Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category

This looks like a bird, don’t you think? That’s interesting because in fact it is a stone on a beach with a little sea creature clinging to its undersurface, looking for all the world like a bright orange beak, and a tiny shell attached to the side just where you might expect to find an eye if this was a bird.

So, my mind has taken a combination of a stone and two completely different sea creatures and created a image for me which makes me think “This looks like a bird”.

We do that all the time. All the time. When we look at clouds we see patterns which make us think they look like faces, creatures, or other familiar shapes. We see people who look like people we know. We see likenesses in babies features which remind us of parents or grandparents.

This “looks like” ability isn’t unique to human beings of course. Flowers, insects and many other creatures are brilliant at developing shapes and forms of other life forms….either to attract what they want to attract, or to repel what they want to repel.

But we humans take this “looks like” ability to a completely different level. We use “representation” to become aware of, or to create, connections between things which we would otherwise miss. We use it to know, quickly, what we are looking at, or at least, to make a preliminary, perhaps “good enough” assessment.

But we also use it to connect to others. We look for similarities, symmetries echoes and reflections, to form bonds, attachments, relationships. We look for some aspect of a person or their life and say “I identify with that”, or “me too”, or “I sympathise with that”, “I understand that”.

Even in the circumstances where we look closer and realise that what we perceived at first wasn’t really what we thought it was…..this is not a bird….that ability of do the “looks like” thing turns something mundane into something just a bit more magical. It’s a way of “re-enchanting” the world.

I think we take this power to a whole new level when we start to employ symbols, art and language. I’ll say more about that tomorrow.

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When I looked up at the sky and saw these clouds I thought of Hokusai’s famous work of art, “The Wave” …….

Of course, now that it’s 2020 and we’re still in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, that image has taken on a new significance I think.

There was always something both awe-inspiring and a bit frightening about “The Wave” (or is it called “The Great Wave”?). When I look at it I’m immediately struck by its beauty. What a fabulous form! And with Mount Fuji on the far horizon you get the impression that the wave is actually bigger than the mountain! Then you notice the people in the boats, and they are looking, to say the least, precarious! I mean if a wave the size of a mountain is about to come crashing down on you with its foam forming giant claws above your head, then, how could you be anything other than terrified? Well, maybe exhilarated too, responding to the challenge, the way a surfer would, but surely you’d be afraid?

This pandemic is a bit like this. I can’t help but feel awe in the face of the power of this tiny virus to spread over such enormous distances and affect so much of our tiny human lives. And I can’t help but feel a bit afraid of it too. Sure, we now seem to have reached a phase of frustration and don’t we all just wish the bloody thing would go away? But wishing isn’t going to get us there, is it? We have to face up to it, paddle like fury and try to ride it out.

What we’ll find on the other side of the Wave/Pandemic none of us know, but, one thing is for sure, we’ll be changed. This world will be different. Maybe we’d better face up to that too, and start to make the personal and collective changes which make sense in the light of what we’re learning from this experience……

Maybe that’s the big wave coming, actually…..not so much the tiny virus, but CHANGE…….change which washes away old and ingrained habits, routines, methods and ways of organising things. Change which inspires us to invent new ones.

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I’ve had a couple of days thinking about beginnings, so it seemed kind of obvious to have one about endings!

This photo shows a number of berries, all part of the same plant, even the same part of the same plant, but each in a different stage of maturation. Some are still green, some have turned yellow, some red, and some are even beginning to get wrinkled (like me, ha! ha!) and so appear the most mature.

When I think about beginnings, I realise that they are all pretty arbitrary – a beginning is where we begin – if you pick a thread or two you’ll always find your way back to an earlier beginning.

I don’t think that means there are no beginnings. I think there are. All the time. Every day. Every moment of every day. There are beginnings. There are phenomena and experiences which have only this moment come into being for the first time ever. It’s pretty great to notice that.

