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Here’s a common experience I have.

I’ll be sitting in my garden reading and I hear a very high pitched, very distant bird call. I recognise it immediately now, even though I’d never heard it before moving here five years ago. It’s a buzzard. Although the call is quite faint, it catches my attention every time. I’m sure that’s helped by how often it’s silent here surrounded by the vineyards. (Although on other days the machines of viniculture create quite a racket, and a nearby airbase sends up training flights some days more than others)

When I hear the call of the buzzard I look up and peer into the sky to try and locate the bird. It’s not always easy because very frequently they fly so high they appear as just small black dots.

I saw this particular one and whilst often the buzzards circle and swoop on invisible highways in the air, this one appeared to be completely still. It was just hanging there, the way I often see the kestrels do, although they do that much closer to the Earth than the buzzards do.

So I took a photo with my phone.

Can you spot the buzzard?

Hey, it’s a bit like a competition I used to do with my dad. One of the newspapers would print a photo from a recent football match but with the ball removed from the image. You had to place a cross right on the dead centre of where you thought the ball was. The person who got closest won the money. It was called “Spot the Ball”. Well, this is “spot the buzzard”.

Answer at the end of the post ………..

Once I found the buzzard I started to wonder how it could just hang like that in the air. I started to wonder how it could fly with such apparent little effort. I started to wonder why it cried that particular call. I started to wonder what the world looks like from up there. How much detail can the buzzard see? Why does it fly SO high in the sky?

Wonder.

Everyday wonder.

I’ve referred a number of times to the French phrase “émerveillement du quotidien” which I love so much. It pretty much means “the wonder of the every day”. I find that when I get one of those moments, those moments of wonder, that my day feels a better day.

I find that the wondering connects me to awe.

I feel awe….astonishment, delight in, admiration for, whatever it is I’m wondering about. Not least because the wondering doesn’t have any immediate answers for me. Well, obviously, sometimes, the wonder drives curiosity and I later go searching online or in books for more information about whatever it is I’ve been wondering about. But that’s something different, isn’t it? Curiosity and knowledge-seeking. There’s just something delightful, uplifting even, about the process of wondering which doesn’t immediately drive knowledge-seeking, but, instead, creates a feeling of awe.

And here’s what happens next. When the wonder blends with awe I feel myself “taken out of myself”. I have an experience of transcendence…..what Arthur Koestler described as an “oceanic” feeling. I feel an increased, and deepened, connection with whatever is “outside” me, whatever I’m paying attention to. I feel an expansion and a loosening of boundaries. I feel a diminishment of separateness and an enhancement of oneness.

So, I wasn’t surprised when I read yesterday about “spiritual emotions”, especially as they were listed as follows –

  • Wonder
  • Awe
  • Transcendence

What sets off the spiritual emotions for you?

 

Oh, and, yes, as promised, here’s how to find the buzzard………

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Don’t you find that an encounter with art often provokes? Well, I do. On a recent trip to the Ile d’Oleron I wandered amongst the gorgeous, brightly coloured old fishing huts which have been transformed into artists’ workshops. They look a bit like this….

Beautiful, huh?

Let’s get back to the point of this post – the photo I used at the beginning. Here it is again, in case you don’t want to scroll back….

What I love about this image is that it depicts an encounter. A meeting of two creatures. Not two people, but a girl and a sea creature of some kind (not entirely sure what kind of sea creature!). Clearly, they are swimming towards each other. They have formed a relationship. A particular kind of relationship. A loving relationship. They are about to kiss. It feels like that. It looks like that.

So, that provoked two trains of thought for me.

First, about loving encounters, which create the most important kind of relationship in the universe – a loving relationship.

Why do I say that’s the most important kind of relationship? Because a loving relationship creates, and is created by, the formation of mutually beneficial bonds. These are a special kind of bond. They are “integrative”. They bring together people, organisms, energies, particles, every kind of phenomenon you can imagine, and, if they really do work in a mutually beneficial way, they create. They are the basis of growth, development and evolution. They produce novelty, unpredictably. They are the source of emergence, that phenomenon in the universe where what’s created could not be explained or predicted by examining only the parts of the previous state.

I do believe these are the most important kind of bonds we can create. At any level.

Second, about kisses. This image immediately reminded me of a passage in one of the physicist, Carlo Rovelli’s books.

The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time, events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical ‘thing’: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not stones.

Isn’t that beautiful, too?

I love to think of the world this way. Not as a collection of events but as a network of events – “of kisses, not stones“.

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Striking bird, huh? I’d never seen a “hoopoe” until I came to live here in the Charente. I still find them very exotic. It’s as if the bring a touch of far away into my garden.

