North-easterly III – Intriguing Anomalies

Two things struck me as we entered the State Rooms to look around the public parts of Bamburgh castle. The first was that the collection of objects that were on display was vast, rich and deserving of much more attention than we would have time for. We did notice, though, a shield that bore a remarkable resemblance to the crop circle we had been looking for at Cerne Abbas…

From decorated cradles to archaic helmets, ostentatiously carved furniture and delicate fans made of wisps of spangled gauze and ivory, all were displayed with no apparent order or relationship to each other. The symbolic comparison of a castle to the ego was evidently going to continue. It almost seemed as if the décor was saying there was no value to the priceless things on display except to be displayed. Now, I know that this is probably not the case at all. What can be left undefended by glass and barriers and survive the careless touch of tourists is the most likely reason for the items on display being chosen… but we had been asked to draw comparisons between the castle and the ego and observe our impressions.

I thought how many people I have met who define themselves by their achievements, success, wealth or possessions. I thought too how many of us seek to impress others in one way or another, and how our public faces reflect how we hope the world will see us… and decided that most of us fall prey to that desire in some form or another, even those who vehemently profess that they do not care a jot for how others see them; that very independence can become a ‘prized possession’.

The other thing that struck me forcibly was the lack of atmosphere. The two small salons, in spite of their beauty and décor, had no character at all; they felt unlived-in and ill at ease. It turns out that they were once kitchens before they became ‘State Rooms’, and their true nature was obviously at odds with their new finery. The castle is a grand and glorious place, though. Room after room is filled with history, art and portraiture, but it is not until you go deeper within its walls and reach the King’s Hall with its raised drawing room that there is any feeling of coherence.

Here, you can imagine the grand balls and state functions. It is supposed to be lofty, imposing, luxurious. It is not trying to be anything except itself… and, after the kitchen-salons, that gives a curious effect. Egoically, there is a statement there too; it matters little whether a place or a person is beautiful and impressive, or homely and humble… what matters is whether they are authentic… true to their nature and purpose.

 

I could have spent weeks learning about the art alone. There were anomalies there too. The overtly regal castle held a good many pieces that struck an odd chord. For instance, there were the portraits of Napoleon with hs two Empresses… the Emperor of France who had come by his position on the heels of the Revolution that had guillotined the nobility.

The very Catholic iconography displayed throughout the house sits cheek-by-jowl with portraits of the Protestant King James and his wife, Anne of Denmark. It was James who, after his bride had been delayed by storms that he blamed on witchcraft, instigated the North Berwick witch trials and he attended the torture of suspected practitioners of the Craft.

One picture in particular caught my eye, a sixteenth century group of the Holy Family, attributed to Marcello Venusti and titled ‘Silence’. The geometric composition of the figures is striking enough, but t was the figures themselves that caught my eye. The Holy Mother watches a sleeping Child that we take to be Jesus. He lays across her lap in a similar attitude to a Pietà. Behind her are figures we assume to be an elderly Joseph and John the Baptist, who could be Jesus’ twin. It may have been the fact that the boys are painted as older than the usual babes that caught my attention. Or that only Mary and John have haloes…. I found it curious too that the Madonna wears green, and that the sleeping Child, who lacks a halo, is as pale as death.

A little later research made the painting even odder. It was painted by Venusti, but the design was a detailed drawing by Michaelangelo. It is also very different from other versions of this painting. The ‘same’ painting at The National Gallery, for example, has the Virgin clothed in blue, the architecture and draperies completely different, none of the figures have haloes and John wears a leopard skin. And the text in the book that the Virgin holds is completely different. We can only assume it is meant to be a Bible, although that book would not be written until long after the Child’s death.

John makes a gesture of silence. Is he asking silence for the sleeping Child? Or indicating secrets…? Which painting is the ‘real’ Venusti? Are they all his? Are others copies? What does the difference in the text indicate? We would need a lot more time to unravel such mysteries… The ego too has its secrets, its blinds and confusions and it can take a lifetime to unravel them.

One mystery was solved though… although it leaves many unanswerable questions in its wake. There is a short corridor with steps leading through an arch. On one side, a huge tapestry, on the other a print of battles and reproductions of scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. It has a disquieting ‘feel’ and I found I could not easily leave it. When I did leave, I felt compelled to turn around and go back, though I had no idea why. I spoke to Stuart who had followed me and turned to face him… finding that he was not there and I was, in fact, alone.