Endings have exactly the same quality. It’s not that there aren’t any. There are endings all the time. Every day. Every moment of every day. There are endings. There are phenomena and experiences which have only this moment slipped into the past. You’ll never have them again. It’s pretty great to notice that.

Outcomes, targets and goals

In Medicine, there is a lot of focus on “outcomes”, sometimes called “clinical outcomes”, which, somehow are a bit different from “patient reported outcomes” (“PROMS”). These are all endings. They are points to be reached. Measurements to be attained, or ratings to be completed. But when your working life is that of a family doctor, (a “GP”), then you’re never done with outcomes. The patients don’t reach the intended outcomes then go away. Life, it turns out, goes on. What was an ending today, turns out to be just another chapter in an ongoing story, just another time and place sensitive reading in the midst of a flow of a whole life.

Oh, yes, you’ll say, but there is one outcome which isn’t like that isn’t there? Death. The final outcome. The ultimate ending. Except it’s not really, is it? Well, it is for the physical body of the person who has died, but we are more than physical bodies aren’t we? We are experiences, stories, events and memories, aren’t we? And those continue long after the physical body has gone. Are the people you loved who are no longer alive completely gone from your life? I don’t think so. Their life continues to influence our lives. The experiences we shared, the memories we made, whatever we created together, the stories told, the photographs taken, the objects held…….

Have you ever seen a BBC TV programme called “The Repair Shop”? I love it. People bring old objects to a workshop of artisans. The old objects are usually in a poor state of repair, but they mean something to the person who has them. Once restored by the craftsmen and women, the person comes back to reclaim the object, and time and time again, it is an immensely emotional experience. They are put in touch, deeply, and significantly with a loved one, long gone. It’s lovely to watch and it shows how a person, an individual, continues to influence others long after they’ve gone. How their “presence” I suppose you could say, is made more real through what they’ve touched, what they’ve handled, what they played with, or made.

Targets are a kind of outcome. They are useful as ways of getting you to somewhere you want to get. For example if you want to save up a certain amount of money then setting a target of that amount is a good aid to getting there. The trouble is that targets are used inappropriately. Whose targets are they? And are they the same, most important targets, which others want to achieve? Because the selection of targets is an individual, value-based, subjective, exercise of choice. But if they are set for others then they direct the efforts and lives of others towards those targets instead of others. I’m not a fan of targets. At least, not ones I don’t have a say in the creation of!

Goals are a bit like targets. I’d say the same about them. They can be helpful to get us to places we want to get to. But they are aspirations, not predictions. And they are not endings. Or at least, they are not final endings. Are they?

I think this unique and unpredicted pandemic is forcing us to face up to the reality of beginnings and endings. It’s making us more aware of connections, of webs of influence, of the non-linear, multifactorial, dynamic, ever flowing, ever changing nature of reality.

This morning I read an article in Le Monde about how management methods are already starting to change in the light of this experience. Here’s the main point I got in that article – management is having to move away from “control” to “coaching”. Three things have come to the fore – the need for individual autonomy, the need for good team working and relationships between workers, and the need for transparency.

Well that all seems pretty good to me! I look forward to seeing the end of de-humanising “Taylorism” and “command and control”, and the beginning of an emphasis of autonomy, relationships and transparency. Imagine if we governed countries according to those principles?!

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Here in Europe the school year is starting and for most children they haven’t been to school since about March or April because of this pandemic. Although we know now that children under the age of 14 seem to be almost unaffected by COVID-19 there is a lot of anxiety about children spreading the virus through the community, and, perhaps more specifically, to the adults who work in the schools. So each country has been making cautious preparations for the re-opening of its schools, looking at everything from cleaning regimes, the use of hand gels and masks, and the way children spend their time in the school buildings.

