Remembering

My mother was not quite seventeen when I was born. She and my father, just three years her senior, had married early as he had joined the army. They were still living close to home when I first came into the world, but it was not long before they moved to married quarters at the other end of the country. My father, though, was not around for long as his unit was sent on active duty overseas, so my mother, still just a teenager herself and with a small child to raise, became effectively a single parent with no family close enough to offer the support and advice she needed.

In spite of being very young at the time, I have very clear memories of where we lived, the things we would do together and the places we went. We lived in a small, top-floor flat in an old building on Tunbridge Road; just four rooms and long flights of stairs down into the garden. My mother painted all the characters from Disney’s Snow White and pinned them to my bedroom walls. The bathtub was in an alcove in the kitchen and covered with a wooden lid. Almost every day, we would feed the swans on the Medway. My mother made friends with the old man who hired out rowing boats and, on quiet days, he would let us take a boat out onto the river. It must have been a lonely existence for a young mother who had barely left her own childhood behind.

It did not occur to me until my eldest son was born how difficult she must have found those years. By that time, I was older than my mother had been by almost a decade and, although I was living in France and even further from my family than she had been, I did have a husband who was there and I did not live in constant dread of an officer turning up on the doorstep with the news that he had been killed in action.  For my mother, it must have been a lonely and frightening time.

The deaths in that particular arena were counted in hundreds, but both my parents had lived through the last years of WWII where the casualties were counted in millions. Their parents, my grandparents, had lived through the horrors of Great War too, seeing their own fathers march away in uniform and, when the call had come, had served their country, each in their own way. Both my grandfathers had been soldiers and fought overseas, one against the forces of Nazi Germany, the other against the Japanese as part of the ‘Forgotten Army’ in Burma. One grandmother donned a uniform and served on the home front, another took in refugee children.

The bombs fell even upon the northern city where my mother was raised, including one through the roof of their home. Rationing continued for many years after the war had ended and even I can remember the swathes of devastation left behind by bombing and the air-raid shelters crumbling into decay.

The after-effects of those two horrific wars shaped everyone who lived through them. So much residual fear must have played on my mother’s emotions as she lived through my father’s tour of duty. How much more had their mothers and grandmothers felt when their husbands and sons had answered the call to a war that claimed so very many lives?

Generation after generation, century after century, men have suffered and slain one another at the behest of power-hungry leaders or to defend their homes against them. Century after century, women have waited in fear to see whether their menfolk would return, or return whole in body, for few remained unaffected in heart and mind by the horrors they both saw and perpetrated on the battlefield.

Generation after generation, the after-effects of conflict have been passed down to their children, insidiously and unconsciously shaping lives, undermining trust in stability and the permanency of all we might hold dear. It may even be that the very insecurity created by war is one of its causes, a self-perpetuating monster that feeds on all we love.

The official definition of war is a conflict that takes more than a thousand lives. That seems wrong to me, because for every soldier who falls in battle, there will be a family whose lives will never be the same again. Civilian casualties tend to outnumber military losses too.

If, instead, we take war to mean any conflict in which the many die for a power struggle between the few, I wonder if there has ever been a time in human history when this planet has not suffered the effects and after-effects of war?

But for those who serve, it is seldom the politics of power that matters. They serve to protect their homes, their families and their way of life. And, although all have tales to tell, their words focus on the better moments as eyes cloud with unspoken fears and unspeakable horrors.  It is in the quiet arena of the home front, as well as on the battlefield that many of the better traits of humanity come to the fore… courage, endurance… compassion, hope and selfless heroism.  And these are the men and women who are remembered as poppies are placed at every cenotaph and memorial and worn over so many hearts.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them.

Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

The perception of memory

I slowed to let the young lad on the bicycle pull out onto the roundabout. That looks like… I raised my hand to wave to my son’s friend and instantly realised my mistake. It might have been his son, but it certainly was not the boy I had known. It couldn’t be… he would be in his thirties now and this youngster was little more than a child. Even worse, he looked like my son’s best friend when we had first known him, almost twenty years ago, not as I had last seen him a couple of years ago, well over six foot tall and as broad as a tank.

