I never really got contentment. “Are you happy?” I once asked a friend. “No, but I am content,” was his reply. To me, it wasn’t enough. It seemed like accepting some kind of mediocrity. I was young then and life was lived in all the vivid hues of passion. Emotion ran sky high or hit the depths… the times in between were bland, a mere waiting for the next rise and fall of the rollercoaster.
Emotions, back then, were all sharp-edged, like a cubist painting… and like such works, always disassembling the object of them to examine them from every angle. Some of the edges were so sharp you would bleed if you touched them… but you were alive. There were no in-between days of grey and dun.
A little older and the days took on a greater realism. The consequences of action and reaction were more direct as the responsibilities of adulthood were revealed in stark detail. Like looking in the mirror, these days reflected back at you only what you projected into them. The colours were still sharp; the detail and emotion clear… all the edges well-defined. A delineated life, with specific duties… niches for the fragmented self that is required by the roles demanded by the varied aspects of a society that likes to label everything.
But even that changed, morphing into abstraction where the lines and stark hues threw everything into question and the secure assumptions of youth that had flown direct as arrows suddenly seemed to realise that infinity is not a straight line. Stubbornly held beliefs were taken out of the strongbox and held up to the Light. Some were found to be tarnished, others broken, some simply too outmoded to be of any pertinent use. Yet there is a freedom in that de-cluttering of heart and mind, a simplicity that leaves much open to interpretation and, like a gallery, the fewer you hold on to, the more you can begin to appreciate what remains in all its glory.
These days I have a preference for a more Impressionistic style. I like my edges softer, the detail less focussed. I like to be able to stand back and lose myself in the moment in order to see a bigger picture, full of suggestions and possibilities half-glimpsed; open to the imagination and the emotional whispering of the heart-centred soul. There is something about this time that both softens and excites. I find that I like the lack of definition, the gaps only my heart and mind can fill. Instead of wondering about the name of the artist, I ask instead what message they were trying to convey.
And finally, I know contentment. It is not that there is nothing I could wish had been different. Nor is it that there is no looking back in the knowledge that I could have done things differently… for better or worse… Yet there is an acceptance that everything has its purpose. Like the myriad dots of a pointillist painting, each speck of experience may seem out of place when looked at too closely in time and emotion, yet stand back and the colours of the days blend and merge into something beautiful, understandable and whole, where every scrap of colour is in the perfect place.
There is a new beauty… and it is far from the mediocrity of my youthful disdain. The colours of this new world are deep and rich, their contrasts sing against each other, dark illuminating light. I can see that both are needful and their harmony beautiful. The detail fades in importance; the whole is where the story lies, waiting for our eyes to read it on a wider canvas than the frantic myopia of youth can encompass. The frame of my days holds a beauty only the heart can see and its starry skies are streaked by the fingertips of the creator.
It is snowing again as I write. Have you ever watched a snowstorm and wondered just how many snowflakes were falling? Or how many had ever fallen? A million snowflakes, apparently, will only cover a patch two feet square by ten inches deep. A quarter of the landmass of the planet gets snow every year and how many winters have come and gone since the first snowflake fell? The mind boggles at the sheer impossibility of the number.
Yet, if one could ignore space and time and be everywhere and every-when at once it would, theoretically at least, be possible to count them. Even taking all future snowfalls for the projected lifetime of our planet into consideration, it would be a finite number. There was, once upon a time, a very first snowflake to fall. There will be a last. There would come a point where there were no more snowflakes to count.
Mind boggling as the concept is, the magnitude of that number is probably as close to the idea of infinity as our normal human thoughts can grasp. Yet it is so far short of an infinite number! Scientists calculate that there could be as many as four and a half billion planets similar to earth in the Milky Way galaxy. Each one of those with its own possibility of snowflakes. And it is thought that there are hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe. Yet are we sure that there is only one universe? Quantum physicists don’t seem to think so…
Suddenly our infinity of snowflakes seems a little puny compared to the possibilities that exist in this wider reality we but dimly perceive.
We in the UK may consider we get a lot of snow. On the whole, it isn’t a vast amount. A couple of inches can be considered ‘a lot’ in southern counties. The north gets more as a rule. We do have the occasional bad winter, and higher ground is harder hit. But I’ve been to places in Europe where snow meant that roads were cut through it with fifteen foot banks of the stuff on either side. Yet a friend in Malta, not so very far away, has never seen a snowfall.