Out of all this, at least in the UK, has emerged a concept of “bubbles”. The idea is to have children spend most of their school day with a small group of other children and teachers…..often much smaller than a regular class size. The same concept of “bubbles” has also been used for the wider community in the UK, with lockdown rules easing gradually to allow slightly more people to interact on a daily basis – two households meeting up, then three perhaps; limitations to the number of people who can gather in any one place but allowing particular groups or families to meet up and spend regular time together.

I think it’s an interesting idea. And, as this photo shows, a potentially beautiful one. This photo is of breaking waves on a beach in Western France where the land meets the Atlantic. The bubbles forming in the surf are just gorgeous, aren’t they?

It strikes me that this bubbles idea highlights a major issue for our societies and the way we organise our daily lives. It’s the issue of size. Mass gatherings, mass transport, mass tourism, have been shown to be amongst the most vulnerable points for us…..the circumstances which lead to most infections. The social distancing measures that each country has brought in have been based on the understanding that the more you keep people together in closed spaces the more the disease spreads.

So now we are seeing a huge increase in “home working”, and, it would seem, a large number of people find they actually prefer that to spending time every day packed onto buses or trains with hundreds of strangers, then working all day in the shared spaces of offices. People are learning to live locally, enjoying their local parks, shops, cafes etc now, instead of traveling long distances to share time with masses of strangers in huge workplaces, shopping centres and so on.

I’ve decided to re-read a book which made a huge impact on me when I young – “Small is Beautiful” by E F Schumacher. It’ll be interesting to revisit it in the light of what we’ve learned since it was written in 1974, and in the light of our experience of this pandemic. What I remember of the book is the key point that big is not best…..that we should try to create societies at human scales instead of around mass production and mass consumption.

Maybe the “new normal” will involve a lot less “mass” anything – maybe we will move towards a more human scale everywhere, overturning the industrialised principles of the last century to abandon so called “efficiencies of scale” (which have probably only ever been useful in the manufacture and delivery of products). Maybe we will start to create smaller schools, smaller classes, smaller hospitals, smaller communities. Maybe we will move towards more diversity and less uniformity.

We are more able to do that now. We now understand that complex systems are like vast interconnected networks of nodes and links. We know that the most robust and most resilient systems are diverse and adaptable. We know that distributed power and responsibility produces more sustainable systems and organisations than hierarchical, command and control, massively scaled ones.

Integration is the creation of mutually beneficial bonds between well differentiated parts. It’s how the body works. Not with a command centre, but with interconnected, responsive, open networks. It’s how Nature works, through inter-dependent, diverse elements within ecosystems.

Is this our model for a “new normal”?

Human scale. Small. Diverse, open and healthily inter-connected? Can we see a future way to live in this beautiful image of bubbles?

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I remember reading that Paulo Coelho, the author, had a practice of starting a new book whenever he came across a white feather. I’m not sure if he still does that, or whether or not he always started a new book every time he came across a white feather……however, this has got me reflecting on the issue of beginnings.

Here I am, sitting in my studio office, near the French town of Cognac. It’s the second last day of August 2020 and we are now….how many months? into this COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve had some recent experiences of thinking the pandemic was easier to cope with when we were in full lockdown than it is now. It seems that life was simpler because it was so constrained. Now there are an ever-changing host of regulations, laws and guidelines depending on where you are. Different in different places in the town, different in different towns, different in different countries. And the stats seem to be changing all the time as well now, as testing numbers increase, positive cases increase, hospital admissions and COVID deaths don’t increase…..just how widespread is this virus? Just how lethal is this virus? What are the best ways to minimise its impact? The answers to all these questions and more seems to change almost by the week now.

So this feels a particularly unsettled period. And, here’s a weird thing, so is the weather! I’ve never known a summer like this here. More wind, cooler mornings and evenings, high afternoon temperatures, unexpected showers, thunderstorms, and weather forecasts that are literally different between going to bed and waking up in the morning.

I find I can’t help wondering from time to time….”when is this all going to end?” Then, I realise, it might not end. The world might be changed by this. Life might be changed by this. We are not in a cycle of return where we will re-inhabit the past, pick up our “old ways” and carry on as if nothing had happened.