The moment left such an impression on me that I did some research when we got home. I am far from the only one to have sensed something there. During the war years the castle served as a hospital for soldiers, and one young man traumatised beyond bearing, committed suicide and shot himself in the head. He was seen and recognised after his death, seated on these stairs.

The lower we went in the castle, the more, it seemed, the life of its people made itself felt and the analogy of the ego continued to be apt. Most personal, in an odd kind of way, was the well in the basement rooms. The life of lord and serf alike would have depended upon its waters. The simple well bound their human lives together in a way no other artefact could show.

Lower still and we made the mistake of going into the dungeon. Expecting the empty rooms one usually sees in such places, we were confronted with graphic waxworks depicting every imaginable horror. Such things should never be perpetrated on living beings… and yet the ego can suffer the same levels of torture throughout its life. We witnessed one such torture being inflicted upon a child as we hurriedly left the room. You can imagine the scars the careless comment will leave. “This,” said the small child’s father, “is what happens if you don’t behave…”

Far from the pomp and circumstance of the stately halls, there were real treasures though, tucked away in tiny rooms and easily overlooked.  These were not just the objects that affirmed power, nor were they all the creations of gifted artists… many were the small and practical things that had held a place in the lives and hearts of the castle’s people. Simple carved stones from the chapel of St Peter where a saint’s relics were housed. A lost key. Fragments of intricate metalwork going back to the Anglo-Saxon fort. And tiny, glowing specks of worked gold, smaller than a fingernail, bearing the serpentine design of the Bamburgh Beast.

In just the same way, you have to work to get beyond the layers of ego to see the spark of gold that lies, often unregarded, at the centre of every being. It may be buried so deep that it is impossible to see, but, like the castle, the ego is both sanctuary and prison for the treasure at its heart.

There was one more thing we had been asked to do and that was to find within the castle a place we had imagined from the beach below. We were almost ready to leave before I found mine and understood its personal significance. The great black-leaded range reminded me of the one in my great grandmother’s scullery, and so I left the ‘State Rooms’ with a fond smile for remembered warmth and the aroma of oven-bottom bread.

Anyone who wishes to have a virtual wander around the castle can visit their website for a 360° tour here.

Finding the jewel…

“You are beautiful.” “You are love.” “You are light.” “Whatever you can imagine can be yours.” I am fed up of reading these feelgood assertions, offered as a placebo and generously sprinkled with glitter and fairydust. There is nothing wrong with the words themselves, but I grow increasingly frustrated by the way they are often used.

They have become buzzwords that frequently appear in articles designed only to reassure and placate, to stroke the ego. They often come with a promise of enlightenment to the reader while implicitly asserting the spiritual superiority of the writer. They are understandably popular concepts and they are everywhere.

Such articles can be demoralising, having the opposite effect of how they appear to be intended. Reading many of them, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are at fault for not having already realised your full potential. All too often, they seem to portray the goal of the spiritual quest as a treasure you should already be holding in your hand and yet what do they do to help you find your way?

Such articles often suggest that you need only follow the words of a particular leader to reach your own, private Nirvana where all the treasures of the universe are yours…and a good many such leaders have grown rich on the aspirations of their followers. All you need to do is believe…

If it were that simple, we would all have attained…well, everything already.

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Map created by Robert Louis Stevenson for Treasure Island

The problem is, I happen to believe that all those assertions are true. That ultimately, it is that simple. But simple and easy are not always the same thing and the idea of hard work and commitment does not make a great selling point.

Imagine that you are given the key and the deeds to a vast building. You are told that whatever you find within its walls is yours to keep forever…and that scattered around inside is the greatest treasure ever known. It is yours, there for the taking.  You put the key in the lock and open the door… and find the dark interior of the building to be a bewildering maze of passages, piled floor to ceiling with junk, cobwebs and dark, scary shadows.

