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Archive for the ‘from the living room’ Category

What makes this photo special?

For me, it’s the sort of symmetry you can see here between the rows of vines covering the hillside and the rays of sunlight shining down through the gaps in the cloud.

There’s a resonance there. A sort of harmony which catches my attention. I think “as above, so below”, which is an old esoteric teaching about the way in which this physical world and the spiritual world are connected….or, if you prefer, how the Earth is connected to the Sky or Heavens.

Our brains are brilliant at spotting patterns. In fact, we don’t just spot patterns in the way that a mirror might reflect what stands in front of it, we create patterns. We learn patterns. We remember patterns. Think of the night sky, for example. Once you’ve been taught to see the invisible lines between some of the stars you call them constellations. And then you can find them again much more easily in the millions and millions of stars shining down on a clear night. But someone imagined those lines. They aren’t the same as the threads which make up a spider’s web, or the lines of minerals running through stones you find when you are out for a walk. Our ancestors created those patterns, and told stories so that others would be able to see them and share them.

So we are brilliant at spotting “similars” – we see patterns and attempt to match them to ones we know already, or others we can see, or create in the same moment. When we spot a similar it’s exciting. It’s “remarkable” – it’s attention grabbing and potentially meaning-creating – because that’s something else we are great at – making experiences and perceptions meaning-full. We constant attempt to make sense of the world we are living in, and to connect our experiences to a sense of purpose.

Some of these matches, these “similars” are like resonances – and this is one of those. Resonances are like harmonies. They delight. They spark a little joy, set off some feelings of awe or wonder. They are special.

This is one of the ways in which we can live a more “enchanted” life. A more “meaningful”, “rich”, “deep”, life. A life of soul. A life of spirit. A connected, “integrated” life. A healthy life. A life of flow and movement.

What patterns do you notice today? And what resonances, or similarities, do you see between those patterns, both between them and ones you already know, and between them and the others around you today?

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I saw this woman yesterday standing outside a supermarket in the middle of town. I was struck by the size of the books she was holding, and which she couldn’t resist opening and starting to read. It turns out they are a trilogy of YA fiction by a famous French author, the third volume having just been published, which is maybe what inspired this woman to buy all three.

I understand this compulsion. I’ve always had way too many books on my shelves….well, way too many in the sense that I couldn’t read them all in one lifetime. But that doesn’t stop me buying new ones. Suffice it to say I read a LOT!

I’ve had a fascination for stories all my life. In my earliest years I remember my Grandpa reading to me – he read me all of Walter Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather” and he read me collections of myths, legends and fairy stories which he bought for me when I was born. My mum used to have a photograph hanging on the wall of her living room. It was a black and white print showing my Grandpa reading in the local library. I guess I got that gene!

I’ve told countless people that when I worked at the NHS Centre for Integrative Care (which I did for the latter two decades of my career), I used to look forward to meeting a new patient every Monday morning because I knew they would tell me a unique story – one I’d never heard before. In fact, story was the very heart of my engagement with these patients who, largely, suffered from long term conditions which had failed to respond to drug treatments.

Did it surprise me that they had failed to respond to drug treatments? Nope. Because there aren’t any drugs for people, there are only drugs for diseases and drugs to suppress symptoms. Drugs don’t heal. At best they create an environment conducive to healing. It turns out it’s people who heal, not drugs. It’s people with self-defending, self-repairing, self-balancing, self-creating and growing interwoven complex systems who heal.

I found that stories were the way to understand a patient. Not symptoms.

I read a piece about a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Karl Deisseroth, yesterday, and in that interview he said

Anybody can read a diagnostic manual and see a list of symptoms, but what really matters to the patient is a different story

see it here

which reminded me of a passage by the English philosopher, Mary Midgely, which I read many years ago –

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

Wisdom, Information and Wonder. Mary Midgley

and of this passage from philosopher Richard Kearney

Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living.

On Stories. Richard Kearney

In fact, that latter passage came into my head as I took this photo – here’s a woman absorbed in stories, standing next to empty supermarket trolleys and with her back to the stalls of food laid out in front of the shop.

