Emergence

The dragonfly perched on the sun warmed granite of the bench… more than I am allowed to do, as it  still has to be drilled and fixed immovably in place. I was precariously perched on the edge of a flowerbed, camera in hand, watching my son hand-feed the huge sturgeon in his pond…not exactly comfortable, but perfectly placed to watch the fascinating creature that had come to visit.

My son’s garden is in the town and we live in an area with little natural water, so every dragonfly we see here is exciting. This year, with the pond’s new and more open aspect, we have seen more than usual, from the tiny, iridescent demoiselles with their velvet-dark wings, to the big hawkers, but this was the first darter we had seen here. With its stained glass wings and deep red body, it was a beautiful visitor and one that showed no inclination to leave.

There are over fifty different types of dragonfly and damselfly in Britain, some of which are now on the red list as endangered species. Like many other insects, they are suffering from changes in land use and management as well as the problems cause by pesticides. It would be a tragedy to lose any one of these gorgeous creatures, each of which play their part in our lives as part of the balancing act of Nature.

They have been around an awfully long time. Their ancestors, the griffinflies with wingspans of up to thirty inches, ruled the insect kingdom around three hundred million years… long before the advent of the dinosaurs, when humankind was no more than a whisper in Nature’s dreams. Today’s dragonflies have changed little since then, so in many ways, they are a glimpse of Earth’s distant past.

In England, they were once known as the Devil’s darning needles, and it was thought that if you fell asleep by a summer stream, they would sew your eyelids shut.  This old legend, at least as it now stands, sounds like the kind of tale you would tell to youngsters to stop them lazing in the sun instead of working, and yet, to the Zuni, dragonflies were messengers between man and the gods. Perhaps, as eyes closed in dreaming can also see across the boundaries of reality, the two stories are not as far apart as they might at first seem.

I watched the brilliant little creature exploring the garden… a whole new and undiscovered country  for a being so recently emerged from the world in which it grew. Dragonflies hatch in water and spend most of their lives there as larvae, only emerging at the end of their lives as the glorious winged beings that delight our eyes. They can live years as larvae, just feeding and growing, before their transformation, but most live only weeks as dragonflies.

I think this little dragonfly was but newly emerged as he seemed content to be still and gather strength from the light. I couldn’t help thinking how beautifully Nature illustrates our own journey when we see the similarities, rather than the differences, between the lives around us and our own.

Most of us spend the early parts of our lives ‘underwater’. For many of us youth can feel cold and dark, a time of insecurity and fear that only takes on an alluring sheen when seen through nostalgic eyes. The earlier parts of our lives are about learning to survive, both physically and in society.

Many feel themselves lost, tangled in the choking weeds of suppression, victims of circumstance or the control of others. It is only with age that many of us begin to emerge as our true selves and it can be a struggle to break free of the shell that life and conditioning has built around us.

We may then cast around, looking for a place our new self can feel at home, seeking a new path or direction to replace old habits and outworn patterns… until we realise that all we need to do is to be still and gather strength from the Light. When our wings have dried and our true colours glow, then, perhaps, we can be our true selves… and the latter part of our lives may teach us how to soar.

Off duty…

After driving for four hours on the road north, there is a brief glimpse of a hillside on the horizon which, at this time of year, is the one thing I am waiting to see. If the light is right and the weather kind… and if the heather is in bloom, the shadowy hilltop wears a faint purple smudge.

It doesn’t take much for this smudge to be hidden or indistinct. Without it, I have to drive another half an hour before seeing the first possible patch of heather. On days like this, that means an anxious wait. I usually have just one chance every year to see the heather in full flower.. and this was it. I had missed it last year, seeing only the tail end of glory and was really hoping that this time, the timing would be right.

Ever since I moved away from Yorkshire, first to France and then to the south, the moors have called me home. In spring, when new life is beginning to break through the winter pall…even though the moors seem to change little at that time of year… and again mid-August.

It is a curious yearning. There is beauty enough in this land to heal any heart, without purple hills, but if you have heather in the blood, no other sight fills you with quite the same joy and sense of homecoming. When you are far away, it tugs at your heartstrings and I held my breath as I crested the hill.