Technically, you are already rich beyond your wildest dreams. You now own the building, because you hold the deeds and the key. You also own everything within it, including that fabled jewel. But it won’t do you much good until you sort through the rubbish, banish the shadows and actually find the treasure. The only way to do that is to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Wading through decades of junk is never going to be a pleasant job, nor an easy one. You don’t know what you might find… and there are always the lurking, disquieting shadows. You cannot even let the light stream in to help your search until you have cleared  a path to the window. Trying to locate any single object, let alone a unique jewel, in such an environment, is worse than looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. It will take time, effort and dedication to have the slightest hope of success. It could take a lifetime to make enough room to see your way.

Unfortunately, for most of us, this is the reality we face when we choose to begin walking the paths of spirit. Whatever path we choose, be it magical, mystical, or religious, there needs to be a dedicated clearing of the accumulated detritus of a lifetime… a sifting through all that mind, heart and memory holds in order to find the treasure that has been ours all along. For most of us, this is a long, hard task. But, the more junk we clear, the easier it becomes to see where we are and to find the reflected glimmer of gold as the light seeps in.

Simple…but not easy.

That is what bothers me with the placebo assertions. They are all true… but they are not the whole story.

Few indeed are blessed with the Grace of revelation. Most will have to plough onwards steadily, though the job would be much easier if you knew where to begin. If you had the proper tools and a little friendly help. An extra pair of hands, a torch…or even a treasure map… all would help the work along, making it easier and less of a lonely task. That is where genuine teachers, guides and systems, can make a difference. Not to do the work for you, but to show you how and where to look, lend you a hand and equip you with the tools for the search. Even a map.

But whether you choose to accept that helping hand or choose to work on your own, you are never alone. There is help for the dedicated seeker; like Tolkein’s Ring, the treasure wants to be found. As soon as you start looking, it begins to call to you, guiding you in quiet whispers to where it may be found.

Going west – the accidental tourist

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Frankly, I thought it appallingly bad planning. Could the town not have chosen a different day to ceremonially install their new mayor? It isn’t as if we hadn’t advertised our itinerary for the weekend, culminating with a visit to the Cathedral at St Davids and lunch in the refectory. In that order. But no… the Cathedral was otherwise occupied and would be for some time to come. It was still occupied by the time we had finished warming up with pots of tea… and still too busy after I had wandered round the outside of the church with the camera, trying to get a few good shots in spite of the rain that was now beating a steady tattoo on the lens. We were at a loose end.

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“Another twenty minutes or so,” said the gentleman manning the door. Some chose to stay in the warmth of the refectory. Others disappeared, planning to gather again shortly. I wandered off over the little stream to be a tourist. Tourism is not the point of these weekends and although we have a plan of where we will go and what we want to see, we have learned to be flexible in our approach, shunning rigorous timetables in favour of time to savour the sites we visit. Sometimes, though, there is nothing wrong with a little tourism. The Cathedral is not the only thing worth visiting in St Davids and, with little time at our disposal, the Bishop’s Palace is a good place to while away a few moments. To be fair, it deserves a lot more than I had to give it, being part of one of the oldest and certainly most important Christian sites in Wales.

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We’d had our first sight of the ruined palace as we approached the cathedral from St Non’s, watching the remarkable architectural details reveal themselves through the mist and rain. Fifteen hundred years ago, a monastery grew up here. It was not then the peaceful spot we know today and the monks who lived there saw their home sacked by Norse raiders, then quietly rebuilt it, at least ten times over the course of the next four hundred years. It was only after the Norman invasion of 1066 that the monks began to know peace. The strong presence of the Norman barons imposed fortifications on the growing town, protecting the monastery and the relics it housed.

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St Davids was already recognised as an important spiritual centre. William the Conqueror himself came to pay his respects to the relics of St David in 1081. Later, in 1284, King Edward I would also make the pilgrimage. The remains of the current palace reflect that later date; the building was begun around that time, and work continued until the middle of the following century. The Reformation saw the demise of the palace; its fall into ruin much hastened by Bishop William Barlow, who sold the lead from the roof in 1536 to pay the dowries of his five daughters… the equivalent of twelve years income from the episcopal see!