It is all relative.
We think in terms of personal experience, taking into account, perhaps, what we know from the experience of others. While we are aware of these other realities… such as snowless countries or the ones that get twenty times the volume we do… we behave almost as though we don’t truly believe it. We look out of the window and see a foot of snow as either a wonderland or the end of the world… depending on whether we are going out to play or have to brave the roads. We react to what is in front of our eyes, not what the other possibilities may be. Our survival mechanisms are designed that way perhaps, taking in and processing what needs to be dealt with in the waking world of the moment.
Yet we are also designed in such a way that we can at least conceive of those greater realities. Curiosity, imagination, thoughts, hopes and dreams… through these we touch a different reality every day that has its own inner life for us. These hidden realms may occasionally be populated by apparent impossibilities and within them we may be able to transcend the limitations of physics and experience. We may question the accuracy of the reflected world within this sphere, but we do not doubt the reality of mind and imagination. Through it we access concepts and abstractions that surpass the limiting bounds of physical existence. We create and innovate and can comprehend the mind-boggling at a level and in ways we cannot in ‘real life’.
We cannot count every snowflake ever to fall, but imagination gives us an inner feeling for the infinite. It is so far outside the bounds of direct experience that we may never truly understand it. Maybe we do not need to. But we are able to get a personal picture that represents it for us, whether we look at the ocean from the point of view of a single drop, or see ourselves a pinprick in the vast sea of interstellar space. The mind allows us to form an image, a representation that allows us to ‘know’ at a very intimate level. After all, we live within the matrix of infinity and are intimately woven with it.
For many, the idea of the infinite is inextricably linked with that of divinity. Here too imagination allows us to form a personal image with its attendant emotions, regardless of the tradition in which we were raised or the path we have chosen. The image we have will be unique, like a snowflake, whether we have chosen to view it with faith, belief or dismissal. Divinity is as impossible to grasp in Its entirety as the idea of the infinite within the mind of the everyday world. Maybe we do not need to. If we accept Its existence in any form, then here too we live within It.
A single snowflake is made by hundreds of individual ice crystals coming together and there are so many different ways in which they can arrange themselves that it is said that no two are alike. Statistically, who knows whether or not it is true? From the billions that have fallen or are yet to fall we have examined, perhaps, a few thousand. It doesn’t really matter. Their delicate beauty is transient and can be destroyed by a breath, transformed back into the element from which it came, not lost, but returning to earth to begin the cycle again.
I wonder sometimes if our thoughts and dreams are not the same, fragile and ephemeral as they are, easily damaged or dissolved by the wrong touch. Perhaps they are not lost altogether but return to their component parts, waiting for us to bring them together again in a design more beautiful than the last.
Yes, I know I have a weirdly wired mind, my sons tell me so frequently….
I stood outside my son’s bedroom, bundled up against the cold that was dropping a few meagre snowflakes on the morning. Camera in hand, I was snapping away happily when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window. The double glazing caught a pair of misaligned reflections, within which was caught yet another reflection from the infinity mirror on the far wall. You could see both the garden outside and the inside of the bedroom too; the one indistinguishable from the other to the eye that caught only the two-dimensional image on the glass.
At first glance, the eye saw what the lens sees, a single flat image. It took a few moments for the mind, filled with its knowledge and experience of the three-dimensional world, to begin to tease apart the various overlapping images and make sense of what they eye was seeing. I was conscious of the process and couldn’t help but wonder what someone from a different dimension would make of it. A two-dimensional being would be quite happy with the initial impression. Except that a two-dimensional being wouldn’t be able to distance themselves from the image in order to see it at all…they would, of necessity, be part of it, just as I am part of this image and reality.
What if there was a being that moved through more dimensions that we do? Would our three-dimensional image of the world look just as flat to it as the image on the pane of glass did to me?
Do we really live just within three dimensions though, when time has been posited as a fourth? The softly falling snowflakes were a visual representation of time as I watched them move through space from one place to another. And as I was in those dimensions, watching them, where was the ‘I’ that was able to watch? It cannot be within those nominal four dimensions, for if it were, it would be unable to separate itself from the image in order to observe it.