Memory is a funny thing. I recalled a recent conversation where we had discussed how the images that we hold in our minds of people we know are not always accurate. Sometimes we picture them from a single moment in time, often the first time we met them. Sometimes we build up a composite picture, snapshots from across the years we have known them, all melded together and occasionally shifting from one angle to the next. Then again, we always look through the eyes of emotion, seeing a face that may reflect more about the true depth and nature of our feelings for that person than what they actually look like.

Memory and emotion are intimately linked. When we look back from the now, we see both events and people through the emotional eyes of the then. Our memory of events will inevitably be skewed, coloured by the emotions of that moment, rather than being the accurate record we think we hold. In many ways, that does not matter; what we remember is true… for us, as whatever we recall is what will have affected us as we moved through that moment and forward into the rest of our lives.

Some of those impressions will change us for the better, teaching us love, happiness, hope and understanding. They are gifts upon which we will build, little by little, for we are made of such fragments of memory, each one adding, as we grow, to the picture of who we will become. Some of them will leave a darker mark and a deeper scar, especially when we are very young, when we are not always equipped with the experience to see beyond the surface and simply react to the emotions.

Take, for example, the very small child who does something to upset his parents. He does not truly understand, only that he has upset them. He may feel he has let them down and disappointed them. His parents may simply be doing their best to teach the child or keep him safe… but the child cannot comprehend the adults’ motives. He only knows he has failed them…and that is what he feels. He feels it too when he knocks a glass of water over at school and the teacher is disappointed in him… That feeling is stored away as memory and becomes one of the most formative moments for him, though his parents may well have forgotten what was to them just a minor incident.

The child grows, always feeling that he can/has/will let his parents down. He does not necessarily remember the incident either, but its effects are carved on his heart. He tries hard, harder… so much so that he almost inevitably ‘fails’ to achieve his goals, in his own eyes at least, though to all others he seems to be doing well. That insecurity, that feeling of never being able to make his parents proud may go on to colour the rest of his life, actions and future relationships… and neither he, nor his parents, will ever know where it came from.

It is a tragedy that is played out in a hundred different forms, through almost all of our lives.

It is not always what we do that matters, but how it makes other people feel. It is that which imprints itself on their memory. Yet we are not responsible for how others interpret our words and actions, that responsibility lies solely with them. For ourselves, we can only act with consideration and thought, letting empathy be our guide. We will not always get it right… and if we did, we would learn nothing, but we can try.

But what to do about all those invisible scars that have formed and created fragile places in our hearts and minds? A trained therapist might take you safely back into the trauma of childhood dealing with the perceived events and the misconceptions that may have arisen. For most of us, that is probably a step too far and rather unnecessary… we are who we have become, based on our experience of life so far. It doesn’t really matter what or where the cause, what matters is to see the patterns that have formed and begin to address those that are having a negative impact on our lives and wellbeing.

One of the ways we begin that journey in the Silent Eye is to break down the human personality into ‘bite-sized’ pieces so that we can learn to understand them, relate to them… and see how, where and if they relate to our own lives.

We do not have to delve into the deep and murky memories that are buried beneath the weight of years. We do not have to reopen painful wounds. We can simply find the effects and work with them until we can see that the bars they have placed around us no longer hold us. We can learn to see them as gifts, for every experience adds to the richness and depth of our personalities and our possibilities of understanding both ourselves and each other. In this way we can free ourselves from old misunderstanding and, like a flower when the shadows of weeds are removed, grow to our full potential with a better knowledge of who we truly are.

 

Through a child’s eyes…

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I love Lady’s Mantle… Alchemilla mollis… the soft little alchemist. The shape and gentle shade of the downy leaves and the pale froth of yellow-green flowers. It is a lovely thing in my eyes. Yet it is not till the rain falls on the upturned leaves that you see its full beauty. Tiny creatures are caught in the water droplets, magnified into strange shapes. The water looks like ice, the surface tension palpable. I am reminded of the movement of mercury. Diamond-bright spheres nestle in the folds like so many crystal balls and the child who gazes into them can see worlds and dreams unfold there.

nicks 02622A cluster of tiny orb weaver spiderlings on the fence… hundreds of miniature jewels, alive and wriggling… the whole ball no more than an inch across. They had come together and woven a world. The finest of webs anchored them to the fence. Just watching them my imagination wove stories too… flashes of fairytale and science fiction, incomplete and exciting; ephemeral images that were gone as soon as they arose.