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It is always curious to begin to reconstruct in imagination a site that is now but a shadow of its former self. It matters little whether it is a stone circle, a tomb or a palace… it is the small, almost insignificant things that give the real clues, not to how a place looked… but to how it was. Here, the warm tones of the volcanic rock and local stone have been embellished by a chequerboard pattern. Great windows that perhaps once have held stained glass pierce the walls and arcades decorate every face of the palace, inside and out. Wide spaces, high ceilings, towers and turrets… this is a visible show of wealth and power, more temporal than divine. The little monastery that faithfully guarded its treasured relics against the invaders was obliterated by its own

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The ruined palace is now crumbling, its wealth generated by tourists, its fabric held tenuously together by those who seek to maintain the presence of a building that has itself become a relic. Its empty shell holds more than memory, it holds a lesson pertinent to why we had gathered for the weekend. We too start small, growing with the simplicity of a child that sees the world unclouded by the complexities of adulthood. As we grow, the malleable clay of our personality is shaped by choice, reaction and experience and the ego builds walls behind which it can hide from invaders. But the protective walls are stark and feel like a prison, so we add embellishments in an attempt to display an illusion of personal power… and, if left untended, those too will eventually crumble and decay becoming both a danger and a liability that can cost us dearly. Like the palace, what began in simplicity, grows beyond our ability to sustain it and beyond its true purpose.

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The first monastery here was a simple place, designed as a vessel to hold something sacred. Overlaid with the trappings of power and ambition, that purpose was lost. The clay of our being is ours to shape. It too holds something sacred… whether you believe in the soul or simply believe in the indefinable spark of animating life. We owe it to ourselves to make sure the vessel that we build is fit for its purpose. It is not in the walls that we build, but in the space within, where we live and have our being. It is not the vessel, but the space within that holds  the wine.

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In front of our eyes… by ‘The Sailor’.

Image: NASA

Companions studying with the Silent Eye submit weekly journals to their supervisors. Inevitably, given the shared journey, friendships build as formality fades.  We learn of each other’s lives and families as we share our stories, exploring the inner life of the soul and its relationship to the everyday world. With students right across the world, we get glimpses into lives that sometimes seem very different from our own… and at others simply serve to reinforce the kinship of the human family.

One such story was sent to me by a Companion in Nigeria and with his permission, I reproduce it here: 

While we were growing up, my senior sister, the second child of my parents, was known for hiding things and no one could find it, no matter how you turned the house upside down.

So on that day, our mother had some money she wanted to put away and not spend yet, and wanted a place she would keep it where she could not easily get at it in, even in an emergency.

She finally decided to give the money to my senior sister to keep for her. And Grace, for that’s her name, put the money somewhere.

About a month later our mother was short of cash and needed to get the money but Grace was not around, so we all searched the whole house to see if we could find the money. It was no use searching.

Then the Heavens came to our rescue and Grace just returned from where she had gone.  Our mother then called her to please get the money where she hid it. We were all very excited to see where she would go and get the money from.

To our surprise and to our mother’s embarrassment, Grace simply opened the handbag our mother had been carrying around all the time and never lets out of her sight and brought out the envelope containing the money intact. Everywhere went quiet with laughter.  For one month our mother had been carrying the money around and did not know, and the bag was right in front of us all as we searched the whole house. Of  course no one could have thought in our wildest imagination to look for it in the bag right in front of us.

So too humanity, carrying around Gods and Goddesses and the whole Universe within but looking where there is indeed no space for anything, for all space is only inside. Maybe we should always look where we think we should not.

by ‘The Sailor’

The soul in the oven

If ‘life is like a box of chocolates’, then people could be said to be fruitcakes. For once, I am not using a literary colloquialism to cast aspersions upon the relative sanity of mankind. I am speaking literally.

My  favourite fruitcake recipe was handed down by my great grandmother. It is, without a doubt, the simplest fruitcake ever. Let me share it with you and you’ll see what I mean…both about the recipe and how it relates to people.

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The recipe didn’t come down all nicely weighed and measured in metric and Imperial. The oven temperatures were descriptive rather than accurate as the old range didn’t possess a thermostat and cooking times were all approximate. Even the ingredients were subject to change. They’d had to be, great granny had been around a long, long time and, as she proudly reminded us, had seen five British monarchs in her lifetime. Six, if you counted  ‘young Edward’….

You could use two eggs instead of one, depending on the size and whether they were pigeon’s eggs or hen’s… or replace one egg with a spoonful of malt vinegar, which has much the same effect and was an old wartime baking trick left over from the days of rationing. For a darker colour, you added gravy salts. For weddings and Christmas cakes, the water became brandy and spices were added…  freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice. Then, the fruit could vary. Perhaps cherries or raisins, sultanas and mixed peel. Or grated apples. Or crushed pineapple. It all depended upon the occasion… and whatever granny happened to have in the cupboard or garden at the time.

