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We’ve reached a stage in this pandemic where more and more people are beginning to think about the “after life” – no, I’m not thinking about a life after death this time, I’m thinking about the life after the pandemic. Will there be a “reset” or a “bounce back” and everything will return to how it was before? Or will there be sufficient public and political will to learn the lessons and create a different, more robust, more resilient society in the future?

I’m more drawn to the latter idea because it seems pretty clear that we got into this mess by doing what we were doing. If we want to avoid the next catastrophe we have to stop doing that and do something different.

This photo stimulates some of these thoughts for me. You can see how this building has changed radically over the years. There is half an arch….what happened to the other half? It was removed to create that doorway on the right? There is half a lintel, and it’s pretty likely that the other half went the way of the missing half of the arch. The window that was there has been blocked up with stones, then either some of them have fallen out, or someone has knocked a hole in them to let some light in again. All in all, you can see that the present has emerged from the past. You can see the traces of how things were which determined how things would become.

There’s an orthodoxy around which seems to claim that the only way this pandemic will be “brought under control” is with a mass vaccination programme. Well, good luck with that. Hasn’t worked so well with the other emergent epidemic viruses in recent years, has it? Or a new “treatment” will be discovered which will reduce the severity of the impact of the virus on people who catch it. Maybe. But then what about the next one? Will the new “treatment” work for that too?

What do we know about the severity of this new disease? It hits the elderly, the poor, and the disadvantaged far, far harder than the young, fit and relatively wealthy. Is it any surprise that it hits those with “underlying conditions” harder than the fit and well? Is it any surprise that it’s exactly the same groups, the elderly, the poor and the disadvantaged who are most likely to have “underlying conditions”?

There’s a common theme there, isn’t there? Can we start with that one? If we are going to construct a new society in the “after life”, can we address our attitudes towards these sections of the population and ask how we are caring for them? Could we do better? Could we create better, healthier, more resilient lives for the elderly (maybe by valuing them more, perhaps?) Could we do the same for the poor (maybe by making them less poor, perhaps?) Could we address inequality and prejudice to improve the lives of those who are disadvantaged (maybe by making them less disadvantaged, perhaps?)

Then there are our values. Is it time to shift from consumerism to humanism? To recreate our economies around people and relationships rather than things and money? Is it time to move towards sustainability instead of single-use throwaways? To renewable energy instead of resource depleting forms? Is it time to nurture the local and the particular, rather than the global and the general?

What about our relationship to the rest of Nature? Can we decide to treat animals differently? To change the way we farm and produce food? To change the way we live on the land?

What about work? Is it right that the masses of people who we now think of as “essential workers” are amongst the least rewarded in society?

What about health and social care? Don’t these two sectors need to be integrated and better resourced? I read an interview with some French Hospital Consultants today, and they said that during this crisis, the relationship between the frontline doctors and nurses and the management had changed. Now the doctors and nurses said what needed to be done and got on with doing it, while the managers listened and then acted to do their best to enable the doctors and nurses to do what they had to do. Prior to this, somewhat amazingly, the system had evolved into one where managers set goals and targets, and told the doctors and nurses what they could and couldn’t do. Well, there’s one change, at least, that I’d like to see remain!

My point is that I believe we have to start where we are, learn how we got here, and create a different way forward. Don’t you?

What’s inside?

At first glance, this is a beautiful old building with its creamy, yellow stone all cleaned up and looking pretty glorious. But it doesn’t take long before you realise there’s something not right here. Something not whole. There’s no glass in any of the windows, which is the first clue, but when you look through the window frames you see…..the sky. When you walk around the building to the other side you see that there is nothing there. This isn’t a building any more. It’s a facade.

It’s not uncommon for towns to do this. The local authorities demand that the front of the old, beautiful building is preserved whilst the developers are free to demolish every other trace of it and replace it with a concrete, steel and glass box to put little offices or shops in.

It’s kind of sad. And yet, the front remains, and, when well preserved, it retains a lot of its initial beauty.

Have you ever visited a movie set? I don’t mean a movie theme park with rides and parades, but a set. I visited one once and it was the strangest experience to walk through a New York street, only to discover that every single building was a facade propped up from behind with great beams of wood and scaffolding. The building in this photo reminds me of that.

This sets my mind off down two quite different paths. The first is how we all present a certain face to the world. A certain look, style, a certain conformity really. Even when trying to be non-conformist, the “look” recreates conformity. I used to walk from Glasgow Central Station to Glasgow Queen Street Station on the way home from work. I’d pass the Gallery of Modern Art. On the steps of that gallery, goths would gather. Some evenings there would be a few dozen of them. Now, one goth in an office, or a shop, might stand out as really different, but several dozen of them together looked pretty much the same. (By the way, the pigeons used to hang about those same steps in large numbers too and I often wondered if there was some natural association between goths and pigeons!)