After proving, to my own satisfaction at least, the necessary existence of the fifth dimension, things got more complicated. While holding a conversation about cats with the son dangling out of his window, I wondered about the fact that the observing consciousness can always observe itself in the process known as infinite regress. Even in that moment, I was aware of the layers of my own consciousness as I chatted about mundane ideas while exploring an inner vision of infinity. And I wondered about the implications of that. I wondered too whether time was simply space observing itself… and if you view space as consciousness, which is far from a new idea, that opens up some intriguing and mind-boggling lines of thought.
While all this was going on, I was looking at the reflections in and through the window. In itself, it was a perfect illustration of both the distorted perception of reality we may have and the many layers it holds. Multiple reflections came together as one image. It is only my experience of those layers of reality that allow me to distinguish between bedroom and garden, inside and outside, mirror, glass and lens. It is only that experience that lets me know what is the image and what is the object.
Without such experience, my mind could not tease apart the various layers as it would not know where to begin. If I had never seen the world before, never learned the rules of its reality, what would I make of it?
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…” We dismiss such a lot of things simply because they are so far outside our range of experience that we cannot perceive them. If we did see them, we may not recognise them because we don’t know what we are looking at. We have no frame of reference. Even with that simple snapshot of the reflections it is difficult to make out the reality if you don’t know what you are seeing. Is one arm really that much shorter than the other…or is it a trick of perspective? Am I wearing a printed skirt, or is it the bedspread through the glass? Even I can’t guarantee what you will see… and I was there.
Reality goes far beyond what our physical senses can show us. I look out of my window and see the garden next door. Except I don’t. What see in reality is only the fence. Memory fills in the gaps of perception. I know there is a garden beyond the fence. In truth, I know nothing. A sinkhole could have opened in the night and swallowed the garden. The neighbours could have released a pet crocodile onto the lawn. There could be anything beyond the fence. But I do not question my version of reality because it is the vision of my own experience. The oddest thing is that even being aware of how many of the gaps I am filling in by assumption and memory, it changes nothing… except my openness to possibility.
It makes me wonder just how much we do miss or dismiss, both in our dealings with each other and in our observation of reality, simply because we have bounded our acceptance and perception with a wall of experience.
The misty dawn blushed a soft, rosy pink, probably embarrassed by the number of clichés it was inviting. It had begun with a delicate glow, suffusing the rising mist with gold as I shivered on the doorstep, then painted the world in pastel colours, as gentle as an apology. As the sun rose, the temperature plummeted, the swirling mists turned to fog and you could almost see the ice crystals forming. Another morning was born…
The sudden frost highlighted every detail of plants still resolutely green, each strand of spider silk and the edge of every fallen leaf. The ordinary became beautiful. Details that are overlooked a hundred times a day were limned in crystal and became unmissable… yet, but for necessity, I would have taken the option of comfort, stayed warm indoors and seen nothing. As I scraped the ice from the windscreen of the car, I was once again struck by how simple it is to learn the lessons of life by observing Nature at work. My own experience of the morning was one of frozen fingers and yet, the bitter frost served only to highlight a beauty that might otherwise have been missed.
Necessity and inevitability so often lead us into bitter and painful situations, but without them as a contrast, would we…could we…truly appreciate all that is right in our world? Would we notice a dawn if the sky always wore the colours of sunrise or do we need to experience darkness in order to understand the essence of light? Looking around too, I noted that while some plants were still green and would remain so in spite of the coming cold of winter, others were sere and brittle, giving every appearance of being mere skeletons of the vibrant life they once wore. Yet here too, Nature teaches, for beneath the soil, those brittle bones wait only for spring to grow once more… different in appearance, perhaps, but still essentially the same.
There was nothing new in those thoughts… no fanfare, no great revelation. It was no more than a gentle reminder, a reassurance that we are never called upon to make sense of this world and its upheavals on our own. There is always a teacher on our doorstep, always a deeper wisdom than our own, older and with experience of all that has ever been. It knows the tides of night and day, of winter and summer, freedom and necessity…and it is poised to teach us, every day. We do not always listen, we are wayward students and easily distracted, but the earth knows her children well and repeats her cycles, waiting for our chattering minds to quiet and allow us to understand. And when we do…when we listen… sometimes, it seems as if she smiles.
I woke this morning with the image of a dream imprinted on my eyelids. The image was a simple one… an empty landscape with a lake that held the reflection of a tree.
I could replay the dream in silent freeze-frame. The image was divided in two by the shoreline of a lake. A tree stood tall and straight as a Scots pine, wide as an ancient oak, right on the edge of the empty shore. Below, the calm waters held its reflection with barely the shimmer of a ripple.