I was out of luck. Low clouds and racing shadows obscured the view of the distant hills. I would have to wait until I rounded the corner below Gardom’s Edge… and there, the dull, faded purple was a body blow. Either the heather had not yet reached its full flowering or I had missed it…and it looked like the latter. The extremes of weather this year have thrown the flowering out of its usual pattern. I would see no vibrant purple hilltops, no seas of colour…and I was devastated.

It rained all the next day and we had meetings cross-country. The following day, I had an unexpected day to myself. A day when I had absolutely nothing to do except rest, potter and read, with no clocks to watch, no-one waiting and nothing at all demanding my attention.

It was odd, because I had said only the day before that I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, at least, not without me first having to be at death’s door. And it was weird. I am so unused to being free of all duties, responsibilities and time-constraints that I barely knew what to do with myself… until the sun came out and I went out to play.

A little warmth had dried the sodden heather. It was definitely not at its best and hilltops that should have been brilliant with colour were a dull, reddish hue. Even so, this is a landscape I know and love… and it is never less than beautiful. I took the hidden backroads that are usually empty of all but a few walkers, even in summer, and drove out towards the Snake Pass that links Yorkshire and Lancashire across the Pennines.

It is a road I love to drive, being full of twists and turns that lead up from the valley onto the highest moors and back down again on the other side. There, I would turn around and drive back. There are few places to stop, but I know them all… and each one unveils a vista very different in character from the rest. There are green vales, high moors, silver streams and tumbling waterfalls… and, when the season is right, whole hillsides covered in heather and perfumed with honey.

I had to laugh at myself. Only desire and expectation were responsible for my disappointment. I had focussed solely on the heather and forgotten the beauty that surrounds it. How could I possibly be disappointed when I had a day to play in such glory?

I drove on, stopping here and there to contemplate the view, drinking from a stream whose golden waters taste of home and memory…and found swathes of almost perfect heather on sheltered hillsides. It felt as if I had only needed to realise the lesson I had been offered before the gift was given.

Expectations narrow the parameters of hope. Expectations restrict the possible to a mere fragment of what it could be, leaving disappointment to become almost inevitable. Hope is expansive by nature…it takes in as many possibilities as we will allow and, if we let it blossom, we remain open to wonder. Once again, the land had been my teacher, reminding me to focus on a wider picture… to be not just grateful for what was, but to revel in it. And once I had been reminded, I lost myself in joy.

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The edge of the precipice

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Driving home, there was one of those moments of sheer, unadulterated joy when the fields were lit with pale sunshine, the sky a clear blue and the feel of the car around me occupied my whole being. I can’t think of a better way of putting it. It is one of those things for which words seem too small. Yet, you could argue, it is only a car… getting on a bit, less than perfect and just a machine.

On the other hand, what it means to me, personally, is something quite different. The world inside the car is a place out of the ordinary. It is a haven from importunate necessity, an oasis of silence in spite of the roar and rattle it carries with it; a place where thoughts can blossom and bear fruit. It is possibility, control and freedom… and sometimes escape. It allows me to serve the needs of everyday life, as well as to follow my heart into the hills.

In itself, it is none of these things. It is just a metal box on wheels. It becomes, however, the symbol for all these things and more because it is the vehicle of my choices.

It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to learn to drive. I had started… had my first lesson… in my late teens just before a drunk driver ploughed into the car in which I was a passenger. A fractured skull and a rearranged, reconstructed face left me too afraid of cars to try and drive again. The blow to the fragile self-confidence of a teenager was profound and the scarred face itself a major life-lesson it took many years to appreciate for the gift it was.

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Over the years many people encouraged me to try and learn to drive. It was nearly twenty years before I found the courage to try again and only then because I felt it necessary when my partner was terminally ill. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise… I was too scared and had absolutely no confidence in my ability to become either safe or proficient. Fear had me completely caged, but I came to a point where I felt ready to tackle the bars of my self-imposed prison.

Perhaps those who had encouraged or pushed me to learn earlier were right. Or perhaps I would not have had the confidence to learn before I did. I may have missed years of enjoyment… or avoided a potentially lethal fear hitting the road. Who knows? Be that as it may, I made a decision and went for it.