birds 2 0541A fly lands on a rose leaf, brilliant and iridescent. A creature usually an annoyance revealed in all its beauty, illuminated by the morning sun, casting rainbows from its back. Tiny, sensitive hairs protrude from the colour and multifaceted eyes looks back with an expression I cannot read. It is an alien creature. Another lands on the fence, metallic turquoise, the colour of ancient Egypt… I dream of a land unseen and a time long lost in the gilded mists of another clime.

birds 2 064A big bumble bee with its deceptively lazy flight lands on the pond brush, left to dry on a flower bed. What can it be looking for amongst the plastic bristles? What has it found to keep its interest? It ignores me completely as I watch, seeing the light reflect on the flat planes of its legs, wishing I could stroke the fat, furry body. Is it a bumble bee? I think it might be a tree bee… the fox red and the white rump… It doesn’t matter, it is beautiful anyway. I remember fairytales from my childhood about bees… they are magical creatures.

birds 2 062Another lands briefly on an orange rose; a last raindrop trembles on the tip of a leaf, mirroring an inversed world. The heart of the rose is a firework exploding into life… a rayed sun in a heart of flame. A universe being born. Close by the irises are opening in the pond and the stars are out as the seed pods of the marsh marigolds burst open revealing their hidden treasure of seeds. In each tiny seed new life awaits, and that is both magic and miracle.

birds 2 048“I have forgotten how to play.” I read this sad statement a few days ago. The ability to play as children is something we take for granted until, one day, we realise we are grown and the carefree games cease. If we are lucky, we may share play with children of our own, laughing with them and feeling once again the inner liberty that can express itself through the unselfconscious movement of body and the imagination. If we are luckier still, we do not forget but find other ways for that inner child to be held in wonder at the world as it unfolds before our eyes.

birds 2 091Yet the heart and eyes of a child live on in all of us; asleep, perhaps, ignored sometimes. Do you remember the child you were when the adults talked over your head? Or when you were told it was bedtime yet you could hear people still laughing downstairs? Remember how that felt?

nicks 1There is a child within who still wants to play, to gaze on the world with eyes full of wonder and a light heart. To feel the magic of fairytales alive in the buzzing of a bee, to weave delicious stories around faces in rock and tree.  Sometimes, all you have to do is open your eyes and heart, letting your imagination run wild with bare, grass-stained feet and the Otherworld will open its doors and let you in.

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The space under the stairs…

Image: Pixabay

I am not at all certain what it was that sparked the memory, but I had a very clear picture in my mind today of a magical place that has not existed for the past half a century. I could call it my childhood home, though we probably only lived there for about five years, until I was ten. I have a good visual memory and remember even my very first nursery, but this was the house where isolated vignettes of memory became a continuous story… and nowhere was more fascinating to a small child than the space under the stairs.

As you entered the house, the staircase rose to your left, the kitchen door was on the right, and the hallway led straight ahead to the living room. In the dark, triangular space beneath the stairs was a small table upon which sat my mother’s Imperial typewriter… a great black affair with a temperamental red and black ribbon and keys picked out in ivory. It was heavy, already ancient and each key made a satisfying ‘clunk’ when depressed. I spent hours typing on that thing, though I had to use the red inked part of the ribbon, as my mother needed the black for her writing. I must have typed ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ more times than I had hot dinners, disentangling the arms with their raised letters when my fingers worked quicker than they could.

On the back wall was a bookcase that held my mother’s manuscripts, a set of encyclopaedias and a carved wooden bear she had been given in Switzerland for her twenty-first birthday. The tallest wall held another bookcase, guarded by an alligator. Quite why she had this product of the taxidermist’s art in her possession, I never really knew. I did ask, but there appeared to be no reasonable answer. Although I was never entirely happy about stuffing animals and birds, having seen too many of them under their glass domes in my great grandmother’s red velvet sitting room, I did quite like this alligator. He smiled, and, when a guardian of knowledge smiles on you, all is right with the world.

Behind the alligator, there were books, of every description. From fact to fiction, on every conceivable subject… and, in spite of my tender years, I was free to read them all. Victorian moral tales rubbed shoulders with Madam Blavatsky and Spike Milligan. T. Lobsang Rampa shared a shelf with an autographed copy of Longfellow. I curled up with Bullfinch’s Mythology and Edward Lear and was as likely to read myself to sleep with Wilde, Bronte or Wheatley as I was to pick up Enid Blyton or C. S. Lewis. It was, had I but known it at the time, an amazing education. And not just for the books I was able to read.

