we decided to go back. It’s about an eight hour drive from our house to Segovia so we stopped off in Saint Jean de Luz just this side of the French-Spanish border on the way. Clearly one of the most astonishing things about Segovia is this Roman aqueduct which took water from the hills right into the town centre. The Romans, huh? They knew how to build structures which would last for centuries didn’t they? Long after their empire had gone anyway. I wonder how long what we build now will last…….

Jul17

One of the delights of this house is the “open outlook”. Years ago one of my Dutch friends told me how important it was for her to have “a long view”. She felt that these long views opened up your heart and your soul to the world. I think she was right. I’ve stayed in places where the only view was of the buildings on the other side of the road. I know what I prefer. This particular shot, which I took from the garden in July, is just one of the many photos I’ve taken of the clouds. I could look at clouds for hours. They are endlessly fascinating, constantly changing, and often utterly beautiful. Cloud watching. I recommend it.

Aug17

In August we had a day trip to Rochefort but it was a rainy day. It’s easy to get down on a rainy day and wish the rain would just go away, (unless you live in a drought area, when you might welcome a good downpour!), but you can get some great photos on cloudy, rainy days. These magnificent umbrellas were strung across the main street on market day. Well, you couldn’t really not take a photo, could you?

Sep17

September is a great time to go foraging around here. We took a basket with us and came back with these walnuts, figs and berries. How lucky were we?!

Oct17

There’s a barn owl, or a pair of barn owls, who live in my neighbour’s barn and for the past couple of years, they’ve laid eggs in a nesting hole in the house, above the front door. This year, though, three kestrels turned up and fought the owls for the box. I couldn’t bear the thought of them actually catching one of the owls to closed off the empty box with cardboard. I was a bit sorry not to see the owls so frequently after that. However, in October, one night at sunset, I spotted this little owl perched up on the plum tree. From her shape and call I reckon she was a tawny owl. Lovely photo though, don’t you think?

Nov17

In November we had our first ever trip to Scandinavia, with a few days in Copenhagen. Loved it! I’ll definitely go back. I chose this photo because it’s off the Rundetaarn – I’ve really never, ever seen anything like this. Built as an observatory the internal path is wide enough to drive a carriage up. Now there’s a road I’d never traveled before!

Finally, December –

Dec17

The mulberry tree in the garden begins to shed her leaves gradually, but then one day, usually after an overnight frost, she suddenly sheds most of them, laying this astonishing carpet around her feet. The leaves are so varied in size and colour that I just love taking my time and raking them up. It’s my November/December meditation exercise!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these twelve images and that I’ve inspired you to delve into your photo library and find your own dozen – whether you go on to make a calendar or not.

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Look at this! I mean, just look at this! I know, it’s not one of my best, my sharpest photographs, but I was in the garden the other day and I heard this deep low buzzing sound. It wasn’t as deep as the humming-bird moths which will arrive when the buddleia bushes bloom later in the year, but it was a lot deeper than the various species of bees and wasps I usually hear in the garden. Luckily, when I turned to the sound I saw the source. This inch long jet black bee with iridescent blue wings. I quickly got my iPhone out of my pocket and did my best to snap a shot before the bee flew away. I have never seen anything quite like this. There were two or three of them buzzing around the flowers but they just never settled long enough to be able to focus a camera and take a nice close up (not yet anyway – I haven’t given up!).

I looked it up online and it seems this is a “violet carpenter bee”. Never heard of such a creature. What a thrill! What a delight! Made my day!

There’s an important lesson to learn here. I’m sure you’ll have come across “mindfulness”. It’s quite the thing these days. Mostly the term is used in relation to certain meditation practices and they are good ones. It seems that mindfulness meditation can have a lot of benefits, from easing depression and anxiety, to stimulating “neuroplasticity” (that’s the phenomenon of how the brain changes and develops itself). But even before the meditation practices were popularised Ellen Langer researched mindfulness in everyday life. She claims we can either go through life mindfully or mindlessly. Seems a clear choice, huh? How do we lead a more mindful life? Search for the new.

By new, she means what’s new to you. The trick, you see, is that every day is new. You have never lived this day before. Nobody has ever had, or ever will have, the same experience as you are going to have today. Once you are aware of that you can set out to be aware of what’s new.

