Distorted reality

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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.

Bittersweet

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.

On reflection…

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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.

A dismal dawn

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 fifteen pounds… 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.

The long night

The seasons turn as we approach the turning point, the Solstice… the longest night… just three short weeks away. And yet, the sky is beautiful this morning, a clear, deep blue graced with the lights of heaven. The world is still and silent, even the birds are hushed as dawn creeps over the horizon of a rain-washed world. The moon lights the village and touches the rooftops with silver. Branches are down in the lane and few are the leaves that still cling tenaciously to the trees, most stripped away by the vicious fingers of winter winds.

There is such strength in the grasp of leaf to twig, both so fragile they can be plucked and broken by a child, yet the bond of life so strong it can withstand the most inclement weather. Until it is time for them to fall.

Even when the leaves fall it is part of a greater renewal, the confetti of the marriage of the seasons, nourishing the earth and the tree from whence they fell. The tree sleeps through the winter, seemingly lifeless, husbanding its resources against the coming of spring. Beneath the skeletal surface of this dying time the life within shapes new leaves and blossoms, waiting in pregnant patience for the warm kiss of the sun.

northagain 064Leaves fall, branches break… the old and sere stripped away by the turning wheel of the year, clearing the way for a green birth.

There is so much laid out before us, even in the avenues of our city streets. The life of nature is so strong and so beautifully balanced. So easy to damage when, with careless hands her children grasp at her skirts, taking anything that claims their attention and desire… yet strong enough to recover when we are no more.

In the little wood where we sometimes walk, the small dog and I, man has left his traces. From the earliest times, track and road have passed this way. From the air, the circled marks of ancient homes can be seen in the fields, the line of a Roman road, lost now to plough and furrow. And still we carve this little patch of green to serve our needs. Yet as soon as we turn our back the wild things cover our tracks, reclaiming the earth for themselves, our little lives more fragile than their delicate blooms.

In towns and cities, sites and factories that were once hives of industry fall silent as technology moves on and we are proud of our advances, not noticing the quiet crown of plant and sapling our forgotten edifices wear, the gentle but inexorable hand of nature taking back her own as soon as we depart.

The seasons of the earth are echoed too within our own lives… we are part of the cycle, our bodies dance to the same natal song of the seasons. Life springs from death, death from life in an endless round.

northagain 108The cadence is echoed within us as we laugh for joy beneath the sun of summer and weep in grief when winter touches our hearts. In the dark days, we too may feel as if leaf and branch are being stripped from us, battered by the winds of change and the storms of emotion. Yet like the trees only the damaged and broken falls from us… the green heart is strong and holds the pattern of renewal within itself.

As the wheel turns it is easy to become lost in the dark days, feeling a verdant spring to be too far to reach, fearing in the shadows that it will not come. Perhaps, like the trees, we too are then husbanding our strength, withdrawing within where growth and renewal can work their magic unseen, ready to blossom at the first touch of the sun.

When the Solstice comes, the world, still facing the worst of winter, turns almost unnoticed towards summer. We know this, yet the winter is still to be endured. The days will lengthen, the light will be bright on days covered in snow, ice is yet to break open the cracked stones, and we will huddle by our hearths as if there is no warmth in the world, forgetting that we have passed the nadir and the eternal dance of the seasons carries us onwards towards a brighter dawn.

When we are lost in grief, gripped by the cold of fear, it is hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, hard to believe that we have passed the worst point when we see a dark road still looming ahead. Yet this is the rhythm of life itself, as the earth holds us in the reassuring and loving embrace of a Mother and shows us that not all is lost in winter, it merely endures the frost while within, nourished by the fallen leaves that were stripped away by the storms and the turning year, the green life springs anew.

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A foggy morning

fog 014I scrape the ice from the windscreen, looking with little enthusiasm at the heavy pall of fog that blankets the world. November… we’ve done well to make it this far without ice on the windows. Even so, my fingers are already that peculiar shade of blue that I forget about through the summer, only to be painfully reminded by the first frost. I must dig the gloves out, I suppose.

The oversized fleece is warm, the sweater beneath making me feel heavier than I should. I slide into a car that feels damp and chill. I have things to do outside today at my son’s home, but first I have to get there, and, of course, it is rush hour, such as it is in lockdown. The roads are choked with slow-moving traffic, the morning rat-run exacerbated by roadworks. I wait, feigning patience, for a gap through which I can dart into the flow of traffic.

Cars, mostly silver on this grey day, glide like silent ghosts, too slowly for their engine noise to pierce the shrouding fog. Their outlines are blurred, visibility is poor and the inside of the windscreen is fogged by my breath as I join the snaking line of cars that move in macabre procession towards a town where few wish to be. You can almost feel the reluctance of the drivers who head to work, called to spend our days earning the living which leaves us so little time or energy for life. We move so slowly it feels like a funeral.