All I do know for certain is that by the end of that first month’s lessons I was hooked. I loved it. These days, even some twenty years later, there are few places I am happier than behind the wheel. I love driving. Facing the fear had proved it to be no more than a shadow and, critically, one I finally realised that I had adopted and accepted as a habit. The car, previously a symbol of distress and panic, became a thing of confident joy.

It is often the way. There are choices we have to make, fears that we have the opportunity to face; personal precipices where we stand on the edge looking out over what seems to be a huge gulf of terrifying uncertainty knowing you can only fall or fly.

There is a moment of calm and clarity when you know that you can choose your course of action. There may be those who urge you forward or who seek to pull you back, holding you in safety away from the edge. Yet while their advice and counsel may inform your decision, you are the only person who can make that choice. You are the only one who has the power to choose what course of action is really right for you at that time. It is only necessary to be genuinely prepared to face the moment and make a conscious choice.

You may choose to turn away from the edge… to step back into the safety of the known. You may choose to step off the edge of the precipice, knowing that you may fall.

And sometimes you find that you have wings.

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Exploring reality?

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It was one of those conversations where a simple thought ended up taking us a long way. There had been a dream… one of those where it seems more real than reality and a lifetime is lived in the space of a night, and though completely out of context in terms of the waking self, it has its own validity and depth.

In such dreams you have relationships… ones that feel, to the dreamer, to be as full and rounded as in an ordinary day. That’s where the discussion started. How do relationships work in dreams? They are built on memory… How can a dreamer have memories of events neither their dream-self nor their day-self has experienced? And if that is impossible, how can there be relationships of love, friendship, fear? And yet, when we dream, we feel them. An interesting one to ponder…

You could put it down to a ‘straightforward’ psychological ability to synthesise emotional relationships in dreams based on experience in ‘real life’. You might consider past life memories if you believe in that possibility. We considered the theory of parallel and multiple realities where a dream might be a glimpse through a rift between them… We came to no conclusions except that the phenomenon is strange, whatever the cause and must be akin to what is felt in full awareness with those who have visionary experiences.

The more you think about it, the odder it seems. Most of us can call up the image of a face of a stranger… any face will do… probably one you have seen but taken no note of that has lodged in the photographic part of the memory. The image may be sharp or hazy… but the emotions are basic, little more than a gut reaction, if that. What you are calling up is a deliberate construct. Nothing more than a mental photograph about which you know nothing.

It made me think, for some reason, of my experience with PTSD. The flashbacks take you into a snapshot of emotion… the images, sounds, sights and smells are all ‘real’ during an episode, a moving image in which you walk… but the memory is false, being stuck in a scenario that has lost its connection to time and cannot therefore move forward or be filed in the past.

When a face to which we have a connection already comes unbidden to the mind, it brings with it a whole raft of response based on the span of time and emotion shared up to this point as well as our feelings for what the future may hold. It calls up their history, our own and our shared story; you know so many things about that person… not just that face.

And that is where the problem of dreaming takes you; if a dream is no more than a mental construct, how can it have such depth? How can there be past and future? You know nothing of the past, present or future… you have no memories, no experience of the people you meet in sleep. They should be ‘flat’… their stories as empty as if you tried to show the whole of an epic trilogy in a single photographic frame… yet instead there are those who imprint themselves on our memories and find a place in our hearts or our fears, because, somehow, we know them.

Dreams bend the rules of normality in so many ways and the most ridiculous situations can seem absolutely feasible. The most meaningful of relationships can flower in what may be measured as the blink of a sleeper’s eyelid. We did come to one conclusion; perhaps, just perhaps, our dreams serve other purposes than those posited by psychologists and scientists… maybe they allow us to explore the impossible and through their very impossibilities and give us space to question our perception of reality itself.

Slimegrobbels and custard…

“Tell me a story…”

My granddaughters and I were sitting on the floor of their pink-painted cabin at the bottom of the garden. I had evicted yet another invading spider and, while the youngest sat on my knee, her almost-five year old big sister was sprawling in the pink armchair.

The three of us had been playing. I had pushed little Imogen on her swing until she giggled with joy and had chased Hollie around the garden, swinging her up onto my shoulders and teaching her to stand on her head in a fairly unorthodox manner. Somehow, small children make you forget the aches and pains… at least until next morning when you try to move again.

