Another country…

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Claude Nougaro

“…and Claude Nougaro,” said my boss, brandishing the baguette. Her husband nodded. The three of us were at the dinner table, lingering over the cheese as usual. My employers had asked how I was managing, living in France. I had been there a couple of months, arriving with no more than schoolgirl French and was getting along quite well. I had made friends of many nationalities in Paris, shopped, dined and travelled in French and was fast learning the difference between the stiff formality of the language I had been taught in school and the laid-back colloquial version as spoken by Parisiens. I was even getting to grips with the local ‘argot’… those slang terms which, if they are in the dictionary at all, are used in an entirely different way from that suggested by their definition.

One thing I could not do, though, was grasp song lyrics. If I could read the words as I listened to music , I had no problem, but plucking the words from the music? I had no chance.

The French like music and my employers were passionate listeners. From jazz through pop to the classics, music was very much a part of our lives. I learned a huge amount from them about areas of music I had barely touched upon before and I had the use of their enormous and eclectic collection of vinyl and cassettes. But I struggled to understand anything with words. Music felt, quite suddenly, as though it was a world to which I had no key. I would see eyes filling with tears or sharing a glance sparkling with laughter at the lyrics of a song… and have no idea why. I knew this other world was there, just waiting for to be explored… but to ears unused to the nuances of its expression, understanding seemed as impossible to reach as the Otherworld.

I explained this to my employers and they came up with a list of singers I should explore. It started with artists whose diction was clear, but soon became a lesson in the music and poetry dear to the national heart… laying out before me yet another world, another layer of reality.

So I started listening, really paying attention, catching phrases here and there. Sometimes, although I could mimic the sounds, it would take a while for the words to separate out enough for me to recognise them… and sometimes they were words not yet in my vocabulary.

And then, one day, I was doing the housework and not thinking about the music at all. I realised, quite suddenly, that I had been singing along to the tape that was playing. It stopped me in my tracks. Not only did I understand the lyrics, but I also grasped the layers of meaning implied by them, could see the way the writer had played with the words, understand the symbolic landscape painted by the song. When had that happened? After that, there was no stopping me. I eventually married a French musician, wrote songs with him and my reality became a world of music.

It was driving home from work yesterday that took me back. I was singing along to an album by Claude Nougaro and, although it is now more than thirty years since I was last in France, neither the language nor the lyrics have left me. Some doors, once opened and stepped through, never close.

It occurred to me that the same leap of understanding happens in many areas of life. We struggle to grasp a new concept, a new and pertinent language… without which we do not even have the most basic chance of the proverbial lightbulb moment. And then, very often at a moment when we are neither concentrating nor struggling to ‘get there’, the light comes on. It is as if some unconscious process has synthesised all the random bits of information we have gathered, all the groundwork we have done, all the hints and intimations… and, deciding that the sum is greater than its parts, assembles a whole from the fragments, filling in the spaces between scraps of knowledge with intuitive understanding.

It is the same when you study the Mysteries. Those moments of utter illumination that come out of the blue and with no prior, conscious knowledge do happen, but they are rare indeed. There is a theory that such moments come from unlocking the memories of previous lifetimes, from the unconscious mind that pays more attention to life than the surface mind, or even that something is  passed down at a cellular level as part of the genetic memory.

For most of us, though, such clarity of vision comes only after putting the foundations in place. We study, meditate and learn, accumulating knowledge about ourselves and the path we have chosen until we come to a fork in the road. For some, it is that accumulation of knowledge that matters the most and they may go on to become lore-keepers, hoarding or making knowledge available to posterity, adding to its store for others.

Many, though, will take a step onto an unknown path, and, like the Fool of the Tarot, carrying unseen treasures in his knapsack, will walk towards a new landscape in trust. That journey is very much like setting out into a foreign land, where the ‘vocabulary’ of reality is different. And, although knowledge is necessary as a starting point, it is understanding… that unteachable knowledge of the heart… that leads to those moments of clarity when the doors of perception are opened.  And those doors, once opened, never close.

The positives in negativity

“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings

hast thou ordained strength…”

KJV Psalm 8:2

I passed the entire night in the hinterland between sleep and waking. It is that odd state where the body rests unresisting but the mind wanders down strange pathways, making connections between seemingly random things and finding answers to questions we did not know we needed to ask. Therefore, when I woke, exhausted and feeling rather low, I simply blamed the fitful night.

It had not even occurred to me to take the leaflet that seriously. I don’t like the things, but I am only going to be taking the damnable pills for a short while and adding steroids to the current handful of pills, as opposed to being waltzed off to hospital, seems a far better option. I had them once before for pneumonia and, beyond the usual sleep disruption and digestive problems, I was fine. I simply dislike steroids on principle.

By the time I arrived at my son’s to make his morning coffee, I was feeling lower still and, when I received a surprising and very worrying message about my finances, that was enough to tip me into feeling royally depressed. It was not until much later that I realised the depression was probably chemically induced and not ‘me’ at all. In the meantime, however, I went from bad to worse and spent much of the morning fighting back or giving way to tears.