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I can see the silhouettes of birds perched in spectral trees, the looming monsters that seem to appear without warning as the trucks come towards you on the narrow road, their lights predatory eyes that open to pounce upon the unwary. The camera is in my bag and I would love to be able to stop and explore, capturing the misty magic of the fields and woods, seeking the beauty I know awaits just off the beaten track. There are so many ways I could have chosen… over the hills, through little lost villages… beneath skeletal trees denuded of leaves…

I can’t, though, as I am already running later than expected.

Leaving the village behind, the road cuts through the low lying fields and here the fog thickens. The road itself becomes almost invisible; the only guide is the dull red glow of the tail-lights in front. Car follows car into nothingness, trusting that those ahead know the way. Each car is an island in a grey sea. Behind are the points of white light of those who follow, trusting me as blindly as I trust those ahead. Unable to see, you are acutely aware that the only ones who actually know where they are have already arrived at the destination we all share; the town with its lights and the warmth that dissipates the mist.

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I wonder about that. The weather echoes part of our own journey. We follow the stream, often through necessity rather than choice. Yet the stream draws us… there is safety on a beaten track, security in following a trail lit by the journey of others, even if we only trust… rather than know… that those who have passed this way before know where they are going. Some, we assume, must have made it to our common goal and it is from them that the stream leads back to where we are. Yet I have to wonder how much we miss by sticking to the known route; failing to explore the hidden wonders that are veiled by the mists along the way.

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To Greet the Dawn

sunrise 005I wandered into the living room at four, having given the whole sleeping business up for the night. Ani raised one ear and an eyebrow then curled up tight and refused to budge. It is odd though, now that I do not have to be up early, I seem to have reverted to an earlier mode when the house was so full of people that rising at ungodly hours was the only time I had to do things in peace.

There is something about the dark hours when the world is still sleeping, as if beyond the local noise you can hear the slow heartbeat of earth. There is nothing ‘ungodly’ about these moments, in fact quite the opposite.

How can you not feel close to the divine in a silence broken only by the wind in the trees… or looking up at star-strewn heavens? How can you not be touched by awe as the dawn paints the horizon in gold and flame and the first blackbird opens the day with song?

Our worlds are, for so many of us, artificial. Sunrise occurs behind closed blinds at the flick of a switch, TV and radio and the eternal rumble of traffic drown the delicate morning paean and a golden dawn cannot be seen in many places. We don’t realise that, of course, as we watch the first light creep into our rooms, busy with our preparations for the day. It was borne in upon me a few days ago as my son, also sleepless, had set his camera up to catch the dawn. I drove from village to town, stopping to capture something of the blaze of light on the way. He, hanging half-naked out of his bedroom window in the frost, caught only a tiny streak of gold above the rooftops, his horizon bounded by chimneypots.

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I love the dawn. From where I sit to write I can turn to the window and look due east, and will always stop to watch those fleeting moments of glory that touch the sky. I am incredibly lucky, yet so accustomed had I become to the daily joy of greeting the dawn it was not until a city-dwelling friend mentioned that it had been years since he had seen a true dawn that I realised just how lucky…. That seemed to me a tragedy, yet I have been a city dweller much of my life and know it to be true.

Knowledge and realisation are so very different.

We know things, take them for granted through habituation and it takes something to spark our attention before we can consciously notice them… and it is only at that moment that they become real for us again, vivid, vital and full of wonder.

As I write, the wind howls through the trees, drowning any sound but its own, an elemental tide of rushing air. From here there is no sulphurous glow from the town to colour the sky and the birds still sleep.

Soon, very soon, I will see that first shy blush as the false dawn touches the clouds and I will watch to see if the sky is clear enough to allow the painted horizon to blaze or whether the dawn fires will quietly suffuse the clouds with a gentle glow. I will listen to the waking of the morning as the birds sing and I will do so in full awareness, grateful that I can share a moment in solitude with something greater than I… and know It.

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“Ain’t this a mess, Sheriff?”

In the film ‘No Country for Old Men’, there’s a famous opening scene at the site of a drugs shoot-out. Everyone’s dead when the local Sheriff and his deputy arrive and start wandering through the bodies as though they were in a Spaghetti Western.

The Deputy stays silent for a long time, then says excitedly, “Ain’t this a mess, Sheriff!” Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) looks askance at his junior and replies, as only Tommy Lee Jones can, “Well, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till a real mess comes along…’

As you can tell, I think the scene is priceless. It somehow ‘enables’ the rest of what is, otherwise, a very dark movie–but brilliantly told.