Stories, I found, weren’t just the way to understand a person (to make a diagnosis even), but they were also the way to heal. By helping someone create a new story, I could stimulate that complex of healing systems within them, and spur them on to more than relief from suffering…….More than? Yes, to more self-awareness, more self-compassion, and to a re-evaluation of their life choices, habits and behaviours.

Stories can set us free.

Mind you, it’s also true that we can get trapped by stories – the stuck, multilayered ones we’ve been taught as children, or been brainwashed into believing by others. But even then, the answer, the release, the movement forwards, lies in the creation of new stories……our own, unique stories which allow us to realise our hopes, express our singularity, and live the life we want to lead.

Stories, you see, have a magnetic pull. We don’t live without them.

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I walked into the courtyard of a temple in Kyoto one day and saw this display of flowers. Well, actually, this first photo is what I saw once I got closer to the display which had caught my attention.

When you look at these flowers, all you see is some flowers. It’s not possible to see the pattern which is revealed only from a distance.

This is what you see when you stand back…

Isn’t this amazing?

Actually, whether you encounter the full image first, then get closer in order to realise that it is constructed from hundreds of flowers, or whether you start close up seeing only the flowers, and gradually stand back to see the full image, the two positions are a huge contrast, aren’t they?

These are the two perspectives we bring to everything. We use the left cerebral hemisphere to zoom in on individual elements. To do that it focuses on parts and identifies them, matching them up to whatever we have previously encountered and categorising them. In this case, it identifies the objects as flowers and labels them according to their colour. But at the same time, we use the right cerebral hemisphere to take in the whole picture, to see whatever we are looking at within its contexts. To do that it focuses on the connections and relationships, and, at the same time brings a heightened awareness for novelty – it homes in on whatever is new, whatever is unique, whatever is special.

You’ll know already from my writing that I believe the principle of “and not or” is a good one in life, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that this is exactly how we have evolved. We don’t have only one way of looking at things. We have multiple ways, and we throw them into the complex mix of reality so that we can do more than perceive the world in which we live, we explore, play, learn and create. We adapt, we grow and we evolve.

I’m very wary of black and white, rigid, fixed, narrow views of reality. The world is richer than any of us can conceive. The universe has more potential than any of us can imagine. And there is much to gain from diversity and tolerance.

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I think I first became aware of research suggesting that even a view of natural surroundings could be good for us in the paper about recovery times after surgery. The findings showed that post-op patients required less painkillers, had less post-op complications and required shorter stays in hospital if their bed had a view outside to a natural environment (as opposed to no view, or a view of a wall).

Then I came across the Japanese concept of “forest bathing” and work from a university in Tokyo which showed that spending a few minutes in a forest could increase the levels of helpful immune chemicals in the blood.

Today I read a paper about “Attention Restoration Theory” suggesting that spending time in nature improves the concentration levels of children with ADHD. This “ART” concept describes two kinds of attention – an easy, effortless, “bottom up” (neurologically speaking) attention to the environment, and an effortful, focused “top down” attention which we use when deliberately concentrating on something. We use the former when gazing out of a window to the natural environment, and the latter when trying to do a difficult mental task. The research study I read split children into three groups, putting one group in a classroom with no windows, one in a classroom with windows looking out onto a bare, built environment, and a third group in a classroom with windows looking out onto nature. They gave them all the same difficult lesson, took a five minute break where they stayed in their classroom, then tested their concentration after the break. Only the third group, the one in the classroom with a natural view, improved their concentration.

One of the things I like about this paper is that it showed two things – that turning our awareness towards the natural world is good for us, and, that the way to improve concentration wasn’t to “concentrate harder” but to build in a break where the mind could drift into a more natural state of open awareness.

Well, you know, I don’t really need any scientific research or “evidence” to convince me I like to have a view of nature from my window, or that I enjoy walking in forests, parks or along beaches, but, hey, it’s still good to learn about some of the measurable effects of open awareness and engagement with natural environments.