And every time, the cake was different. The measurements were judged by eye and hand, so no two cakes were ever  the same. The quality of the ingredients varied… best butter, oil or margarine. Fresh eggs or dried…or the vinegar. Self raising, plain flour with baking powder.. or maybe wholemeal with a bit of extra liquid. Which should have been water, but was sometimes brandy…or rum… or even sherry. Demerara  sugar, dark or light brown, even treacle… the variants were endless, but the basic recipe remained, creating a unique fruitcake with every baking day and occasion.

So the fruitcake seems a pretty good analogy for Man. Especially within the Silent Eye.

We use the symbol of the enneagram, a ninefold system, to explore the human personality that is the vehicle in which the soul moves through the world. The enneagram is better known as a tool for the psychological assessment personality types, often used in companies and corporate situations. It is often forgotten that the word ‘psychology’ comes from ‘psyche’, which means life, breath and soul.

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Taking a very different approach, the Silent Eye uses the nine standard personality types only as starting points, illustrating them in our correspondence course through a series of unique archetypes encountered on a magical journey through the imagination. These archetypes are drawn as fictional characters in a three tiered story, with each section of the course looking at their operation on one level of being.

There are a good many personality tests for the enneagram online and, having taken one, the temptation is to say, ‘I am a One’ in the same way we might say, ‘I am a Virgo’ or ‘I am a Gemini’. The system does not work in such a categoric manner. Instead it shows that we contain  all the nine enneatypes, though we will face the world predominantly, but not exclusively, through one of them. At best we could only say, ‘I usually react to events as a One’.

The system looks at the proportions of the mix of the archetypal characters present in each one of us. It looks too at the unique life experience of every person and how that affects the way the ingredients blend together, how they flavour the personality. It acknowledges the different occasions on which certain aspects of the psyche will come to the fore… and it explores how the ‘ingredients’ are expressed through the levels of personality, from the fully human to the Essence, leading us to Being.

The system, unlike some others, does not stop at a definition, but seeks to open the doors to a journey that is both practical and spiritual, leading the seeker to an inner space where all the elements of personality and life experience can work in harmony and be brought to a single point of Light, where we can know that we are whole… that we are One .

Like the fruitcake, the ingredients that make up the human personality can be infinitely varied, from the lower aspects of existence that still shadow each of our lives to the highest expression of humanity. The precise combination and proportion of ingredients will  create something different every time. Like each cake that comes out of the oven, made with a few common ingredients, the life and journey of each person will be a unique experience. What we do in the school is to provide a recipe and a process, just like granny’s, that can be adapted for every occasion and leaves space for spirit to rise… like a candle flame above a birthday cake.

Which reminds me, we have a workshop in less than a week… and I still have a cake to bake…

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The road home

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It was still full dark when I left…it will be a while before dawn and I coincide again on the drive back from the north. I miss those intimate moments when the first rays of the sun creep over a horizon strewn with ancient stone… and no-one else is in sight. This morning, there was just the blackness and the vague, sulphurous haze on the edge of vision that marks the towns and villages, glimpsed as you pass over the wide, empty moorlands.

On the roads I travel, there is no other light until I pass through the sleeping habitations of man…only that which I bring with me. As I left the hilltops, the trees and hedgerows shelter the road and I was struck by the difference made by the headlights of the car.With the lights on full beam I can see a fair distance ahead, but the blackness beyond the brash light seems complete. Around me, the arching branches of the hedgerows and trees that line the road seem to form a solid tunnel…impenetrable walls beyond which I cannot see. I can only stick to my path, blinded to the road when my own headlights hit the reflective surface of a puddle or road sign. Blinded too by the lights of oncoming cars that seem to devour my light…especially those who forget to dip their beams as they approach… attracting curses, no doubt, if I forget to dim my own. Too much of this harsh light does not illuminate the path… it seems to erase it, leaving you disoriented and momentarily lost, even fearful.