Every Spring a couple of them turn up, then a little later, I’ll see them together, mum, dad, and a rather large offspring. I don’t know where they nest so I don’t see the young bird till he or she arrives in the garden hopping quickly here and there to wherever mum or dad find a worm or a grub. Beak open astonishingly wide to receive the newly discovered food.

At first, the young bird just seems to hang around watching and waiting, but after a few visits begins to drill that long beak down into the grass searching for food itself. Never seems to find any though! So still rushes across to the parents every time they strike lucky – which they do with amazing regularity.

Then a time comes when the young bird is there in the garden by themselves, drilling down here, drilling down there. I’ve seen them do this for literally hours without seeming to find a single thing. The first time I saw a day like that I got worried that maybe the young bird would never learn the skill of finding food….and then what?

But you know what? They stick with it, and, finally, start coming up with the goodies. I’ve no idea how they do that. Seriously, if you’re a bit of an expert in birds, can you tell me? How does the hoopoe know where to drill down into the earth for food? Clearly it’s not random. Well, actually, I think for the young bird, that at first, it is pretty random. But then they learn. I wonder what they learn? I wonder what they sense and how they develop that sense?

Well, yesterday was the First of September, and the weatherman said it was the first day of Autumn here. He explained that meteorologically July is the month with the hottest average temperatures, so that’s considered the height of summer, making June, July, August the summer months. January has the coldest average temperatures, so that’s the depth of winter, making December, January, February winter. Spring and Autumn fit in between those two trimesters. The Equinox, when the number of hours of daytime exactly matches the number of hours of night, falls on September 23rd. That’s when it will usually start to feel like autumn here.

Still, after a week of blue skies and warm days, the 1st September was grey and a bit rainy. As if to say “I told you so”. (Although, the sun is back out again today, the 2nd)

One change I’ve noticed though, is that the hoopoes have gone. Haven’t seen them for two or three days now and I suspect they’ve headed south. They spend the winter months in Africa before coming back here next Spring. By the way, how do they do that?? How do they find their way to Africa then back to the same garden here in the Charente? How much energy does it take to fly all that way? Honestly, I’m finding Life more amazing every day. It’s just full of things to wonder about!

So this feels like a marking of a new cycle right enough.

If you’re reading this in the Southern hemisphere of course, you’ll be seeing winter fading away and the early signs of Spring appearing. Isn’t that amazing too?

These rhythms feel ancient, deep and fundamental to me. There is something so pleasing about these natural cycles. It seems important somehow to be aware of them, and to adjust, to adapt, to tune in, to get in harmony with them. Doing so seems to add to the feeling that life is good.

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Here’s a small basket of the tomatoes we picked from our garden this morning.

What strikes you about these tomatoes?

Well, what strikes me is their diversity.

They are a huge range of sizes, colours and shapes, partly because they come from different plants chosen because they are different varieties.

I SO prefer this to a packet of same-size, same-colour, same-variety tomatoes we can buy in one of the local supermarkets. Even just to look at….but also to taste! Here’s a simple plate from yesterday.

Only tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil, a touch of salt and pepper. That’s it! Mmmmm….

I could leave this post right here. It’s enough, isn’t it, to celebrate colour, taste, freshness, locally sourced food, and the simple pleasures which make a day delightful.

But I’m not going to.

Because what strikes me about both of these images is the issue of diversity. We live in mass society – mass production, mass consumption, mass conformity. This last element is necessary to ensure the efficient workings of the first two. Without mass conformity, mass production and mass consumption go belly up. (yes, I choose my words carefully – he! he!)

There are enormous pressures to consume in this society, and equally enormous ones to produce. A lot of value is attached to both. Did you ever come across an old black and white comedy, “The Man in the White Suit”, about an inventor who creates a totally indestructible fabric? The lead character is a scientist whose discovery industry immediately tries to suppress, because it would mean people could have clothes which would last a lifetime…..and sales of clothes would plummet!

I remembered this old film the other day when I took my car to the garage to have worn-out shock absorbers replaced (ouch!). The mechanic told me that shock absorbers used to last 100,000 km but now they last only about 80,000 km. Guess that’s progress!

Jacques Ellul, who lived, researched, taught and wrote in Bordeaux, produced an astonishing analysis of mass society in his lifetime. I’ve just finished reading two of his main works (in English) – “The Technological Society” and “Propaganda“. Although both were published in the 1960s, they are extremely pertinent in 2019. He shows how a focus on “technique” – by which he means setting goals, then creating measurable processes to achieve them – brings a whole host of improvements and progress to human life, but, inevitably, is accompanied by widespread and deep de-humanisation. Plans, judgements, decisions, resources, all become grist to the mill of mass production and mass consumption. Mass society needs conformity, controls, rules, regulations, norms and standards. There is no room for “variance”, “diversity” or “uniqueness”.