My mother’s philosophy was simple… if I read something I was too young to understand, it would do me no harm and might encourage me to learn. For words I did not know, there was a dictionary. For things of which I knew nothing, there were the encyclopaedias. For concepts I did not understand, I could ask. And, as long as I could frame the question, there would always be an answer.

The answers might be phrased in a way a child could understand, they were often illustrated by analogies, but they were never ‘dumbed down’ or dismissive. Nor were the answers always cut and dried. While one plus one might equal two, discussions on more obscure subjects, like the nature of the soul, the thorny question of whether we only have ‘three score years and ten’ to learn all a human soul might need to learn and whether or not reincarnation was a reality, were always left open-ended. We explored the ideas, discussed the options and examined a variety of beliefs but the conversation would still end with the same thought… “Only you can find your answer.”

How could that be? If something is true or false, I thought, surely it is always true or false? It took a while to realise that simply being true is not Truth and that although there must be Truth somewhere in the vastness of Creation, we are probably not be big enough to see much of it. Our perspective is that of a grain of sand looking at the enormity of the Universe… and our vision is limited.

Slowly, I learned to ask the question… not just of others, though I learned much from listening to their opinions, thoughts and beliefs, but of something both within and without myself. There is always an answer… though sometimes I am still too ‘young’ to understand it and it only becomes clearer as time and growth open the gates of understanding. Over the years, I found many possible answers, but every so often one comes along that feels ‘right’ in an inexplicable way. It does not necessarily mean that it is true, but it has a rightness about it that answers the need of the moment. Some are discarded as new facets of life open, others become part of who you are and evolve as you grow.

The lessons we learn as children are not always good. We learn behaviours, prejudices, fears and opinions that will shape or scar us for life. What we take on board is not always what we are taught… it can, just as easily, be a reaction against what we are taught, by life, books or people. But sometimes, we are given gifts we do not appreciate until we have lived enough to understand them better.

The alligator is long gone, his stitched seams undone, his sawdust spilled. The carved bear went missing in transit, the typewriter fell silent and the Longfellow was lost in a move. Many of those same books sit on my bookshelves today but, fifty years after we packed the space under the stairs into boxes, I still carry its magic with me.

Cold comfort

The bedroom was seriously cold… I had left the window open all day and all night and the temperature has struggled to get above freezing lately. I smiled… because that is exactly how I like it. I don’t care for a nice, warm bedroom…just a warm bed in which to snuggle and the electric blanket warms the bed nicely. I suppose it harks back to my childhood, ‘when I were a lass’ in Yorkshire.

Without wishing to sound like the famous sketch, life was very different then and although I saw it from a number of angles, the relative poverty of the north was stark then in comparison to life in the ‘soft south’.

When I was born, one set of grandparents lived in a big house where a housing estate has now taken the place of the croquet lawn and tennis courts, while the others had a cosy family home opposite the mill where Grandma worked at the looms. Regardless of the difference in social standing, neither home had any form of central heating but drew their warmth from coal fires. My mother and I moved into married quarters in the south while my father was stationed abroad. Life in the south was considerably warmer.

Visiting friends in the area, the child that I was found it fascinating that all the rooms were warm… all the time! And people had toilets downstairs as well as upstairs bathrooms! In later years, back in Yorkshire, I was to live in houses with neither heating nor hot water nor bathrooms… there were still many homes that shared a toilet at the end of the street or used the privy at the bottom of the garden.

My last bedroom as a girl was very cold in winter. I had to dress in layers for bed, cuddle a hot water bottle and often woke to icicles inside the windows. There is not a day goes by that I am not grateful for central heating and indoor toilets. Or hot showers, when I think back to one fateful winter in France when the water supply froze underground for six weeks and the icicle that grew up from the shower drain one night was nearly six feet tall.

I suppose that is why I prefer a cold bedroom these days… though not quite that cold! What you are accustomed to as a child unconsciously forms both lifelong habits and a measure against which the future is held. Warmth and a decent bathroom are still amongst my biggest priorities and luxury, for me, is being able to have a hot bath on demand…or choose a cold bedroom.