Our uniqueness is at its greatest on the inside. It’s not in our clothes, our “lifestyles”, our diets or our habits. We share all of those with many other people. (“Other customers who like X also like Y” – as the algorithms tell us)

So that’s the first thing I wonder about when I look at this photo. It’s uncomfortable because it isn’t “whole”, which, in my book, means it isn’t “healthy”. But, more than that it has no inside. So it’s lost its uniqueness.

The second line of thought is about imagination, because this image reminds me of the movie sets, and I know that whether it’s on TV, cinema or even in a theatre, “appearances” are manufactured to stimulate our imagination. So, I look again at this building and I wonder who built it and why. I wonder about the people who used to work there and how they related to the building they were working in. I wonder about the place this building had on this particular street, in this particular town. I wonder what stories these stones could tell, if only they could speak.

Here’s another photo which picks up that second thread.

Josette Navarro’s Dance School. Isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t it capture your attention and set your imagination running? What a name! Once I got home I looked up Josette Navarro and her “Ecole de Danse” and she was still giving lessons, but I couldn’t really find much detail about either her or her dance school.

However, I still find this an incredibly evocative image. I love the wind-vane style of the sign with the dancer in full flight. I love the name. “Josette Navarro”. And the fact she has a dance school. I love the blue of the sign and how it echoes the blue paint on the shutters opposite. I love the light hanging directly opposite, and wonder if it casts a spotlight on the dancer at night.

Even when we can’t see what’s inside, what we do see can really stimulate the imagination, and/or bring back memories, such that it’s easy to imagine stories, scenes from movies, drama, romance, or whatever your favourite genre, and just spend a while enjoying that. Following where it leads you.

I’m sharing two photos of tiles today. This first one is tiles on a roof. This is a pretty typical roof in South West France. Every one I look at seems beautiful to me. I love these terracotta colours, the shades from dark brown to pale, almost cream. I love the randomness of their placing – you never see a row of one shade, followed by a row of another. It makes me think of diversity and ordered chaos which makes me think of Life – because Life is like this – diversity, variety, uniqueness, difference plus shared features – and an astonishing synthesis, or integration of, order and chaos.

These are old floor tiles. You can see a floor covering like this in many old buildings in France. You see it in churches, castles, mansions, and even some pretty simple country homes. Like the picture of the roof tiles, I love the colours. It’s pretty much the same colour palette in both photos. I also love their ordered chaos, not just in terms of colour, but, physically, each tile isn’t quite “perfect” (as some would call it), and so they say to you “We are made by human hands”. These are not tiles which rattle off a factory production line. That, too, makes them more “alive” for me. But this second photo has another element – light. These little patches of light splashed over the tiles are the polar opposite of shadows but in some way behave in a similar manner. They take this image to another level.

Between them, these are two images evoke some of the most fundamental principles of Life for me.

Nigella

I have a Nigella plant in the garden. This is the time of year when it flowers.

OK, I know, flower pictures are often beautiful, although after a while I can have enough to them, but, stay a moment and allow yourself to fall into the wonder of this gorgeous Nigella flower.

I find it entrancing. Almost other-worldly – except I don’t know any other world where a flower like this would bloom, so it’s kinda typically this-worldly! Do you know what I mean?

I’ve read a few authors who claim we have lost touch with enchantment in our hyper-speed, consumerist, material culture, and I understand what they mean. This pause which has been enforced on so many of us by this Covid-19 virus, has allowed us to slow down, consume less, savour more and pay attention to the present moment world around us.

All that, I find, makes room for enchantment. That’s the word I think of most when I look at this flower. I love the milky, indefinite bluish purple blush of its five leaves. I like that it has five leaves, which sets me off wondering about the number five, and how many flowers have five petals, not three, or four, or more. I think of five pointed stars and pentacles, of magic and alchemy. I love the spiky branching leaves – are these leaves? – they don’t look like leaves – how they seem to reach further and further, like fingers or whiskers feeling their way through space, to see what they can encounter.

I just find it utterly beautiful. Made my day a better day. Hope it casts some enchantment in your life today.

Found art

Every now and then I’m stopped in my tracks by what seems to me to be “found art”.

This image is of the end of a tree which has been cut down. There are often beautiful and intricate marks to be seen on the insides of these trees. Marks and patterns which are only revealed when the tree is cut open (which is a bit sad). You know the kind of thing. Concentric rings and swirls and knots. But something has been added here by human hand. The marks of the saw are very visible. What makes them obvious is how straight they are. I remember the first time I read that there are no straight lines in Nature and thinking, “really?” Well, it’s probably not absolutely true but they certainly aren’t common. The longer a straight line, the more likely it is to have been made by a human.