The thin line of the land, a horizon drawn by a child, never changed, no cloud marred the pale, immutable luminescence of the sky. Only the tree, as if dancing to the song in its branches and the rising and setting of the light.
I watched as the birds flew and sang through the bole and children played at its feet laughing. I saw the seasons paint themselves in green and gold, scarlet and black on its limbs. I saw the children grow, saw their trysts beneath the branches… and saw their children return in their turn to laugh and love and pass.
After an eternity, men came with axes and tried to fell the tree, but they could not. Later, they came with chainsaws, yet still it stood. Then I watched as the tree, whole and healthy, seemed to fall of its own accord, yet where it fell, no trace of it remained, only an empty horizon.
Yet in the clear mirror of the lake, the reflection of the tree still stood, tall and straight as a pine, wide as an ancient oak.
The birds flew above it, and their reflections played still amongst the branches. Children leaned from the bank to play amongst the reflected roots. The seasons still painted the reflection with green and gold, scarlet and black. But on the land, the tree was nowhere to be seen.
Men came and called it sorcery and poured oil and ashes into the waters to obliterate the reflection, but the water retained its clarity. They built a tall fortress, surrounded by a city, to replace the reflection with something of their own creation, something that they did not fear, but the mirror of the lake showed only the tree. The masters of the fortress forbade the people to look out over the city walls, forbade them to approach the lake on pain of death, creating a fear to mask their own, until the lake and its tree became no more than a myth.
When the drought came, many died of thirst in the city on the shore, but the branches of the reflection were still brimming with life in the pure water.
But there were those to whom the lake called… the madmen, the dreamers and those whose hearts played like children… who heard the song of the birds in the branches and the whispering ripples on the shore. Some marvelled at the magic of the shimmering image, captivated by an unattainable beauty. Some believed the reflection to be the truth and gave themselves to the waters, drowning in ecstasy. Some turned away, weighed down by sorrow at the passing of the tree from the world. And some saw that the reflection was no more than an image cast by something they could not see and, turning their backs on the lake, sought the source of the image. For these, the tree still stood, straight as a pine, wide as an oak, its branches still painted with green and gold, scarlet and black…the reflection no more than a promise and a shadow of reality.
When I woke, it was one image that remained… of a tree on a shoreline drawn by a child, an empty horizon and a perfect reflection below.
It was a miserable Monday morning. Frozen fog clung to every branch and blade of grass, the temperature was well below zero and I had to be out early with the car.
The garage is just two miles from my home in normal circumstances, but the construction work for the new high speed railway line has made it into a five mile hike. The garage will normally run me home when I drop the car in to them for its MOT, but they are short staffed. The one bus of the morning had just gone by the time I have negotiated the road closures and diversions and, to make matters worse, I could not make myself understood over the phone to the taxi company.
Shouting might have enabled them to hear me… but the pitiful croak that was all my voice could muster was not going to be able to maintain that volume for more than a few words. And then they hung up anyway.
I was cold, damp and shivering… I needed to get home and into the warm. I called my son, well used to the vagaries of my squeaky voice, and asked him to order me a taxi. He called back a few minutes later to tell me the two mile trip would cost me fifteenpounds… oh, the joys of living in a village… it couldn’t get much worse…
“Can I give you a lift?” said a voice out of nowhere. A runner of a similar age to myself was breathing great clouds of steam into the air. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Where are you going?” I told her, and loved the order in which she had asked the questions. She nodded at the oxygen tank on my back. “Are you in treatment?” I told her it was lung cancer… the one reason I could not just walk home. “My car is at the other end of the village, “ she said, weighing up the hill I would have to climb to accompany her, “wait here and I’ll be right back.”
How kind, I thought as I waited, little realising that she was not just parked at the other end of the village, she had actually run to get her car out of the garage, especially to take me home.
As we drove, she quizzed me about the prognosis and treatment and told me all about her friend who had also been diagnosed with incurable cancer, but who, with treatment similar to mine, has been healthy for years. It did not matter that every case is different, that the treatment and our response to it varies, what mattered was her kindness as she spoke with a certain amount of knowledge, reassuring without promising, adding a little hope to an otherwise dismal day.
Although the sun has not pierced the fog today, although the chill has lingered and has refused to be chased away, a little touch of kindness brought light and warmth to the morning. It takes very little sometimes to turn the day around, no matter how dull or how dismally it begins.