The brilliance of other lights can be deceptive… when all you can see is the tail-light of another vehicle ahead of you, you almost automatically follow the red pinpoints, assuming they can see and are on the right line… when in fact, there are no guarantees of that at all… nor that they are taking the same road…You could easily follow them and end up lost or stuck in the mud of a ditch.

With my own lights dipped, I find the  light more gentle. Although I cannot see quite as much of the road ahead, it softens into distance rather than being cut off by darkness. It illuminates the shapes of the bushes and reaching branches, so that each stands out clearly. Even in the all-encompassing night, you get an impression of the space both around and beyond the trees, catching glimpses of movement and the reflections of the eyes of wild creatures…. and the rain falls through the twin beams like a gift of diamonds or stardust dropped in your path…motes of light from the heavens.

The cat’s eyes in the road become a sure trail to follow… bright guiding pinpricks, navigating the darkness…yet they emit no light; they guide you onwards by reflecting your own… their only light is that which you bring to the journey.

As the sun begins to rise and the horizon lightens, the world starts to detach itself from the shadows and take on recognisable form. The familiarity of the shapes around you is reassuring, yet the half-light is probably the most difficult time to drive. You think you know where you are and what you see, yet it is an uncertain light and falsifies perception. The headlights seem to lose their potency against the growing dawn, becoming more of an affirmation that  says ‘I am here’ than a help on the journey.

As the sun bathes the morning in gold, you can no longer see your light…it has been subsumed by a greater light and is no longer needed to see the journey ahead. It serves you not at all… yet it may serve others who travel the roads with you, warning them of bends and hills in the miles ahead or reassuring them that they are not alone on the road.

The dark road home is a long one, with plenty of time for musing and reflection… but one thing is certain, such roads cannot be travelled without light.

Lessons in chocolate

 

Yesterday, I ate very badly.  In fact, I would be hard pushed to find anything healthy in the entire menu. All day. Not that I ate all day, you understand… in fact I ate very little, but, I admit, a nutritionist would cringe. Croissants and hot chocolate for breakfast, coffee for lunch, a melted cheese crumpet for tea, wine and chocolates for dinner and coffee before bed. In fact, about the healthiest part of that lot was the glass of red wine.

I could blame my sons. It was, after all, all their doing;  one provided breakfast, even if he did send me to the supermarket to pick it up on my way to his home and demand to be served his share in bed…  He then turned up on my doorstep, hungry from a bike ride at teatime… This was just before his brother arrived with wine, flowers and chocolates. The wine, apparently, being good for the toothache he was suffering, needed to be opened and as you shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach, the chocolates came in handy…

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The dog, of course, desperately wants to share, but what is a pleasure, if a rather naughty one, for me, would be toxic to her. My sons can, with impunity, eat anything. They share a metabolism a supermodel can only yearn for. They didn’t get it from me… I am of the type who can eat half a pound of food and put on five pounds in weight. So goodness knows what is going to happen by the time I finish the chocolates… and I’m working on that; valiantly disposing of them to remove myself and the dog from further temptation.Which is a tactic we often seem to employ to fool ourselves…

Let’s not look at calories and fat content… suffice it to say that each small chocolate contains the potential to add far more than its own weight to mine. Very like experience, in fact, where the smallest thing can potentially change a life, out of all proportion to its size… it all depends on the person who experiences it.

So Forrest Gump’s Mama may have had a point when she reportedly compared life to a box of chocolates; not because ‘you never know what you are going to get’, although that is true enough, but because what you do get will affect everyone in a completely different way. What may be a common and pleasurable experience… and sons, dog and I all like chocolate…some may enjoy with no problems, others may not have without putting themselves at considerable risk and some will suffer long-term consequences for their choice to indulge. The experience is unique to each of us. In general terms we may know that what, in small doses, can be good, is always a negative when it is too much … but how much is too much for each of us cannot necessarily be measured. Nor can another dictate or decide for us, though they may be able to guide. We alone must ultimately take the responsibility for our choice and be prepared to accept the consequences.

Of course, it isn’t always that simple. The dog, for example, doesn’t know that chocolate is toxic  to her. She sees only the lure of instant delight. If she ate just a little, it would probably do her no harm and enjoying it, she would want more… but overload is not too far away and could prove fatal. For me, overload to fatality is a long way away… I sincerely hope!…but each mouthful will add inches I will have to work to eradicate. My sons just enjoy the moment, but actually, though there are no visible and obvious consequences, do we really know what is happening in their bodies and what the longer term fallout might be? Or will they just use the energy of the sweetness to fuel, for example, the long cycle ride home?