By this point though, we had settled down in the playhouse and eaten a meal of chocolate-dipped worms and green slimegrobbels with custard… a menu chosen by Hollie and lovingly prepared by the smallest of chefs. I could only be thankful that the meal was imaginary… and delight in the serious expression with which Imogen, barely two years old, ‘cooked’ and ‘ate’ the ‘food’ while Hollie supervised. Watching a child’s imagination begin to flower is a beautiful thing.

As we settled down in the pink palace built by a besotted father for his princesses, Hollie asked what we should play next. I asked her to tell me a story.

“I don’t know any stories…” She held up empty hands, but that, I knew, was far from the truth. Not only can Hollie tell a good story from those she has heard, she also creates whole imaginary worlds for us to play in.

“You know lots of stories…” Hollie sighed and rolled her eyes in a manner that will serve her well when she has children of her own.

“Just pretend I don’t know any stories, Grandma… so, you’ll have to tell one.” I had walked into that, so we snuggled up and I began with the traditional words…

“Once upon a time, on the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl. She was as pretty as a princess and loved to wear a red riding cloak with a hood. Her name…” I could see the satisfaction as Hollie recognised the tale, “was Fred…”

Fred???”

“Fred.”

Hollie, her interest well and truly caught, sat forward in her armchair as I told how Little Fred Riding Hood had gone to visit Grandmother in the woods, carrying a basket of slimegrobbels, because Grandmother’s best friend, the Wolf, was poorly…and how, when she arrived at the cottage, Fred found that the wicked witch, disguised as a woodcutter, had changed them both into gingerbread men who had been packed in a giant’s lunchbox and had to be rescued by the fairy godmother who turned them into pumpkins by mistake.

Imogen was almost asleep, but Hollie had listened to every word. She sighed again.

That was just a pretend story, Grandma. Now tell me the real one…where Red Riding Hood isn’t called Fred… or anything else…” She went on to give me a synopsis of the whole adventure so that I would not miss any of the important details.

I smiled and told the story, pleased that my little granddaughter could tell the difference between a ‘real’ and a ‘pretend’ fairytale. It wasn’t simply that she knew the original plot well, she recognises that such tales have to be told in a certain way… ‘properly’, she called it. That is a common thing for children. The words and how a story is told matters.

What struck me most, though, was that from the way she was telling me the storyline, she also seems to understand, at some instinctive level, that while fairytales are not true, they are real in their own way. They have their own integrity and, when ‘properly’ told, they are important. Arbitrary changes are not allowed as they alter the essence of the story completely and, at the heart of every old fairytale, there are lessons to be learned whose sense will be lost if the salient details are altered.

In the days before the majority could read or write…and even further back, to a time before the written word was invented, storytelling would have been very much a part of the life of the tribes and families as they gathered around the light of the hearthfire. Stories would have been valued, from the anecdotes the old ones told of their youth, to the tales of the hunters, to those told by the shamans and teachers.

Much wisdom can be concealed within a story… and such tales would have been learned young, perhaps long before they were fully understood. Because they were stories, not obvious lessons, they would have been remembered and both the stories themselves and the hidden wisdom they held would have been passed down through the tribes and clans, just as we still remember the fairytales of childhood and tell them to the children at our knees.

As I sat there with my granddaughters, I felt that we were part of a story that goes back to the earliest human lives… and forward into a future that will one day leave even our memories behind. I remembered my own early years, looking up at great grandma and saying those same words. Images flitting across the screen of memory like gentle ghosts… a child absorbing lessons unawares, their stories attached to the emotions they engendered… and to the love of the storyteller .

Will Hollie tell her granddaughters about Little Fred Riding Hood one day? Will Imogen teach her grandchildren to make slimegrobbels and custard? How far into the past do we reach with that one simple phrase? How far into the future will one shared fairytale carry us as children uncountable say the magic words…

“Tell me a story.”


There is a lot more to fairytales than the wide eyed child understands, especially in the older versions. The archetypes we meet in these old stories echo many aspects of the human condition and the journey of the soul.