I think some people were thinking this way. Sure, a lot of people have talked about the “world after COVID” suggesting many things that could, and should, be changed. But others are more cynical and expect the predominant forces and power groups to steer things back to what suited them up till now.

The truth is none of us know. The truth is none of us can know. We haven’t lived through this particular event before and we haven’t even lived through an event which is “just like this”. We are still trying to understand what we are dealing with. And the future is never a place sitting like the next destination along the railway line just waiting for us to arrive. The future arrives as we live it. The future emerges from the present, from today’s choices and actions.

I got to thinking that maybe a bit like the “glass half full or empty” dilemma, maybe as life is lived it feels full of endings, but maybe it can also feel full of beginnings. Both are true. They are different perspectives. Isn’t there a saying somewhere about life being understood backwards but lived forwards? Something like that. How we make sense of things through reflection and memory, but how we live in a present which is constantly changing as possible futures come into being…..

So, maybe this as a good a time as any to concentrate on beginnings.

What shall I, what shall you, what shall we, start today? If the future really is like a path which emerges as we walk it, which path shall we take today? Which path will we start to create today?

This is my beginning. This is me just thinking of this. But over the next few days I’m going to devote some time and energy to this and ask myself, what shall I begin? How shall I begin to live now, in the light of this recent past, and this ongoing present?

Want to join me? Feel free. Share if you want, or just take some time this week to explore what you’d like to begin. Then begin.

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Yesterday I shared a post about two forms of growth….unfurling (unfolding, opening, flourishing or blossoming) and connecting (reaching out to make bonds, relationships and links).

Today I came across a couple of photos from my garden which show both of these processes occurring at the same time. In this first photo you can see how the tendril or creeper which is reaching out is doing so in a kind of spiralling or un-spiralling way. It doesn’t consider that a straight line is the shortest distance between any two points! Perhaps there is something to learn from this – a sort of melange of meandering and spiralling around.

But what really struck me was this photo because I took a close up of these beautiful spirals and because I was focussing on the near distance the background has gone nicely blurred (something photographers call Bokeh I believe!) – but, wait! Look more closely! Look at the centre of the spiral which is in the bottom left corner of this image!

Through that spiral the distance suddenly becomes clear as crystal.

I don’t know what you think, but that reminded me of my favourite “And not or” theme – when you take BOTH of these processes of growth together suddenly you can see the world more clearly!

If you’re interested to read more about “And not or” check out my book.

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Both of these images are beautiful and I think that in each of them we see a way of growing.

The image on the left is an unfurling. It’s an opening up, a revealing, a bursting out. The outer surface splits apart to allow the inner flower to come into the world. Buds are a powerful example of growth. We see them everywhere in the Spring. They start as small swellings, then their appearance becomes more complex as they grow, then they open up. This opening up, this “flourishing”, is one of the main ways of growing in the world. It’s a blooming, a blossoming. Beautiful. Isn’t this what we hope for in ourselves and our loved ones? That we are able to realise our potentials, that we are able to unfold and reveal our uniqueness, that we develop, grow and mature in a way which we could only call “blossoming”?

The image on the left is a connecting. This is a reaching out, a stretching out, a spiralling upwards, downwards, along until we find something else to catch on to, then investing power and energy is creating a strong, resilient bond. This is a second, equally important, way of growing. We grow by making connections, forming bonds, developing strong, resilient relationships. We grow by finding and connecting to “the other”…..to other beings, other parts of our environment, other parts of ourselves even.

So, in these two images I see two of the most fundamentally important ways of growing and developing – unfurling and connecting.

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I’m pretty keen on creativity. I have an eye for what’s new. In fact, I’ve been pretty impressed with the old philosophy which says to treat every day as if it’s the first time you’ll have experienced it. Because it is. Each patient who came into my consulting room was coming in to tell me a new experience, a new story. Even if I already knew them quite well they’ll still come and tell me something I hadn’t heard them say before. Everyone had the capacity to surprise me.