I seldom revisit it, but sometimes, if I do something stupid enough, I can hear Sheriff Bell’s words in my head…

As I began to recount the story of the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ weekends, I found the episodes were so full of detail that I had slipped over my target 1000-1300 words. When you write often, you can gauge, almost immediately, when you’ve overcooked something – and you are asking an unreasonable degree of reading from those wonderful souls who follow you.

After the third post, I had already written the next two. When I examined them, they were each twice as long as my new target of approximately 1000 words.

So I cut them in half…

That meant I had four posts lined up in the WordPress firing chamber.

And this is where, as Gerard Hoffnung once said, in his famous and hilarious Bricklayer’s Story, ‘I may have lost my presence of mind…’

Last Thursday, forgetting I’d halved them, I published the post of our triumphant arrival at Rosemarkie, on the Black Isle, and missed out the post that should have preceded it.

So, by way of recompense, here it is…

It’s a fine mess, but hopefully, it’ll do till a real mess comes along..

The Shandwick and Nigg Pictish Crosses

I suspect there’s a certain amount of suspicion – quite justified as it turns out – about how smoothly our workshops go. A sense of ‘they couldn’t possibly have fitted all that into one day, for heavens sake…’

But, so far, on the Saturday of this Pictish Trial weekend, we had.

We’d had the pleasure of seeing the Hilton of Cadboll stone, which time had not permitted on the prep visit, the previous year. Now, the amazed look on the faces of the visitors as we arrived at the glass-housed beauty that is the Shadwick Stone said it all…

Clach a’Charrridh (Shandwick stone) means stone of the grave plots, and was named so after the area was used as a burial-ground during the 1832 cholera epidermic. It’s on the Fearn Peninsula, about a mile from the Hilton Cadboll site, and sits on the crest of the ridge, visible from the sea.

The cross slab has stood majestically overlooking the Moray Firth for over 1000 years. Its present site is where it has always been. There is something wonderful about standing there and knowing that.

Here, I met the first problem: the smoked glass. For me, there is a joy in bringing back images that I know will generate interest. But, at Shandwick, every time I took a shot, all I could see was the reflection of me and the landscape in the glass.

(Above: the spine of the Tarbat and Fearn peninsulas is the location for these famous Pictish stones)

I took myself off to one side to try with the editing tools to see if what I had taken was salvageable. As long as I could live with a little colour distortion they would be fine. I returned to snapping…

The thick glass serves a purpose, and it’s wonderful to see these precious artefacts so well protected. The glass and steel housing is locked. You can go inside, but only by appointment with a key holder. And not in the year of Covid-19.

The landward side of the slab is set out in eight panels. They contain a range of symbols. The top panel once had a finely decorated Pictish double disc on it. The central panel contains a hectic scene of Pictish life, with birds, beasts and human figures.

A Christian cross has been carved on the seaward face of the slab. Some of the other motifs on this side may also be religious symbols. Immediately below the arms of the cross are angels with outspread wings. They are placed above animals which could be interpreted as David’s lions. Then there are snakes or serpents. The designers of this and the other stones in the area were certainly not working alone. They must have known of the Christian decorated manuscripts of Lindisfarne and Iona as well as the metalwork and sculpture of Northumbria and Ireland.

This Pictish sculptured stone was carved and erected about 1200 years ago. The stone was presumably quarried from the local cliffs in about 780 A.D. It was moved here using ropes, timber rollers and levers, or possibly a cart. The blocks of pattern were marked out and carved using a hammer and iron chisel.

Such a complicated design using a single motif is unusual. Yet it also occurs as a panel on the Hilton of Cadboll stone and fragments from Tarbat. It is speculated there was a school of sculpture in the area specialising in this style.

(Above: the sides are decorated, too)

(Above: the ‘trinity’ symbol in a Pictish form. The often recurring ‘three as one’ glyph will be familiar to many, and shows the depth of spiritual thought possessed by the Picts)

Our afternoon was passing, fast. Our next stop, the small town of Nigg, is famous for its connection to the North Sea Oil business, which is now diminishing. Back up the hill from the oil terminals is a lovely old church which houses the famous Nigg Stone. It’s run by volunteers, but the website, checked that morning on my phone, said it would be open.

The Nigg Stone is displayed inside Nigg old church in a specially created exhibition area. Admired and studied by scholars from all over the world, its ornamental cross resembles a manuscript page. The fantastic intricacy of the carving, the whorls and spirals, and the heaped up knot of snakes, with tails and tongues endlessly intertwining, is said to be paralleled only in the illuminations of the Great Gospel book of Kells.