Oddly enough, it is past experience that teaches us enough to make those decisions about the experience at hand. My waistline, for example, is at known risk from such indulgence. On the other hand, there is a willingness to accept that as a small price to pay in exchange for what is now a very rare pleasure… an evening enjoying the utter randomness of my sons when they are together and seeing a small dog in utter heaven at having both her boys at home. You could say the consequences to my waistline were a willing sacrifice to the greater good.

 

 

 

 

Taking the biscuit

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I am inspired.

By a biscuit.

A Rich Tea biscuit of renowned lineage to be exact. For those who have not encountered this denizen of the biscuit tin, it is a plain, thin and eminently dunkable thing, not to be tackled by the unwary or uninitiated. It requires the touch of experience to achieve that perfect melding of beverage and biscuit, the transmutation, that alchemical marriage of liquid and solid, fixed and mutable into the perfection born of precision.

This particular pack of biscuits was a gift from a son to an ailing mother. It matters not that they arrived slightly battered, nor that he ate half the packet with his coffee upon arrival. Half a pack remained as proof of his thoughtful care, the empty half a witness to filial devotion and his concern for my waistline.

I seldom eat biscuits, but when I do, I dunk.

Do you dunk? Are you blatant and unashamed in your pursuit of the joyfulness of a well dunked biscuit or perhaps a closet dunker? Do you dunk in private and shy away from the possible horrors of any public dunking? Who, of the dunkers amongst us, has not encountered that particular moment when the sogginess goes one step too far, the biscuit curls ominously and lands with a self-satisfied plop back in the beverage of choice, as if desperate to be reunited with the steaming liquid that brought it to life? That momentary fear as we await the inevitable, wondering whether the poised imminence will slide gracefully into the cup or will splash loudly, leaving its trace upon the pristine surface of the table?

What do you do about it? Pretend it has not happened, leaving the now soggy mess to sink into the obscurity of the dregs, leaving enough in the cup to cover the traces of your transgression? Attempt to drink the lot and hope no-one notices? Or fish around nonchalantly with the spoon in the hopes of discretely catching the disintegrating mass? If successful, do you discard the mess upon the saucer, or glance furtively around before rapidly hiding the evidence in the fastness of your mouth?

Or… do you go boldly in with yet another biscuit, with swift precision, to capture the floating remnants upon its crisp surface, knowing full well that one slip will result in inescapable disaster and inevitable splashes, knowing too that the slim chance of the success of this forlorn hope, this bravado, this daring will result in the satisfaction of perfection, thus covering the momentary failure in glory?

Dunking, of course, is an art, an exercise in the precision of attention and awareness. An art, rather than a skill, as skills can be learned and adhere to formulae. An art requires that you interpret, give of yourself, engaging with its form in the most intimate manner. Although it is a precise art, it is variable. No two biscuits are the same. The time factor varies between, say, a rich tea and a ginger nut. The first requires swiftness and a steady hand, the second is more forgiving of the novice dunker but optimal saturation is more difficult to gauge. Perfection is only achieved when the correct ratio of time, volume, surface area and temperature is attained.

Too long an immersion in the steaming depths leads to mere sogginess or disaster, too little and the saturation is incomplete, negating the purpose of the dunking, leaving one unsatisfied and disconsolate, crunching the unsoftened inner heart of the biscuit.

But of course, personal taste makes this artform even more unique. There are those who prefer an incomplete saturation, relishing the inner crunchiness hidden beneath the melting surface, or simply willing to accept a lesser melding for the sake of safety and less risk. Some prefer a mere veneer of sogginess, tenaciously clinging to the security of known crispiness, while for others only the abandon of total immersion will do.

Who can judge who is right? Optimal saturation varies biscuit to biscuit, dunker to dunker. Every dunk of the biscuit is different and serves a different purpose in differing circumstances. There are those who simply have no desire to dunk. Some would, but choose not to… indeed, there are those who eschew the biscuit altogether. Many would dunk if they dared, desire held in check by fear. What may be acceptable in the privacy of one’s home, may be seen as too great a risk in public, viewed as a social solecism, or a negative reflection on our place on the class ladder. Within the arcane art of the dunker many things may be observed, from the zest for life, to fear and the social pressures we impose upon ourselves, from the embracing of risk to the need for security. Yet bold or tentative, success or failure cannot be measured by the observer, only by the dunker, as only the dunker can know what satisfies their inner need.