It is not just habits of living that are formed in childhood though, we form habits of perspective too. As children, we have little control over our environment and simply accept the world-according-to-grown-ups. Like it or not, even the most liberal-minded parent will unconsciously indoctrinate their children to some degree, seeking to arm them with the tools they deem necessary to operate within their social sphere, whatever that may be. In later years, we either continue to accept what we absorbed, or will question and rebel against it. Either way, that early conditioning plays an important part in who we become and how we view the world. The child’s perception of the world is the foundation upon which that of the adult is built.

It is widely known these days that a difficult or traumatic childhood will have an impact on adulthood. We don’t tend to think so much about how our ‘normality’ in childhood shapes us as adults. Sinichi Suzuki said that “children learn to smile from their parents”, but we also learn to judge and define our world from the same source. Outmoded beliefs and behaviours are passed down in this way, just as much as human values and moral codes. At some point, we are likely to catch ourselves doing or saying something that reminds us forcibly of those who raised us.

Whether we have chosen the paths of acceptance or emulation, or a more rebellious route, we are continuously and unconsciously reacting to the events, people and conditions of our early life. Many of our tastes, beliefs and opinions are defined by those years, as may be our ambitions, standards and dreams. Right down to the small things, we can feel the echoes in our own behaviour. From keeping the bedroom tidy, just in case the doctor calls… even though they no longer make house-calls… to whether we are frugal or spendthrift, keep the eggs in the fridge or at room temperature…or prefer cold bedrooms. The habits of behaviour are seeded early, and we rarely think to question where they originated.

It is an interesting exercise to take one or two of those habits and trace them back, trying to find their point of origin and how we have reacted to them. It is even more interesting to take the habits of thought and track them in the same way, especially as it is these that form a large part of the person we show to the world. Once we realise how they began, we may wonder why we continue to perpetuate them. We may even begin to ‘change our minds’, seeking to face ourselves and the world on our own terms, making conscious choices, acting instead of bowing to reaction.

For most of us, there is a moment during our teens when we realise that we wish we were free of parental control… yet as soon as we think we are, we recreate or rebel against the life they gave us. Understanding and accepting who we are and why we are who we are, does not mean we have to change everything, nor does it mean we can cast blame or responsibility on others. What it does is gives us a choice.

We can choose to smile when we see ourselves doing something exactly like our grandparents did when we were young, conscious of the connection to our heritage. We can choose to discard that opinion that was never really our own and cease to be ruled by it…especially when it was about who we are or who we could become. We can recognise why a cold bedroom feels right and yet we are free to turn on the heating. Who do we want to be? The choice, like our destiny, is ours to make.

Field of dreams..?

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Long, long ago, when the world was still young and I was younger still, I moved into a house with a garden. It wasn’t much of a garden, long-deserted, overgrown and gone to seed, but my mind painted it in rainbows. Since getting married, we had lived in a flat and a ‘street house’ that opened straight onto the pavement. My only forays into gardening had been herbs on the kitchen windowsill. It was the first time I’d had a garden of my very own, though there had usually been one at my parent’s home and my grandparents’ long-established gardens were places of magic and mystery.

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It is odd to think that although I remember every home I have lived in very well, as well as those of my grandparents,  I remember the gardens better. I have but the vaguest of memories of my father’s family home. We probably did not visit all that often as my father was stationed in Kent where we lived in married quarters and I cannot have seen Longfield after I was about three years old. I recall the tiles on the floor of the porch, the billiard table in the cellars, and being helped to slide down the great oak bannister that framed the huge staircase in the hall. Outside, though, my mind still paints the shadows cast by the rhododendrons, the slopes that ran down the hillside into the woodland and the wide expanse of the croquet lawn below the terrace.

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I can still see the garden of the married quarters where we lived in Maidstone until I was three and  where I searched for an absconding tortoise. I could sketch, plant by plant, the gardens of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents. It was here that I first began to learn the names of plants as a child and had my first lessons in herb-lore. I learned which were poisonous, which could be eaten or used in the kitchen or for medicinal purposes, and best of all, some of the folk traditions that went with the plants.

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When I finally had a garden of my own, I remember standing outside the back door one winter morning and looking at the mess we had acquired. I had no gardening tools other than a trowel, no plants and no money. All I had was a dream of life and colour.