I love the Spring time of the year because I love to see the new seeds pushing up the first green shoots, love to see the buds beginning to form and unfurl, love to see the first sight of the migratory birds returning from their winter travels.

But Autumn is sort of opposite to that. It’s a time of a certain paradox – a time of fruition and therefore harvest, but also a time when the world begins to wind down, go to sleep, or even die off. It’s a time you might call the “down cycle”. I love that too. I love to see the leaves turn yellow, red, brown, golden. I enjoy sweeping up the leaves that fall from the mulberry tree.

This photo reminds me of the down cycle. Here’s a piece of iron. Some large, once strong panel or plate which someone created. But it’s been cast aside for a long time, and Nature has begun to break it down. The once smooth and shiny surface is breaking up into these little chips and flakes. The chips and flakes will, finally, turn to dust.

Does that seem like a loss?

I suppose viewed from one perspective it is. But Nature has down phases as well as resting phases, waking, growing phases, and maturing phases too. Could anything exist if any of these phases didn’t exist?

I think we need to remember that sometimes, and not get too upset and anxious about change. Nothing stays the same. And because nothing stays the same we are able to start each day as if we had never lived it before….because we haven’t. Imagine! How much there will be to discover today. How many new experiences and sensations you will have. How many new thoughts and feelings you will experience.

Life is dynamic. As Carlo Rovelli, the physicist says

A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.

I think an awareness of the phases and cycles of life reminds us of that. There’s beauty in every phase.

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I came across this old photo the other day. I took it in Paris. In the foreground you can see some of the famous love locks. I’m not sure where this habit began but you can find it all over the world now. In this case these ones are along one of the banks of the Seine. On the opposite bank, the first thing you probably notice is the huge “Printemps” department store with its facade covered with scaffolding for building works. Rather than just cover the scaffolding with boring, bland material, they’ve made it look like a giant mural depicting a happy, carefree shopper swinging her bags of purchases as she almost flies over the ground. Right in front of the shop, but down a level on a promenade, you can see a gathering of people. Maybe if you zoom in you’ll make out that there are some musicians in this little crowd, because that’s what was going on. There was a jazz band playing by the side of the river. A kind of large busking event. They attracted people to gather around them and listen to the upbeat delightful music, but you can see a fair number of people also stopped on the bridge up above them to look and to listen.

Last night I watched a movie. A British rom-com called “Finding Your Feet“. I enjoyed it and had some real laugh out loud moments. For example, the character played by Joanna Lumley saying she had been married five times and the last time the marriage had ended “due to religious differences” – “He thought he was God and I disagreed”. But there are sad themes of loss and dying in the movie too. In one scene most of the cast go off to Rome to take part in a dance performance, and as they spend a day and an evening enjoying Rome together I was suddenly struck with a feeling of loss myself.

I realised I had the same feeling when I looked at this photo here. It’s a sort of nostalgia for what we used to call normal. There they are, all kinds of people, out in the city, no need for masks, no need for “social distancing”, as carefree as the character painted on the Printemps mural.

I have a longing for that normality again. I guess a lot of us are feeling pretty fed up with this pandemic by now. I guess many of us aren’t feeling that comfortable with all the measures introduced to “protect us” by making us wary of others, and constantly reminding us that we might catch this virus, get ill, and even die. It’s not getting much easier, is it?

So what are our options?

Mine is a mixture of acceptance and adaptation. The virus is present. It’s highly unlikely that I will catch it, and, apart from my age, I’m not in any of the groups likely to suffer the infection most severely. In fact, most people won’t catch it, and most of those who do won’t suffer much. But some will. Enough to overwhelm hospitals and carers….potentially. So, at the very least from a position of care and solidarity I need to change some of my habits. So I choose to go along with the increased physical distancing, the wearing of a mask to reduce the chance of spreading the virus, and to let go off some of the things which had become a normal part of my life – travel, day trips to cities, visits to museums and galleries, lunch in a seaside town during the holiday season. I’m sure you’ll have your own list.