We are born into a magical world, where our childhood is peopled with wonders. We are given gifts and talents yet our soul is held within the body, like the princess in the castle. As we grow to adulthood the magic fades…or more precisely, our awareness of it fades. Like the princess, we fall asleep, lost to the song of the soul as the ‘curse’ takes hold. Alive but slumbering, waiting…

Join us next April to explore the hidden beauty of fairytales… and awaken the beauty that sleeps within.

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Growing emotional…

It is the end of a long day; one of those days when many small things have seemed to go wrong and a few bigger things cast dark shadows on your horizon. You are tired…not the pleasant kind of snuggle-up-in-bed-with-a-book tired either, but the kind that begins to question and ask ‘why does it have to be like this?’

It comes to most of us at some point; that emotional bone-weariness. Chances are, you are too tired to even begin looking for answers and past thinking about them if you fell over them. But you are going to find things that look like answers wandering through your mind just the same.

Under stress, they will probably be the wrong ones. Anxiety and fatigue cloud thinking, and what may appear to be a perfectly logical train of thought can begin from a single skewed idea, from a slight misapprehension or misunderstanding. Pursue them and you could end up very far from the truth and casting blame in all the wrong directions, even, perhaps, where there is no blame at all. Life just throws things our way sometimes.

Why does it have to be that way? The most likely answer is that this is a path we have chosen for ourselves. Not, perhaps, with any conscious volition, but through the gradual shaping of our worlds over a lifetime, allowing it to become what it is today. Some events may be beyond our control; there may be no choice in whatever it is we are facing at any given moment. But how we react to it is a choice and one we may have been unconsciously making for a long time.

Our very earliest interactions with the world around us begin to shape how we will react throughout our lives. The nurture or lack of it that we receive as we grow, the people in our lives, our circumstances, all combine with the raw materials of who we might become to make us who we are. Our reactions to any given event are born from this accumulated and integrated input of experience. Our character and the way we walk through life devolves and evolves from the life we have lived so far and therefore we shape many facets of our own lives in what has been called a mechanical fashion.

That is a cold way of expressing it. We could equally and simply say that our reactions are determined by who we have become. It may sound like a negative assessment, yet it is not necessarily so. Reactions that lash out at the world in hurt or anger stem from here, but it is also from here that the means to express the generous impulse is born; the act of kindness and empathy, the outstretched arms… We all know someone who is, or perhaps hope we are, that person who instinctively reaches out to others when they are hurt or in need. What is that if not reaction?

 

For those who seek to understand a little more of how they themselves have come into being there are many systems, beliefs and paths available. Within the Silent Eye we use the enneagram, placing upon it archetypal figures that express the basic ways in which we function… the chief impellers of our choices. These are not cold caricatures…they cannot be, for all we do stems from emotion. Whatever is behind our public face, whether we are creatures of laughter and tears or intellectually focussed, emotion is the prime mover at the root of all we are.

Imagine working backwards from the very tip of a branch, retracing the intersections from the finest twig, back to the bough and eventually to the heartwood of the tree. The deeper we consider what moves us to be who we are, the fewer possibilities we are left with. The closer we get to the source, the more I am convinced that even from a purely psychological standpoint, love can be seen as the root of all we are. Whether we know it or lack it, feel it or feel its absence and a yearning towards it, whether we feel it must be earned or deserved, or run from it in fear of the demands it might make… whether we clothe it as a need for admiration and respect… even whether or not we feel love for ourselves…Whichever way you look at it, love seems to be the central fact of our existence.

From a spiritual perspective, many have never doubted that this is so. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “The truth is, indeed, that love is the threshold of another universe.” When you see that the Source of all Being, and the source of our being as one and the same, it changes the way you see the world, yourself and your fellow man… and leads you towards a threshold of understanding that surpasses knowledge. And perhaps it is here we will find our answers.

That still, small voice…

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As we each begin the conscious journey of the seeker we may become aware of a sense of presence; a realisation that seems to spring from a place deeper than thought. We may have spent a lifetime in study, engaging the brain and its processes, bringing them to bear on the abstract concepts of existence and creation. We apply logic, lose ourselves in meditation, we learn and collate techniques and information, examine perspectives and points of view. We assimilate the useful, discard the inappropriate and file what seems to be correct for our own understanding in the index of the mind. We may hold the acceptance of what we have learned close; guarding it as a precious thing or we can set it free and feel its flight.