So I’m pretty certain that the patterns, (could I say the “design”?) on the end of this fallen tree, are the result of a combination of the life of the tree and the work of the woodsman.

But just look at it.

What does it seem like to you? What does it remind you of? Where does your mind go when you see this? I expect your mind will intermingle memories with imaginings and you might see……

….an eye – like the eye of Horus, the eye at the top of the pyramid, or some other eye you once saw.

…..a sunburst through the clouds, rays of white or pink or red light spreading across the sky.

….[or add your own images and sensations here]

I like this kind of “found art”, this apparently “accidental art”, partly created by forces of Nature, partly by forces of the human hand, partly by forces of memory and imagination.

Borders

I took this photo one winter in Scotland. It’s a particular kind of image which really pleases me. There is straight line running across the entire scene and splitting the image into two parts, but the two parts, at first glance, don’t seem enormously different.

However, there are clear differences. The foreground field is flat and the earth beneath the snow forms parallel lines running up to the border from the front of the photo. The field over the border is on a hillside and it’s markings are like contours of a map of a hill. The snow on the hill is whiter than the snow on the field and, somehow looks deeper.

Between the two there is a border zone. That appeals to me. There is not a solid wall or fence, more a rough line of stones, containing an unworked area of land partially marked off with a fence. In fact, as I look more closely now, I think that line of stones is the top of a dry stone wall and there is a dip in the land just beyond it.

Apart from the trees at the bottom and the top of the image the only “Life” in the picture is one sheep and one tree, both in that in-between zone.

That reminds me of the fact that Life itself exists in a kind of in-between zone. The zone between order and chaos. Thomas Berry describes this beautifully in his “The Great Work” where he calls the two forces of the universe “wildness and discipline”.

When first the solar system gathered itself together with the sun as the center surrounded by the nine fragments of matter shaped into planets, the planets that we observe in the sky each night, these were all composed of the same matter; yet Mars turned into rock so firm that nothing fluid can exist there, and Jupiter remained a fiery mass of gases so fluid that nothing firm can exist there. Only the Earth became a living planet filled with those innumerable forms of geological structure and biological expression that we observe throughout the natural world……….The excess of discipline suppressed the wildness of Mars. The excess of wildness overcame the discipline of Jupiter. Their creativity was lost by an excess of one over the other.

For Life to exist there needs to be an ordering principle, something which builds and creates, turning small, apparently disconnected pieces, like atoms, into elaborate complex networks, like the multicellular human body and the astonishingly interconnected human brain.

But too much order is counter to Life. Rigidity isn’t much good without flexibility. We live in a changing universe. Year by year, month by month, week by week, day by day, even second by second. We have a word for that kind of phenomenon – dynamic. The universe is a manifestation of a dynamic, living, breathing, integration of order and chaos, of discipline and wildness.

All of Life exists in this dynamic, “far from equilibrium“, zone. It never stands still. It’s never “complete”, “finished” or “done”. It’s a flow, a process, a complex, vastly inter-connected network. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to pin down definitions of “Life” and “Health”. They aren’t fixed objects.

I think I prefer bridges to walls. Bridges connect. Walls divide. Bridges cross the natural borders of rivers and valleys. Walls hide what lies behind them.

There’s a saying in the Charente, where I live, that to live “enclosed” is to live a happy life. That’s not not an exact translation from the French, but the meaning is that you need a basic level of privacy to be content. The classic country house in this region has a courtyard surrounded by extremely high walls, and the entrance is usually a huge arched wooden doorway. You’ve no idea what you will find until, and if, you are invited in. I don’t know if the style of property preceded the old saying, or vice versa, but they certainly fit well together.

This wall, the one in this photo, is, however, beautiful. At least, I find it so. It captures some of the essential features of beauty for me. Something not too regular. Something that doesn’t fit so neatly that you couldn’t move an inch. Something that doesn’t strive to achieve a mass produced, standardised, so-called perfection.

I like how all the bricks are different. Did they emerge from some machine? Or do they bear the traces of human hands? I think it’s the latter. I like that they don’t even lie on top of each other, but side by side, each row separated by a thick layer of mortar. I like that the mortar has pebbles embedded in it. It reminds me of the shore. And the shore reminds me of the sea.

These bricks, this mortar, these pebbles, all have a history. Every one of them. They came from somewhere and still carry traces of their origins and their adventures. They stimulate my imagination and my memories.

Most of all, I find this beautiful because it conveys the Human to me. The hands in the soil, in the sand, the individuals who honed their skills of building and assembling. I see beauty everywhere in Nature, but there’s a special kind of beauty which emerges when human beings create, when children, men and women turn what they find into something else without obliterating its origins.

Who knew? Even walls can be beautiful.