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I took the kitchen shears to the vast meadow that had once been a lawn and to the overgrown privet hedge twice as tall as me. It took me days to cut the stuff back. Then I started on what had once been flower-beds, removing the obvious weeds, softening the hard, squared corners and trying to identify what might be in there that was worth saving. Dead wood was removed from old roses, unidentified shrubs pruned and woody stems that still bore traces of life cleared of bindweed. By the time I had it tidy, the snow was falling… and I was in love.

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My love affair with plants blossomed through the dark winter days as I read every gardening book I could get my hands on, delved deeper into herb-lore and planned impossibly expensive planting schemes in my mind. In reality, our meagre budget would not run to plants, so I set about nurturing cuttings, raising seedlings and collecting spare plants from everyone I knew. Even so, the huge empty beds were going to look bare for a long time to come.

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As winter deepened and turned the corner into spring, I began to learn the most valuable lesson of gardening…patience.

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With the winter rain and snow, Nature watered the mutilated garden well. The threadbare hedge I had hacked put out new leaves, filling the bare patches and becoming a dense, dark backdrop against which my few flowers would glow. As the seasons turned, the lawn became a vivid green starred with daisies and crocus. Self seeded lupins, dug up from the old railway line, were steadily filling out and patches of pretty ‘weeds’ I had encouraged to grow, like yarrow and loosestrife, were showing promise. I planted what I had acquired and waited.

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Spring brought clumps of snowdrops and aconite, followed by daffodils and tulips. They had been hidden, invisible beneath the soil and were a beautiful surprise. I recognised the poisonous but beautiful leaves of monkshood. The scarlet leaves that had prompted me to leave an untidy clump of plants alone in winter revealed themselves as geraniums. ‘Dead’ roses and an ancient hydrangea recovered and bloomed and a drift of lily of the valley filled the air with fragrance and memory. By midsummer, the dismal mud-patch had become a riot of life and colour, buzzing with bees and a paradise for butterflies. It had done most of it itself, in spite of the efforts of the novice gardener. All I had done was the groundwork.

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I learned a lot from that garden and the lessons have stayed with me, rooting themselves and flowering, bearing fruit that I have plucked and tasted in many areas of my life. The perfect visions I had created in my mind were surpassed by the hand of Nature when she was allowed free rein. But, no matter what had been hidden in that garden, it would not have thrived, nor would I have been able to see it, had I not cut back all the dead and dying material, letting in the light.

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I had worried about the empty beds; I did not realise that the seeds of beauty had been sown long ago and were silently waiting to bloom. So often we think we must strive to achieve something, only to find it is already there, dormant within us, waiting only for our care and attention to grow.

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In the movie, Field of Dreams, there is a phrase oft-misquoted as ‘build it, and they will come.’ I have read the sentiment before, if not the exact words, in Dion Fortune’s book, Moon Magic, when ‘Lilith’ speaks of building the temple in order for it to be indwelt by the gods. No sacred space, be it temple, church or our own being, is truly alive until it is a home for something more than its physical form, no matter how beautiful. No gardener creates the beauty of a flower. We can only clear and create a space, enabling the conditions in which it can grow and bloom.

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Where I now live, I have a small space I laughingly call a garden. I have planned the garden I would like to make, right down to the last detail… knowing it will probably never be anything other than a dream. For now, there are only a handful of rescued plants, no flower beds to speak of and a threadbare patch of grass that cannot be called a lawn. I doggedly exercise a gardener’s patience, waiting to see ‘what happens next’, trusting that when the time is right, the seed of purpose will grow and reveal itself.

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Even so, there is beauty. I need not lift a finger to see the seasons turn, the light change hour by hour or the stars illuminate the night. I need not dig and toil to create what is surpassed by every blossoming dawn. I need only watch to see the birds and insects at work, the dew scatter diamonds on the grass or the small dog fill the space with joy. Dreams are wonderful things, but you have to choose to make them happen, and you have to work to bring them into being. And sometimes, we work so hard chasing dreams that we forget to see the beauty of what is already there.

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Locked in

Image: Golden Cage by Der Cooky

Image: Golden Cage by Der Cooky

I had not been to the cinema in decades really, until Peter Jackson came along with Lord of the Rings. The TV remote was, for a long time, in hands other than mine. Consequently I have missed a lot. My cinematic education has been sadly lacking and lately I have been catching up a little with a few of the films I have missed over the years. I had no idea where to begin, to be fair. There are, however, a few actors who seldom disappoint, so when I saw Good Will Hunting going for the price of a loaf of bread… which is, after all, not good for me… I thought I would give it a whirl. Robin Williams is usually worth watching.