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This pandemic has hit the pause button around the world. Who’d have thought that so many habits, so many routines, so many automatic choices would have become as disrupted as this? While the climate crisis has been demanding that we think more carefully about our use of fossil fuels, along comes a pandemic which massively reduced travel by plane and by car. Having got used to seeing the sky above streaked with plane trails most of most days, now it’s a surprise to see one. The numbers of deaths and injuries sustained on the roads in France is a fraction this last year of what it’s been in recent years.

But will everyone just rush back to doing exactly what they used to do now that restrictions are easing?

Maybe not. Many of us have become wary of crowds and of sharing time and space with many strangers in confined places now. Many people have discovered that working from home gives them more time with family and friends, and less time crowded onto commuter transport and are keen to maintain at least some element of that now. “Flexible working” is one of the commonest phrases around just now and how that’s going to impact on city centres and vast office complexes, who knows?

Health care is creaking at the seams with exhausted, over-worked staff asking themselves if they can carry on. Education has been massively disrupted and it’s not at all clear how to get it back on track.

Many people haven’t been buying nearly as much “stuff” because the shops have been closed (or they’ve changed their buying habits to buy online now instead).

But how many of these changes have been based on our personal, conscious, choices?

I think it would be a shame to pass up the incredible opportunity this enforced pause has given us. We can take a few breaths, reflect, and ask ourselves – where do we want to go from here?

I know many people are already doing that. There is a surge of demand in France for houses with gardens now, as city dwellers trapped in apartments for weeks on end are thinking, “I don’t want to be stuck inside like this again.” Connect that to the remote working or “teletravail” and people are thinking – we don’t need to live stuck in small apartments, breathing polluted air and spending our days in crowded offices. We can find a place with a garden about an hour from a city centre, enjoy working from home for part of the week, and travel in to the city for face to face work when we need to.

I got thinking about all of this when I came across this old photo yesterday. It’s a ship’s compass and steering wheel (there’s probably another name for a ship’s steering wheel but I can’t think what it is at the moment!). I’m wondering now – what about my own life? My personal life? Do I want to look at my navigation maps, set a new direction on my life compass and steer my way in a new direction?

Well, you could argue that that is exactly what we all do every day. Except we tend to do it on autopilot – our direction is set by employers, advertisers, politicians and authorities. But what I’m wondering about is how to shift the balance now – away from zombie to hero – to more conscious, more deliberated choices.

I just had a birthday too, and I think when birthdays come around I often find myself doing a bit of reflecting…..thinking back over the previous year and asking myself what I want to change now, and in the year ahead.

Are you doing that too?

Are you reflecting on the quality of your every day? Are you reflecting on your habits and priorities? Are you thinking of changing direction?

I reckon this is a good time for collective change too – it’s a time for us to ask the question – “Am I a good ancestor?” It’s a question I’ve come across a few times in recent weeks. How am I living – yes, me personally, but also me, collectively – and will this way of living be likely to create a good world for my grandchildren, for my grandchildren’s grandchildren? Will they look back and reckon that we have been good ancestors?

I do think it’s time for us to change direction – away from consumption and money grabbing – towards more compassion, care and collaboration – towards a better way of living with the rest of Life on Planet Earth.

So, here’s a place to start – David Attenborough has a book out – “A Life on Our Planet” – you can read it, or you can listen to it as an audio book. Or you can watch the film version on Netflix. I recommend it. His work is pretty much always inspiring but this is perhaps his clearest description of what’s happened over the last 90 years he’s lived on this planet, and ends with huge hope and optimism, really inspiring us to change direction.

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There are a few stories circulating which I find really disturbing. Stories of EU citizens being detained at the UK Border when attempting to visit the UK for a holiday or to visit family or friends….detained then being refused entry and sent back home because the Border Guards didn’t believe what they were being told about the visitor’s intention. There are so many such stories now that some EU citizens are saying they’ll never try to visit Britain again. The Home Office response is to say that the vote for Brexit was one to make it more difficult for EU citizens to enter into Britain so they are are just doing what “the people” voted for. I’m not sure even the minority of UK voters who voted for Brexit really wanted stop young people from Europe visiting family and friends in the UK.