He also showed how mass conformity is produced through targeted propaganda, focused on the “individual”. Now, doesn’t that seem a paradox? Don’t we tend to think of “mass” at one end of a spectrum and “the individual” at the other? Well, it turns out that apparent paradox is the key to mass control.

Long after Ellul published these works, the world saw the birth of a new politics, represented clearly by Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was Thatcher who famously said “there is no such thing as society”. The new politics became known as “neoliberalism”. With the spread of neoliberalism society became increasingly atomised. The idea was that everyone was on their own and in competition with everyone else, and through “the market”, and a form of “social Darwinism”, the weak, the inefficient, the failures, would die off, and the strongest, “best”, people and methods would win the day.

It’s a toxic mix. Mass plus individualism.

But, hey, I hear you say, I AM an individual! I am NOT the same as everyone else! I’m not just a robot, a machine, a cog in a greater machine!

I hear you.

But here’s my take on that – individualism divides us. It sets us against each other and ignores what we share and what we have in common. It feeds the divisions, prejudices, hatred and fear of “the other” which have become all too common. But I don’t want to be just a data point in Cambridge Analytica’s memory banks. I don’t want to be a mere pawn of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram….my details harvested to target me with highly crafted propaganda to make me conform, or to support a small group who have, and want to hold onto, riches and power.

How do I resolve that paradox? I sure don’t have it all figured out but I have some thoughts…..

I don’t think we need to subscribe to either of these extremes – a data point in the mass, or an individual ego, disconnected from the rest of the planet. I think there is a third option.

Uniqueness.

Isn’t that the same thing as individuality? No, I don’t think so. For a whole host of reasons, but, for starters, because “individualism” prioritises separateness and difference. It’s a form of what the English philosopher, Mary Midgely called “social atomism” – see her “The Solitary Self” and “Science and Poetry” for her analysis of this problem. Uniqueness, on the other hand, demands an examination of contexts, of circumstances, connections and environments.

To fully experience and understand the uniqueness of this moment, it helps to see it as a dynamic, changing-before-your-eyes, event. I am unique because of the myriad of connections and flows which make me who I am. I have emerged from a particular family with it’s family tree, in a specific place, at a specific time, and continue to grow and develop through a unique and personal chain of experiences which I weave into a story I call “being me” (or better “becoming me”!)

Every single day at work as a doctor I’d meet patients who came to tell me their own, unique, and personal, story. It’s how I got to understand them. It’s how I made diagnoses, offered treatments, therapies and practices to help them re-experience health again. No two patients ever told me the same story. Not in a lifetime of practice.

And here’s the key – the way I revealed their uniqueness (to myself, and often, to themselves too), was by uncovering the connections, the flows, the contexts, environments and events of their lives.

I never wanted them all to be the same. I never wanted them all to become the same. In health, as well as in sickness, every person turns out to be unique.

OK, this is a personal bee in my bonnet, but I have a hunch that if we tipped the scales a bit, away from a focus on the mass, away from a focus on the individual, and towards uniqueness, that we might begin to create a better world. Maybe it would draw us away from competition and division towards cooperation and connection.

Does this make sense to you?

I mean, it’s a bit of a leap from a basketful of tomatoes!

But before I go, here’s one of my favourite Mary Oliver poems, The Summer Day, which doesn’t use the word “uniqueness” but it seems to me to be all about it…

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

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“one swallow doesn’t make a summer”

Yeah, I know, but, first of all I was trying to get a photo of about a dozen hyper swallows zipping and zooming this way and that above my head, but, hey, I only got one! And only just!

The fact I only got one (in the middle of a summer’s day, by the way) reminded me of that old adage about how spotting one swallow doesn’t mean that summer has arrived. Which brings me to the subject of anecdotes….

Since the rise of “Evidence Based Medicine” I’ve heard it said many times that anecdotes are not evidence, and that a whole bunch of anecdotes isn’t evidence either. Only rigorous, controlled trials, statistically analysed provide evidence. But my problem is that I spent my working life meeting, listening to, conversing with, and treating, one patient at a time. Each patient came and told me a unique story. Not a single patient told me an identical story to one I’d heard before. I tailored my treatments for each patient according to their unique story and the way things progressed from there was unique, and also unknowable.

I had no way of knowing whether or not an “evidence based” treatment would deliver the promised results in this particular patient. On the grounds of probabilities and experience, of course, I could go forward in good faith and with some confidence, but I learned that I always had to be prepared to be surprised when the patient returned. It seemed that no two patients experienced exactly identical effects of the same treatments. Didn’t matter whether I’d prescribed painkillers, antidepressants, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics (seeing a pattern here?) or whatever, the future course of an individual life was, and always will be, unique.