I had watched him as Dr Sayer in Awakenings the night before. The film is based on a true story by Oliver Sacks. One edition of the book is dedicated to W. H. Auden, and bears an extract from his poem The Art of Healing, which seems entirely appropriate:

‘Healing’,
Papa would tell me,
‘is not a science,
but the intuitive art
of wooing Nature.’

Ani was concerned… I am not, in her opinion, supposed to sit for half an hour with tears streaming, but I can’t watch that one without the floodgates opening. Briefly it tells the story of a neurologist who administers L-Dopa to catatonic patients producing a short-lived but complete awakening in which the patients have to adjust to the missing decades of their lives. De Niro gave an incredible performance as Leonard Lowe, the patient who shows the doctor the joy of living.

I remembered my own fear for my son, when he lay in the coma, fearing that he would come back to an awareness that was locked in an unresponsive body. This was, perhaps, my worst fear for him. Yet there are more ways than one of being locked in.

In Good Will Hunting, Williams is once again playing a doctor; this time the psychologist helping the angry young genius who has been in and out of trouble with the law. His past is a story of abandonment, bullying and abuse. There is a moment of breakthrough when the psychologist repeats one simple phrase, over and over, with utter conviction. “It’s not your fault…” Each time the young man answers, “I know.” Yet the layers of that ‘knowing’ are challenged by the repetition, from the mechanical response of self-defence which simply says what is expected, to a final understanding. It was not his fault.

I was, as no doubt the director intended, in tears by this point. But not because of the story. Because the child in me recognised… empathised… and wished all of a sudden that someone had said that to me, with as much conviction and as much truth as was needed to break through the barriers and allow me to forgive myself. “It’s not your fault…” And I wondered just how many would watch that scene and feel the same.

Many branches of psychology these days see the small child as self-focussed to an extent that whatever negative events happen to or around them, they may see as ‘their fault’. While such events play their part in shaping all our personalities, for children who are the victim of the harsher aspects of childhood… abuse, neglect, bullying, violence… the reaction can be deeper and more destructive. An extension to that belief that It was ‘their fault’ later comes in that believe they ‘deserve’ what happened because they are ‘worthless’ or ‘not good enough’. They feel they cannot be loved. Are not worthy of love.

Several things may happen as such a child then grows into adulthood. Along with a host of other possible problems from depression to flashbacks, they may seek to ‘buy’ affection in some way, going to extremes to prove their worthiness, or they flee from affection in case it is again taken from them. The outward face may not show to others the inner turmoil, the fear of trusting… even the fear of happiness, for that too can be taken away. It cannot be relied upon and may therefore be turned away from, in fear or apparent coldness. They are afraid to let anyone too close in case they are hurt again, yet paradoxically they yearn for that closeness.

To the casual observer, none of this may show. These broken children may seem supremely confident as adults, happy and satisfied with their lives. That too is a defence mechanism. It keeps people from looking too closely. The search for healing, that wooing of Nature, may last for decades. For many it lasts a lifetime.

These two films seemed to go together somehow. There is an added pathos with the tragedy of Williams’ own life too. I wondered what his feelings had been reading the scripts. I recalled a quote I had seen from another of his films I haven’t seen, Patch Adams. “You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.”

The simple joys of being alive are denied to those who are locked in, not just by catatonia, but by grief, fear, self-loathing and self-blame. Most will learn and reason, understanding where the damage arose and realising that the child they were was not responsible. “It’s not your fault…” But from knowing intellectually to actually feeling it, that is a longer and different journey. It can be a small thing that finally releases a victim from the grip of these paralysing emotions. For me it was a children’s game. It is only when forgiveness is possible that healing can truly begin and it has to begin with ourselves.

Jan 2015

An OMG moment

I was driving home; the fog had begun to lift and pale sunshine was dancing on the daffodils… so I have no idea where the thought came from. There was nothing to spark the train of thought.

“I wonder if that was really her name?”

In modern parlance, it was one of those OMG moments.

I don’t even know where their names surfaced from. Faces I always remember.. names? Not so much. And it was a long time ago.

When I arrived home, I went rummaging through the few old photos I have of my childhood.