What especially bothers me about these stories is that they fit with the harsh rhetoric used against asylum seekers and immigrants. I think it was Theresa May who started the “harsh environment” policy which has been developed into this present form. “Harsh environment” – make life difficult for certain people – what a starting point! What a sad, hardening of hearts

Another group of stories which are disturbing me is about the daily abuse and threats directed at doctors, nurses, health care staff, and paramedics. The British Medical Association say a majority of their members receive abuse or threats daily, and England is currently considering fitting body cameras to all paramedics to try to protect them from abuse and violence, or to catch the perpetrators of such actions.

In my four decades as a doctor, half of them as a GP, I don’t remember a single episode of abuse or threat directed at me, at any of my colleagues, or at our staff. What a tragedy!

Isn’t that also part of a de-humanisation, or de-personalisation of care? A hardening of hearts? The entire health care system has been reformed along lines consistent with managerialism – it’s now the language of consumers, customers and clients, of targets, financial “efficiencies” and of tasks – the language of people has got a bit lost. Yet health care is surely based on the doctor-patient relationship – where the people involved – the doctors and the patients – should be paramount, not the protocols, the processes and the financial constraints.

I could go on…..we see a harsh language and deliberate cruelties inflicted on the most vulnerable who need State help. The Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Black, described very well the sad, and unnecessarily mean ways in which the poor and the sick are treated in society. Harsh environment seems to have spread to the treatment of the poor as well.

I can’t help thinking this is a loss. A loss of quality of life and loss of decency, kindness and justice.

Maybe its the result of the wrong “-isms”? Of the financial and economic wrongs wrought by “capitalism”, of the wrong-headed priorities set by financial-ism, and the dehumanising nature of materialism and managerialism. Maybe you could add a few -isms that you think are contributing to this?

I guess what I’d like to see is a rise in “people-ism” – in actions, policies, strategies and behaviours which put people first – people before profits, and before processes.

I’d like to see some softening of hearts as we allow ourselves to be curious about everyone, and to find out just how inter-related and inter-dependent we all are on this little planet Earth.

I’d like to see more priority given to open handed-ness, to open hearted-ness and to kindness.

Is that an unreasonable ask?

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Does the sky ever surprise you?

That’s a trick question really, because if it doesn’t, I have a hunch that you’re not looking!

The sky often surprises me. Sometimes it catches my attention because it is blue from horizon to horizon, or it is covered in fast moving, rapidly shape-shifting clouds, or because it catches fire and turns crimson as the sun sets. But other times it’s because something appears which I’ve never seen before.

This sort of rainbow is one of those. Two of them appeared at the same time, but in different parts of the sky, a couple of days ago. I guess it’s not really a rainbow because it isn’t a bow and it wasn’t raining! Perhaps it is more like what you would see if light is passed through a prism.

Given the age I am, it might not surprise you that when I think of light passing through prisms I think of the cover of Pink Floyd’s album, “Dark Side of the Moon” (google it, if you don’t know it)

I have a fascination for kaleidoscopes and one day I was in Kyoto and it started to rain quite heavily. We noticed that the building we were passing was called “The Museum of Kaleidoscopes” so we dashed in to get out of the rain. When we signed the visitors book and put our country of origin as “Scotland” the staff all gathered around and excitedly welcomed us. It turns out that the inventor of the kaleidoscope was a Scotsman, Sir David Brewster. Ha! Who knew? Not us! Well, I’ve never seen so many different types of kaleidoscope in my life, and if you ever visit Kyoto, I recommend a visit to that museum. I bought a couple of different types while I was there and I still enjoy looking through them, watching the patterns change before my eyes.

Well, those are some of the thoughts which came up for me as I looked at this colourful, but pretty subtle, display in the sky.

As I look at the image again now it seems that the colours are pouring out of a spout-shaped cloud – and one of my friends said it looked like a rainbow genie escaping from a bottle!

Ooh, I love that! So, have a look at this rainbow genie and make a wish. Let’s see this as a good omen, a symbol of hope, a sign of better days ahead.

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Wow! Just look at this poppy which has opened up in the garden a couple of days ago. I went in close to take this photo because I think when you look really closely you see an astonishing creation.