Unique and emergent.

Emergent – that means the future unfolds as it happens in ways which could not be wholly predicted from the knowledge of the past and the present. All living organisms display emergent properties. It’s a characteristic of all “complex adaptive systems”. 

So, whilst I could never generalise from an individual “anecdotal” experience to apply it to every other patient, the truth is, generalisations can’t be applied to every single patient either.

The tendency to dismiss individual stories as irrelevant to medical practice has always struck me as illogical. Irrational even. It might make sense in a research environment, but the individual story remains crucially important in the clinical one.

In deciding on a particular course of treatment with a patient I’d want to take into consideration what I’d learned was good practice, and what the research evidence had shown about the various different options, but, on the day, in the room, with this unique individual sitting with me, and, maybe even more importantly, when they’d return to report what had happened, THE most important thing was them – their story, their experience, their life.

I didn’t know any other way to practice – it was one patient at a time. Ultimately, the patient was always more important than any data – despite the fact a junior doctor told me, not that many years ago, that she’d been taught “Never listen to patients. They lie all the time. The only thing you can believe is the data”

Nope. That’s no way to practice Medicine!

Oh, before I finish, thinking of “one swallow at a time” reminds me of one of my most favourite books about creative writing – Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”. Recommended.

 

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The Ile d’Oleron is a small island not far from where I live. I visited it a number of times. There’s a pretty village called Chateau d’Oleron with brightly coloured old fishermen’s and oyster farmers huts which are now mostly artists workshops and stores. On my most recent visit I came across this bridge with dozens of oyster shells hung on it, each one inscribed with a wish. The first thing I thought of was the padlocks fastened to the Pont Neuf in Paris which I saw many years ago.

When I looked closer to see what people were wishing for I realised that these oyster wishes were indeed very like the padlocks.

I remember seeing love wishes in Kyoto too –

In fact, most of the wishes I read were for love or happiness, and many of them weren’t really wishes at all, but, more like the padlocks, simply a public declaration of love….two names and a heart, or a date.

Not all the wishes were for love or happiness though. Some were much more specific –

“One house here”!

Which got me wondering about this whole wishing thing.

What’s it about?

Mostly, these are not requests, in the way that a prayer might be. Although some certainly are. I saw a wish for marriage “soon”, no names, just a wish to be married. I saw a wish that a particular child would remain happy forever. Or two names a a hope that their love would endure. But not all were like that.

Most were statements of love or happiness. Declarations of love or happiness. Maybe in some way these were “performative” wishes. By simply, and clearly, stating something, you bring it into being. A sort of focusing. Making love, or happiness, or wellbeing more than just a wish, but a reality, a totem of some kind.

One was even more expressive by making a drawing the centre point, instead of words.

This one says “The song of love”.

I spent quite a while browsing these shells and what, at first, seemed a bit strange, became all the more charming.

After all, don’t they say “The world’s your oyster”?

So, what would you wish for? What would you declare on a padlock, an oyster, a star, or a tree?

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I took this photo a long time ago up at the Bracklinn Falls in Scotland. As you walk through the woods from the car park, you hear the roar of the water long before you can see it. Once you reach its banks, or stand on the bridge, the “new” bridge from 2010, the “old” one having been washed away by the power of the water in a storm some years before, you can hardly hear each other speak for the noise.

There’s a hint about the power of water in the volume of the noise. There’s another hint when you learn the history of the bridge, see the height of it, and wonder about the day the stream turned into a torrent and destroyed the old one. I’m old enough to remember standing on the old, iron, one. I never imagined it could be washed away. The new bridge, is, I think, even more beautiful than the old one.

What caught my eye in that first scene, was the shape of the rock.

It looks like there is a giant mouth opening up to swallow the water.

In fact, many of the rocks here smoothly sculpted by the power of the water. They are beautiful. The water itself does not run smoothly over this section of its path. It is never still, never quiet, and constantly breaks into foam and bubbles. It’s sort of counter-intuitive to think that water can shape rock, yet it’s obvious too because we see that all around us, whether we are looking at cliffs along a coast line, the rocks along the banks of a river, or even stones which lie at our feet.

One of the things which so delights me about these scenes is realising how the rock has become the shape I’m looking at only by interacting with the water.

It hasn’t grown to that shape all by itself.

Because it reminds me that nothing is the way it is all by itself. Everything we see, everything we are, emerges from an infinity of experiences to become the way it is today.

When I look at these beautifully fashioned rocks I see a relationship. I see a history of water and rock. I see continuous motion.

Which isn’t what you’d expect to see when you look at a rock!

Wow! We live on such a creative planet don’t we?

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