Next time you pick up a biscuit, take a moment to think about what your relationship with it tells you about yourself. It is a revealing process.

June 2013

Subject to change…

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The red kites lit the sky with their grace, but the weather did the landscape no favours. I drove away from the damp grey of Buckinghamshire without a qualm on Thursday, heading north for the monthly meeting of the Silent Eye… and a days of freedom from the constraints of necessity. I had plenty of time so planned a leisurely meander up the A5 which, for much of its course, follows the old Roman Iter II, better known by its Anglo-Saxon name of Watling Street. The rain would make travelling on the motorway hazardous with the spray and the inevitable lunatics, and I’d rather take the back roads any day.

I also thought I should probably, and finally, call at Lichfield Cathedral. I will have to at some point, but I am always too early on the way back and on the drive up I am usually too hungry for the hills. So that was decided. I would visit the Norman Cathedral with its odd spires en route. I should have known better than to decide anything. It doesn’t seem to work like that. We long since realised that we go where we are guided when the time is right… and I thought I could make plans?

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It was not to be. Watling Street was closed and barred by a large lorry. I was obliged to reroute and take the motorway, grumbling to myself as I turned the wheel. For the next hour I submitted to poor visibility and lousy conditions. My nice shiny car was now coated in liquid dirt and the habitual muscular tension of modern life had a firm grip on my shoulders.

Even so, my mind was free to roam; the external conditions of fast moving and uncontrollable traffic could not restrain the imagination. It occurred to me how similar that was to the way we move through the world… no matter what the day brings or how our plans are scuppered, we are obliged to adapt to the moment as it unfolds. And regardless of what happens outside or how mud-splattered we may get, our inner being is still our own and affected only by what we choose to allow to write its name upon our minds and emotions.

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The rain was sheeting across the windscreen, with visibility barely see more than a few yards in the terrible weather. The concentration required for safety left little room to notice anything else and the driving was tiring. I left the motorway at the earliest reasonable opportunity, intending to cut across country on a fast road and pick up the lanes I love through the Derbyshire Dales. It was only then, with the motorway mere yards behind, that you realised that the teeming rain was a false impression, churned up by the wheels of others. All the sky really held was a gentle spring shower. The local conditions of the motorway were, in truth, an illusion… but none the less real for all that. They still had to be navigated and addressed while you were caught within them. And that too seemed to mirror the human journey.

I had, unfortunately, left the motorway a junction too early for the road I intended to take. I had to smile at that… yet another accident of the road. I couldn’t check the map while driving so I would, once more, have to rethink. The road took me through Breedon where the church that perches high above the village holds a treasure trove of carved stones. Oddly enough ‘Don’ and ‘Wen’ had used some of them in their ‘correspondence’. I wasn’t calling there again though… that would wait till Stuart was with me one of these days.

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Still, it meant I knew roughly where I was. I followed the road, heading towards town I knew lay in the general direction I needed to be until I saw a sign for Repton. That rang a bell, though I couldn’t remember why… until I followed the winding lane that took me to a signpost pointing to ‘the ancient capital of Mercia’. That was it. I had looked for Repton and failed to find it when I had been to Breedon. So having found it by accident I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I parked near the market cross and headed off to explore the ancient church, grinning to myself at how these things have a life and agenda all of their own.

It was a considerable time later when I finally crossed into ‘my’ patch of Derbyshire, where the lanes are now as familiar as home. I cursed as I saw the huge buzzard perched on the lamppost… there was nowhere for me and the camera to stop just here. But it didn’t really matter… as a guardian of the way and welcoming committee he was a welcome sight.

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A few miles further on I cursed again as the distant snake of stationary traffic warned of roadworks. Drawing closer something caught my eye above the green fields and suddenly the curse became a prayer that the lights would change to red and halt my progress. The prayer was answered and I watched the buzzards for a good five minutes until the traffic moved once more. I even got a picture or two. Which just goes to show that even in apparent setbacks and delays there is room for the gift of joy.

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