So, I have this nostalgia for “normal” and I hope “normal”, at least as an experience will return soon.

Meanwhile I’m drawing my focus in to the everyday wonders of life here and now. Enjoying the glimpses of the “Little Owl”s, or the “Barn Owl” which flew over my head the other night in the dark. Gazing at the sparkling night sky wondering what I’m looking at. Sunset bathing…..basking in the glorious colours of the clouds as the last minutes of the day turn the world pink, and rose, and violet. Losing myself in wonder at the drunken stumbling movements of bees gathering nectar deep in the big yellow pumpkin flowers. I could go on.

I’ve started the practice of “morning pages” again (if you don’t know this practice, google it. Or check out this older post of mine). I’m writing these daily posts, compiling and editing photos and texts for my next book (remember to check out my last one – “And not Or“) I’m reading as avidly as I’ve ever read, and pretty much each day feels like a good one.

What are you doing?

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When you look at this photo I think it seems to be a mountain with clouds and sky just above it. But you immediately recognise that’s not quite right.

So then you see this and you think it’s trees with the sky above….maybe one of those forest pictures where the photographer directs the camera straight up to the sky and catches the topmost branches of several trees. But that’s not quite right.

In the first photo, the apparent mountain in the foreground is an odd shape. Mountains just don’t look like that, then, in the second photo, what’s that rock doing balanced on top of the trees?

The thing is, these are both photos of reflections on the still water of a loch. Once you know that, the whole image makes sense.

This inspires a train of thought in my mind…..about how we perceive and make sense of reality. It’s a complicated business but it involves context. It helps to know where you are when you are looking around and what you can see in the immediate environment. There is nobody standing at the edge of this loch wondering what they are looking at. They know where they are and how they got there.

We make sense of reality by spotting patterns, but we need to learn the patterns before we can spot them. A bit chicken and egg-ish isn’t it? In normal life these two aspects of the same thing are iterative…..we are constantly learning and spotting patterns, the more we learn, the more we spot, and the more we spot, the more we learn.

Medical Practice is like that. Doctors learn pathology and the natural history of diseases. In other words, they the patterns of illness. The better a doctor knows the patterns, the more easily they’ll be spotted – or diagnosed. And the more diagnoses a doctor makes, the better the knowledge of patterns. We call it experience. I always felt that a good diagnosis was crucial in good health care. If the diagnosis was wrong, the chances are the treatment would be wrong.

In my first Paediatric job, my mentor told me on the first day that his goal for my six months with him was to teach me how to recognise a sick child. When he said that I thought it was a pretty bizarre thing to say. I mean, wasn’t it obvious when a child was sick? Wasn’t the goal to diagnose ie name the sickness? Well, of course, he was right. I was wrong. What he wanted to teach me was that very first important step…..how to recognise, in an instant, that this child was ill and needed immediate attention. Working out exactly what the disease was and how to treat it came a close second, but if you didn’t recognise that the child was sick, all was lost. It turned out that learning was by experience, encountering sick children and healthy children of all ages, to become familiar with what was normal behaviour and demeanour at different developmental stages. That teaching was crucial for my practice as a GP. It let me walk into someone’s house and know instantly that this child needed close attention and help.

The clues, and the signs, were in the contexts, the environments and the relationships. Yes, some were in bodily or facial “signs”, but mostly they were in behaviours and responses.

I suppose it’s that kind of experience and learning which made me suspicious of reductionism and generalisations. Every individual is unique and can only be understood within their contexts, their environments and their relationships.

Diagnose, like pattern spotting, is like joining up the dots. It’s got a lot to do with connections and behaviours. It’s not all about “data” and “measurements”. Especially when considering the real, actual, unique individual here and now.

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