There may come a moment when instead of ‘just’ thought, instead of a reaching outwards towards a line of reasoning, there is an opening inwards for inspiration. And this opening brings with it both conscience and imperative…. And yet further questions. What is this awareness and where does it come from? Many names have been given to this presence that seems both separate and part of our selves. Some systems have named it in angelic terms, many feel it is a higher aspect of the self, others perceive the hand of external divinity or a bridge between the human and the divine; many simply call it ‘contact’.

Much is written in esoteric literature about contact. It is something many strive for, seeking perhaps for something that is already there, waiting behind a door that is closed in the mind. We seek and try, looking towards what appears to be a distant goal, yet it is possible that like the guardian angels much loved by Victorian illustrators it stands quietly by until we notice its presence.

We do not know what exactly we are to feel or what to expect if we achieve this contacted state. Some will speak of it in ways that make us feel we are somehow lacking until we attain it. But it need not be such a complex thing.

I can only tell what it feels like subjectively. It is a Presence in whose shadow we stand and learn. Whether this presence is seen as a Being, an Archetype, a divine Intelligence, as part of the psyche or the inner Self, or indeed as something quite different depends, perhaps, on perspective and semantics.

Whether it is seen as external or interior, in practical terms, does not seem to matter. What matters is the relationship one develops with it and the quality of the realisation that comes.

Working with contacts we tend to feel them as distinct personalities, often taking on the form of an ancestor or an ancient godform, created by the created to represent and embody a very real aspect of the divine forces, but animated and vivified for us by a spark of Light.

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We can communicate… some do so in a very direct fashion, some simply feel the brush of a consciousness against their own and learn almost by osmosis. And every shade in between, it seems. Those familiar with esoteric thought will have heard of the mind touch, overshadowing, indwelling, perhaps… there are many terms that have been coined in an attempt to describe something that is ultimately too intimate for words.

At the end, the method or names do not matter any more than the apparent form. It is a Knowing. An understanding that passes the bounds of thought or education, a certainty without references or footnotes. An unshakeable, life-changing conviction that proves itself in the living of it.

We clothe our contacts in forms we can understand and that are congenial to the nature of the forces they embody. For all practical purposes we see them as individual characters. Yet it is not what they are. In fact, even in this we fall into an ever present error, marking a separation between Them and us, between the divine and man. For both they, whatever they are, and we, are but tiny refractions of Light in the multifaceted Jewel that is the One.

In pursuing the dream we have been given, we are challenged to step outside of our comfort zones, forced to reassess and re-examine cherished and long held beliefs. We find ourselves walking paths we would never have expected and which require us to question our own preconceptions. It is right that this should be required.  Setting our feet to the path before us and listening to the whisperings of that still, small voice, should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a beginning.

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Summer weather…

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August tomorrow… high summer… when the rush-hour traffic melts away and the roads are driveable, even at eight in the morning. A time of beaches and sandcastles, of ice-cream and strawberries. Of flowerbeds that are a carnival of colour… of sunshine and suntans… Or, in England… fog, rain and plunging temperatures.

Opening the curtains this morning was a waste of time. It didn’t get any lighter, and one look outside was enough to realise that it probably wouldn’t. The dog eyed the rain that battered the roses and went back to bed with a look of disgust. I couldn’t blame her… but like it or not she needed a walk before I left for work. We agreed… eventually… that we would indeed venture beyond the threshold, but Ani displayed none of her usual enthusiasm. To Ani, water should be confined to the pools and streams where she can get a mud bath.

If there is one thing we are good at in England it is weather. The variations we manage are quite stunning. Yesterday I came home beetroot red, in spite of long sleeves and soft cotton. Today, I am thinking seriously about putting the heating on to dispel some of the mouldering and all-pervading dampness that seems to have settled on every surface. I am cold, my bones ache and it feels like December… except that winter is just as likely to be mild and sunny…

I have to wonder though. Is it summer? Or is that just an arbitrary division of the year to which we doggedly hold, bound in place by our ideas of family holidays and the closure of the schools? The earth seems to think otherwise. Technically, I suppose it is, but we are, after all, already closer to the autumnal equinox than summer solstice. The harvest is being gathered, bales of gold dot the fields, there are ripe blackberries on the brambles and many flowers have already set seed.