This is like a work of art. In fact, who would have imagined something like this if they hadn’t seen a flower before? I was thinking, what if an alien landed on Planet Earth and encountered this poppy, wouldn’t they be utterly amazed?

Actually, I’m not an alien here on Planet Earth but I am totally amazed by this. Look at the details! As well as the gorgeous red petals, right in the centre we can see this rich, dark array of structures which make up the reproductive system of this flower. The thirteen stripes on the seedhead – what are they? And why are there thirteen? Don’t you think thirteen is a strange number?

Honestly, I think you can lose yourself in contemplation of a glorious flower like this. On single plant, one single blossom, totally captivating.

And it won’t be here for long. Within a few days, all the petals will fall to the ground, ultimately only leaving the seedhead behind. I think it’s amazing. I’m transfixed! In fact, a simple, astonishing, utterly beautiful, intricately complex flower like this, can make me lose my sense of boundaries and separateness. I can experience transcendence in moments spent with a flower like this.

I guess we humans have been, and continue to be, pretty blasé and unthinking about the plant kingdom. But without it, none of us would be here. It’s the plants which capture and transform the Sun’s energy. We can’t do that. We eat the plants, or eat the animals which eat the plants, so existing a bit further along that chain of energy transformation to get what we need to survive and thrive.

It’s not just that there is an emerging consensus that plant-based diets are best for us in terms of health, they are best for us in terms of the planet too. I’m not vegan. I’m not even vegetarian. But I don’t eat meat every day, and in all the studies I’ve read over the years, time and time again, the conclusions seem to be, if you want a healthy life, and if you want a long life, you could do worse than to limit your meat consumption and move towards a plant-based diet.

There are many many studies now which also show us the benefits to our immune systems, to our inflammatory systems, and to our mental health, of spending time in, and connecting with, the natural world. Primarily, that’s the plant world of trees and flowers. So, it’s not just about seeing plants as a source of nutrition. Engagement with the plant kingdom is good for us every day – noticing, stopping, gazing, contemplating, wondering about, and, especially caring about, flowers, plants, trees is one of the best ways I know to increase the quality of everyday life, and to set yourself up to live as healthily as possible.

Glory to the plant world!

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I was sitting in a cafe in Kyoto, looked out of the window and noticed that the reflection of one of the lamps was sitting right in front of one of the trees outside, so I took this photo.

Right from the start this has seemed a metaphorical photo to me.

I know the light is not “in” the tree but the image seems to capture that idea.

Every time I look at it I start to muse about “the light within” which is in us all. Sometimes I think of that light as being a manifestation of Life, of the presence and flow of the life force. It’s a strange thing, that life force. In fact, it’s not really a “thing” at all. It can’t be directly observed. It can’t be measured. But it’s a concept or phenomenon that few would deny.

I’ve seen people die right in front of me. I’ve seen some go suddenly, and others fade away over longer times. I’ve had to examine the newly dead to confirm that they are indeed dead, and to issue the “death certificate”. But death has always been a mystery to me. I don’t fully grasp it. I know about the shutting down of body systems and of organs ceasing to function. I know about “brain death” and I know that heart can just stop beating. But there is a distinct boundary between life and death. One moment someone is alive, and a few minutes later they are dead. It can be pretty straightforward to know which of the two states they are in. But I get caught up in a sort of Zeno’s paradox as I try to discern exactly the moment someone has moved from life into death. There is no “off and on” switch, yet sometimes it seems instantaneous. Organs fail, but more often than not, they do so over a period of time…..years, months, weeks, days, or even minutes. But our bodies are not machines and life doesn’t disappear the way a machine switches off, or a computer hangs.

So, many times I’ve wondered what brings about this “presence of life” which seems to shine like a bright light, and which goes out? Where does it go? If it isn’t even an “it”, does the question even make sense?

When I studied homeopathy I learned that Dr Hahnemann described something we call “the vital force”. He lived in days before we knew what we know now, and the objectification of “the vital force” into a material reality which nobody ever managed to find, directly observe or measure, led to the dismissal of the concept. But it still seems to me that there is indeed a “vital” phenomenon, a living “presence” or “flow” which we only find in those who are still alive.