Unfortunately, when we got to the door, it was locked…

(Above: Nigg’s ancient and beautiful church… sadly closed)

However…. Sue Vincent is celebrated on the Silent Eye weekends for fearlessly reaching up on tip-toes and sticking her camera lens up against the glass, then pressing away, merrily, to see what she can capture. I thought of her as I jammed my iPhone as close as I dared and took a few exploratory shots. When the results looked interesting, I wiped a tissue on the grass to wet it, cleaned the promising spot on the windows and hit the shutter again.

(Above: the ‘stolen shot’ of the Nigg Stone. It’s long way from perfect, but, given the church was closed, it’s a lot better than nothing… The metal bracket is not vandalism, it was custom-made to fit into an eroded gap in the stone (see below), and also to hold the slab-cross in place in its tiny museum)

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(Above: One we took earlier, thankfully! The high quality image of the Nigg Stone at the Tarbat Discovery Centre partly makes up for Nigg Church being closed)

The carvings include a unique illustration of a miracle: the first monks, Paul and Anthony, receiving bread in the desert from a raven sent by God, and David: King and Psalmist saving a sheep from the lion, his harp beside his shoulder.

We had completed our Tarbat Peninsula visits. We dashed down to the shore to show our visitors the dramatic Cromarty Firth, then headed off to the final assignment of the day – Rosemarkie, where one of the most wonderful surprises awaited…


Above: the ferocious Cromarty Firth. Majestic and fearsome. Across this, but not literally (as the ferry wasn’t running!) lies The Black Isle, our final destination for the Saturday, before returning to Inverness.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, This is Part Six, Part Seven (Rosemarkie)

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Keeping faith?

On Thursday, I will finally see the oncologist to discuss what, if any, steps can be taken to address the rebellious cells currently busy trying to kill me. The appointment is, quite clearly, for me alone. Like so many others in this situation, since the advent of COVID, I am allowed no-one with me to listen, prompt, remember, or check what I am hearing. On Mary Smith’s advice, I will attempt to record the meeting if I can get permission to do so. Because my life, both in terms of quality and quantity, now literally depends upon what I hear, remember and understand. And there is every possibility that won’t be much.

Masks make hearing difficult for those of us who have to lip read part of the time. Learning how little time you may have, what procedures you may have to undergo (and because of fluid build-up around the heart, there is already a very unpleasant list before we even get to the chemotherapy bit)… it may be sufficiently upsetting to stop you taking things in and processing them. You cannot see the face of those who sit in judgement nor can they see yours.

How can either of you know the other at this stage, without the subtle visual clues and cues from which we as humans read so much? We are not designed to read too much from a flick of an eye… we need micro-expressions, warmth, twitches and connection before real understanding of each other can begin to happen.

A stranger, no matter how kind, can have no idea what manner of person I am, what life I have lived or crises I have faced. Nor have I any idea who they are. They do not know and… being unable to see my face… cannot judge… how much I wish to hear. I do not know, because I cannot see and, needing to lipread a bit too, cannot always hear, what they are saying… and, crucially, how much they are not.

Human beings learn so much about and from each other simply by looking in each other’s faces. We are constantly reading how deep a smile might reach… seeing beyond it to fear or hope… adjusting our responses to their needs

I do not want to be told that I might live several months if they are looking at conditions they honestly believe likely to see me off in a matter of weeks. I want the truth… have told them so… but they will only give as much of the truth as they think I can handle. Masked, alone and unsupported, judged… and possibly condemned… all at that first unfair and uneven encounter.

And I am not happy about that.

At what point did we cede our right to truth to the decision of others? To decide how much of our own story we are capable of handling? By what right do others withhold essential information about how we can live our lives… when it matters to them not at all and to us absolutely?

I had the same battle when my late partner went through cancer, and realised, after a year of surgical hell, that ‘clear’ to the surgeons simply meant ‘hadn’t changed much’… where my partner and I thought, ridiculously, that twenty-seven operations had actually removed or at least shrunk the tumour. I had the same battle with staff when my son was in the coma and ‘stable’ became a contentious word that could mean anything from ‘we almost lost him then’ to ‘he’s actually moving his eyes voluntarily!’.

At some point, we have to remember that we have the right to ask questions… and to hear the answers, whether we like them or not. Orwell’s vision of ‘Big Brother’ is not that of some kindly protector trying its best to shield the fragile child from harsh realities, but a construct designed to reduce the capacity for personal thought and responsibility in humans.

Thinking about the way we are constantly being drip-fed information at rates other people judge sufficient for our needs,  and branded with the stigma and ridicule of ‘denier’, ‘conspiracy theorist’ or worse should we question what we are told, my only regret in not being around for too much longer will be that I won’t be here to teach my granddaughters how to question what they are told.

But I taught my sons… perhaps that will be enough.