Maybe it is a question of semantics and association. Speak of summer and the mind wanders to balmy days, leisure and laughter. It is our image, based on the memories that spring to the surface when we say the word… yet time does not stand still and summer melds imperceptibly with autumn, just as it had melted from spring for one brief burst of glory.

We like to have things neat and tidy in our minds and speak of the ‘first day of summertime’ as if the seasons will change at our instigation, or at least with some modicum of punctuality, when in fact there is no immediate transformation, more a gradual blurring as the seasons flow, one into another. I think it may be because Nature is beyond our control that we seek to cage her with our definitions and timescales. No matter how we manipulate genetic coding, defy medical conditions or learn to use the forces of the natural world, we are, at some level, conscious that Mother Nature still looks on with maternal indulgence at our meagre efforts to harness natural laws and bring them to our service.

We can delay, but cannot conquer, death. We can fertilise an embryo in a Petrie dish… but can we actually give it life when we cannot even adequately define it? Or are we merely taking the raw materials that Nature has given us to form a vessel, in the same way that the potter takes clay and water to shape a cup to hold the wine?

As to the weather… we have no chance. Ask an Englishman…

In black and white

 

Shadows, by Nick Verron
Shadows, by Nick Verron

I held out my foot, and pointed the camera… the reflection of black shoe and white skin in the black gloss desk was interesting. Thought provoking… just a reflection… perfect symmetry but as a negative colour. “Our lives are just a collection of images, aren’t they?” said my son. “Just reflections of the images our minds perceive.”

We had been talking about photography again and looking at some of the images he had taken and discussing why they work… or not, as the case may be. One in particular caught my attention… a black and white rendition of ducks on what looks like the edge of the Rimfall of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is surprising how much difference the black and white rendering makes to a shot. Uninteresting, everyday objects seem transformed and we look at them in a new way. They evoke a different response.

When I was a very young woman, my grandfather gave me a camera. I had always enjoyed taking pictures, but knew nothing of ‘proper’ photography. This new camera was a pretty basic SLR and I had no idea how to use it and determined to find out. I recall the moment it all changed and I began to see the creative possibilities of photography. I saw something from the top of the bus on my way to work and, that evening, grabbed the new camera, donned the boots, hat and scarf, and tramped through the village in search of a picture. I had never done that before… until that point I had done no more than take snapshots of places, people and events. But the long row of telegraph poles, high on the hilltop stood starkly black against the snowdrifts and I found that I really wanted to take that shot.

 

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I never became a ‘proper’ photographer, amateur or otherwise; I still just take pictures. Grandad’s old  SLR died fairly soon afterwards on a Spanish beach and life had other plans for me than letting me play with cameras. But that brief interlude, learning to see through the restriction of a lens, left its mark. The observation that comes with wielding a camera doesn’t fade, and the world took on a visual richness and a depth of interest that remains.

Processing photos is an interesting thing to observe too. The addition of deeper shadows can make colours sing and light dance and sparkle, changing a picture from mediocre to arresting in seconds. Sometimes a detail may drawn the eye and, with a little judicious cropping, the image of something familiar becomes an abstract work. Or perhaps you capture a moment in glorious colour, but change it to monochrome instead. Such changes can be startling, altering what we percieve and how. They change the mood, make us think; lifting us out of the ordinary and dropping us into unfamiliar territory. Our points of reference are altered, or taken away altogether, and it can be difficult to decipher an image at first glance.

Playing with the settings on the camera and idly snapping away at my son’s home as we talked, perceprion, recognition and memory were all called into question. Our lives, as my son had said, really can be compared to a collection of images, string together as memories. Moments perceived quite often in black and white, then coloured by memory and emotion. Sometimes those inner images are altered by abstraction from their place in time, or we turn up the contrast so high that we can’t really make out what we are seeing. The filters we apply to experience make things feel unfamiliar when we look back at them in memory.

When the shadows are very dark it may seem as if they are all we can see… yet we are not really seeing shadows, or an absence of light, just its interuption. Light and shade go hand in hand. You cannot see one without the other. On a photograph, it is the shadows that throw the light into relief and allow it to illuminate what we are seeing. In our lives, the dark times are the backdrop against which we can see what we have lived and who we are.

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