Is this light within a sort of energy? There’s another hard word to pin down – energy. We can identify certain clear energies in physics, and even measure them. But the energies we humans experience are harder to define.

Not to know, but to define.

What do I mean by that? Well, imagine a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 represents the lowest energy you can imagine experiencing, and 10 represents the greatest amount of energy you can imagine experiencing. Tell me, right now, what number would you apply to represent your current energy level?

You managed to do that didn’t you? I have never met someone who couldn’t come up with a definite number when asked to do this.

But here’s my question, whether you said “5” or “8” or “2” or whatever you said, how did you do that?

You didn’t measure anything. You didn’t check your blood pressure, your oxygen saturation levels, or you blood sugar level did you? In fact you neither selected out a single organ or system of your body to assess, nor did you use any kind of measuring equipment at all, but you did it. You holistically, intuitively, know what your current energy state is. Nobody else can do that for you.

Let’s expand that idea and apply the scale now to “mental energy”. What number would you give for that currently? Is it the same number, or a different from the previous one? What is mental energy? Where might you find it? How could someone else measure it for you?

Challenging, huh? But, at another level, not challenging at all…..in fact, it’s utterly straightforward and easy to do. In fact, sometimes we can even pick up the energy level of someone else, can’t we? We can know that someone is “not on form”, is in a state of “low energy”. How do we do that? Not by using any measuring equipment either.

So sometimes this “light within” seems like the presence or the flow of Life to me, and sometimes it seems like an energy.

But I think there’s a third path to consider. Something to do with brightness. I don’t mean intelligence. I mean brightness – alertness, awareness, presence. You know that old saying that “the lights were on but there was nobody in”?

There’s a light in your eyes tells me somebody’s in

And you won’t come, the cowboy with me.

…..sang Kirsty Maccoll

So, this light apparently shining from the middle of this tree sets me off on all this routes – the life force, subjective energy and presence.

All subjects which I have dealt with almost daily, all subjects of which I am very, very familiar, and all subjects which I still don’t fully understand!

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One of the biggest changes wrought by the pandemic was the mass shift of work away from big offices in city centres out to peoples’ own homes. I heard many and varied stories about that and I’m sure you’re hearing them too. For some people it’s been a whole series of revelations. Freed up from long uncomfortable commutes every day they’ve been able to enjoy more time with family and friends than was their norm. For others working from home has become something of a scourge with no boundaries….work has invaded their homes, blurring both start and finish times, and increasing the extent to which their work is monitored by managers. Some are discovering the delights of local shops, cafes and parks. Whilst others are missing the camaraderie of their work colleagues.

For some this is a moment of pause. A time to stand back and reassess their lives and their values. In France there has been an explosion of interest in city dwellers seeking to relocate to smaller towns near the city – places where they can find and afford a house with a garden, instead of an apartment with no outside space, and where they can establish a mix of “tele-travail” and commuting.

New patterns of work have appeared, where some of the week is spent on home working while some is spent in offices, so the towns which are less than a hour away from the main cities have become the most sought after.

The small businesses around office blocks and travel hubs, such as train and bus stations, have suffered enormously. I can remember wandering through the streets of London on a Sunday morning and finding every single cafe was closed. I’ve had the same experience in Tokyo. The office zones emptied of their workers just closed down for the day – no commuters, no customers – well, I imagine that’s extended well beyond Sundays now.

How much of this is the beginning of change which will last? Only time will tell.

What’s your own experience? Has your working life (and family life) changed a lot because of this closing down of office work? Has it led you to reconsider your values and your life path?

By the way, I took this photo from the airport bus as it made its way into the centre of Tokyo from Narita one night. That’s why the picture is quite dark and why most of the windows have the blinds down. Every time I look at it, the first thing I think of is a cage. Or a prison. But I guess I’ve never been a fan of massive offices! The other thing I’ve just noticed is that there is only one single human being visible in this photo. Can you see them? Isn’t that an interesting observation? I wonder what will happen to the occupancy rates of offices as societies and cities begin to open up again?

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