Somewhat over half a century ago, and for a few short years, my two best friends were Penny and her brother, Said. My paternal grandparents worked with children at the local orphanage and these two were the closest to my own age at the time. I still have two photos of the three of us together on a day trip to Blackpool with my grandparents. Their faces are captured just as I remember them. I wondered where they were now and how life had unfolded for them both, but that wasn’t what had set me off…

It was Penny’s name.

The children were Indian and Hindu, or so I was told. It has taken me half a century to wonder about that. ‘Penny’ isn’t traditionally an Indian name as far as I can find out, or not with that spelling at least. Said for a boy is, I find, generally given as a Moslem name with Arabic roots.

There could be any number of reasons why none of that seems to add up to what I ‘knew’ about my friends. Perhaps their names had been changed. Maybe they had been Anglicised once they were in the orphanage. Neither their country of birth nor their religion never came into question… all the children attended the Church of England Sunday school at the Zion Baptist chapel anyway. My paternal grandparents were Spiritualists… and the odd mix of religious input was a good learning ground. Grow up in a melting pot and it isn’t hard to see that the innermost heart of all faiths look the same.

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I only knew the children as people… as my friends… and that is always enough. But that isn’t the point here. What had really struck me was that I didn’t actually know anything ‘about’ them. Even though I have always believed that I did. For over fifty years, what I thought I knew about them may have been wrong. Even down to their real names. I knew them as Penny and Said, Indian Hindu children. None of that may have been accurate.

That’s where the OMG moment came in.

It is something we all know but probably never actively consider and the conscious realisation of it had struck me like a brick between the eyes… we live in a hand-me-down reality.

When you think it through, almost everything we grow up knowing, except through our own personal experience, is passed to us from someone else. And they had it from someone else before them… ad infinitum. We call a cat a cat because the very first time we point a chubby finger and ask, “What’s that?” we are told that it is a cat,. We have no reason to question what we are told about our reality when we are very young… we simply trust that the information we are given by our grown-ups is correct.

When it comes to cats, dogs and cows, that isn’t so much of a problem. The creature concerned has become established in our collective consciousness as a cat, dog or cow, regardless of what language we are using. We have consensus based on long observation of a continuous physical phenomenon.

Objects are fairly easy to agree upon. Abstracts, though, are a different matter… thoughts, opinions, morals, ideas and beliefs… even ‘facts’ of history… are passed down to us and we accept them when we are very young Much of that teaching is not an active giving of information so much as a process of absorption by osmosis, drinking in all we can in order to learn how to function in an adult world.

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We learn through an unconscious trust in what our adults teach us and all our later beliefs about the reality we live in are inevitably coloured by them. We may question, disagree or rebel as we grow, but even our denials and rebellions are negatively rooted in what they, with the best intentions in the world, have taught us.

We learn to form our vision of ourselves through our reflection in their eyes, even if it hurts and we see ourselves as disappointing or ‘not good enough’ in some way.

Both consciously and unwitting they share all they know with us, but…

What if they are wrong?

One thing is certain, if they are, we ourselves are perpetuating their misconceptions, passing them on to our own children in an unbroken line of error.

There could be untold wonders out there that we do not see. Cannot see… because we have been taught they do not exist, or are impossible…mere fantasies. The fairies at the bottom of the garden… the imaginary friend you played with as a child… what if they were real, blotted out of consciousness and replaced with cats, dogs and cows… a nice, solid reality we can all agree upon. Reality does not have to be a concrete commodity. Hope, love, imagination… even the air; they are all real…and all invisible.

Too weird ? What if our divisive borders are only man-made… lines drawn on a map? What if wars had never been a necessary evil, but only a power game played with human pawns by the arrogant? What if the great god Mammon is a fabrication and we really can afford to feed the hungry, house the homeless and raise our children in safety?

Too fantastical? What if you had always felt yourself to be of value, just as you are? What if you had always believed that you could achieve your dreams? What if joy wasn’t something to perpetually chase but part of your being?

If the children that I knew were born to other names, within a different religion or from a different country from those I was told, it does not change how I knew them. It only means I was given a few erroneous facts. It is the invisible reality of the friendship that counts and that stays in memory. And even after fifty-odd years, it is still able to teach me I need to look at reality with the eyes of a child…and learn to see it for myself.