Iain McGilchrist points out in “The Master and His Emissary” that our left cerebral hemisphere has a preference for what is familiar, whilst the right hemisphere thrives on curiosity – it leads us to seek out what’s new. His larger thesis is that we have become very left brain dominant in our present society and that some deliberate change of focus to the right brain might bring about a much more healthy, more integrated level of brain function.

I recently read a book by French author, Belinda Cannone, “S’émervieller”, which explores many of the ways we can bring a heightened sense of wonder and awe into our everyday lives. Bottom line is the same as Langer and McGilchrist say – seek out what’s new. And that’s exactly the experience I had the other day when this violet carpenter bee turned up amongst the garden flowers. Cannone gives various different examples of the places, times and activities which seem most likely to stimulate “l’émerveillement” (“amazement”) and the strongest one is “Nature”.

The thing is the natural world, especially the world of living forms, is constantly changing. Pretty much any time we spend in natural environments will be likely to gift us the delights of something new.

Let me just clarify what I mean by “new” in this piece. I mean it’s anything you haven’t seen before, heard before, smelled before, touched or tasted before. It’s also the newness of the present moment. You have never ever lived this present moment before, so what do you notice? Right here, right now. It’s also the encounter with anything you don’t know or don’t understand. These are the experiences which stimulate our curiosity and our drive to learn. They are the every day experiences of adventure and discovery.

From the Japanese art of forest bathing, to Richard Louv’s claim that we are suffering from “Nature-deficit disorder” which can be treated with a good dose of “Vitamin N” (Nature), to l’émerveillement, to mindfulness and neuroscience, it’s clear that one of the best ways to develop a healthier brain is to spend some time in Nature – whether that’s a forest, a beach, a park, or a garden. I recommend it.

You’ll be amazed.

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While wandering through the old part of Limoges the other day I came across this statue. There are many, many religious statues in France, and mostly they don’t catch my attention for very long. But on this occasion someone (“Dan” or “Dam” “the street poet” according to the signing at the end of the text) added his, or her, own words and, for me at least, enhanced the original work of art. Maybe some people will be offended by the addition of this message to a classic image of “La Pietà” but it does quite the opposite for me. It deepens the sentiment of sadness that I think we all feel when we hear the daily stories of killing from around the world.

I’m only learning to speak to French, and this particular text is the work of a poet so I’m not sure how to translate it literally, but here’s my take on it. (I hope I capture the poet’s sentiment)

We all live on the same planet

Let’s stop shooting ourselves in the head.

Let’s learn to love each other

Or at least, to accept each other.

Maybe if you are French speaker you can do a better translation than me. Maybe if you live in Limoges, you know who wrote this and added it to the statue.

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Oh, I wish I could share the scent of these astonishing flowers with you. How the sense of smell conjures up such vivid memories and experiences. Hyacinths are the only flowers which provoke my mind to recall poetry. I’m not saying I don’t think of lines from poems in other circumstances. It’s just that hyacinths, specifically, start a passage of poetry in my mind every single time….in much the same way as a few notes of music will transport me back to a particular time and place.

Here’s what I hear in my head when I smell the hyacinths –

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

“They called me the hyacinth girl.’

_ Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living not dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Do you know that poem?

I’ve never seen her, the hyacinth girl, her arms full and her hair wet, but I swear I have. Yet I couldn’t describe her to you. I’ve never seen her physically…and that’s what’s most interesting about this for me. I have a deep knowledge of seeing her, but I’ve never seen her. I have the feeling of the experience of seeing her, but I’ve never seen her.

But I have seen the hyacinths….and every time, they still my soul and I’m “looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

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I’ve never seen a fig on the tree like this before. The fruit has burst open to reveal all the wonderful juicy flesh. I’ve picked figs straight from the tree many times, and opened them up with a knife, or just my fingers, but I’ve never seen one open itself up like this.

It’s like an exuberance, as if the tree couldn’t hold itself back. It poured its energies and its life force into producing these succulent, delicious fruits and couldn’t wait another second to show them to the world.

Look! See what I’ve made!

And there’s something else I see here beside this enthusiasm to be the best fig tree it can be….there’s a generosity of spirit.

The tree doesn’t hide its fruit. It declares it, and says, come, taste, share my delight.

It’s inspiring don’t you think….it inspires us to flourish and to give, to create and to share.

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