My son is, by no stretch of the imagination, a babe. On the other hand, he is my junior by some thirty-three years and we have known each other all his life. Over the past few years, given the unusual circumstances, we have learned how to talk to each other at a level that often goes beyond the mother-son relationship and into that of friends. Those discussions have led us deep into the realms of psychology, at both general and personal levels, especially since Nick took conscious control of his inner life and started down a path to greater awareness and understanding of what makes life ‘tick’.

Unsurprisingly, many of our discussions have focussed on his journey. Today, he turned the tables on me. As neatly as any surgeon, he stripped away the veneer, the excuses and justifications we are all able to come up with. He pointed out that the life I have lived, though not always either easy or pleasant, has been lived with a capital ‘L’… the fight or flight response, when it cuts in, always allows us to live at a higher octane and heightens experience. He looked at the passions in my life, referred to the gratitude I have for every experience, good or bad, that has helped me grow or allowed me to be of use with a real understanding. And, after pointing out all the things I am grateful for in my life, managed to sum me up concisely.

He even, and deliberately, said some things I can only take as the ultimate compliments… but which he refused to commit to paper and would probably have to kill me should I repeat them…but which meant an awful lot.

By this time, I was in tears again…for several reasons. Firstly and foremost because I could see just how much he has grown by applying what he has learned to his own life and journey, not just reading about it or knowing the words. Then he spoke of the suit of armour I wear to face the world… armour I have had to build in order to be a partner, daughter, mother and friend. He took it further, suggesting that the armour was not just there to face the world, but to protect the ‘hurt, fragile little girl’ who still lives in me, and who ‘just wants to be loved and cared for.’

We discussed that little girl, because he is right. She is still there. We spoke about her in some depth and honesty. I denied that I needed to forgive her when he suggested that might be the case. There was nothing to forgive, I had realised long ago that the little girl had no reason to feel guilty. We had already agreed that as we grow, we do the best we can with who we are at the time and that hindsight sees events differently, and with a wider view, than the person we were when we experienced them.

“That little girl we are talking about in the third person?” he said. “You need to forgive her for feeling  that guilt.” And as I write that, the tears come again… because he is right.

It doesn’t take much sometimes, just a few words, rightly placed, can open what you thought was a proverbial can of worms and show you that it was empty all along. It is seldom a Big Thing that changes a person’s perspective for the better. Life is made up of chains of tiny things, pearls and pebbles strung together, that heal or hurt. This was one of the pearls and without the imposed depression, the tears and utter negativity with which I had faced the day, it would never have happened.

I wandered to the shop to pick up a few things for Nick and the dog, so deep in thought that it was not until later that I realised I seemed to have been charged ten pounds less than expected for my purchases. It is a tiny amount, compared to the problems I will have to sort out after that message, but it is also a tangible reminder that the universe has a way of giving us what we need, even if we do not get what we think we want. Trust in the rightness of life goes a long way.

It was not until I was obliged to lift something heavy that I realised the third gift the universe had given me this morning. For months I have been unable to lift so much as a cup without horrid pain from an RSI… the lousy steroids I had been cursing must have taken the inflammation away, completely, and with it the pain, even from all the other dodgy joints. You truly do not know what you have until it is gone… and being free of pain after so long, even temporarily, is wonderful.

And as three is a magic number, it was no surprise when a Raven, displaying white feathers under its wings, landed in the tree beside us with an astonishing aerial display, cawing and clicking fit to burst.

What had begun in darkness and depression became a morning of gifts and gratitude. Although the depression continues, now that I know its true source, I can only be grateful for the opportunity it has opened for me to see a little clearer. We can never really tell whether any event may be good or bad until we are able to step away from it and see it from a different perspective and then, the very darkness that descends from time to time serves only as a foil against which we can see the light.

Simple space

january hol 2016 018You know how it is… you have an idea, then try and find a way to put it into practice. What at first seems obvious suddenly throws up all kinds of complications and what had appeared so simple becomes a real headache. You wish you’d never thought of it, but it is too late to change your mind and go back… but going forwards feels as if you will be wading through treacle for the foreseeable future. You start worrying or fretting and that sets up a vicious circle that clouds vision even further.

We had been feeling a little like that with some of the details planned for the upcoming workshop in April. It all worked beautifully on paper, but between the vision and creating a concrete form for those details lay a gulf the imagination struggled to cross.

So, you step back and take another look. Instead of thinking literally and in linear fashion, your mind kind of squints out of the corner of its eye, takes a tangential view and realises the complexity was not in the idea but your concept of how to make it happen. Instead of the literal, the symbolic seems to work much better… convey the idea in a far cleaner manner…. and is simplicity itself to bring into being.

That shift in perspective starts a whole chain of action, a domino effect where moving just one piece seems to align the rest; the complex chain of events that would have, could have been, has the space to settle to where it should be and everything falls into place.

We have found this so often when working on the ideas for the workshops. What seems to be a spectacular idea proves to be a nightmare…until you take the ‘spectacle’ out and move towards the simplicity of a symbolic portrayal.  The spectacle would, in fact, be detrimental… those observing see only the ‘show’, and seeing an idea so graphically portrayed, find it dictates understanding… whereas a symbolic depiction leaves space for both understanding and imagination. Those looking on may learn more from the ’empty’ spaces of symbolism than one could ever teach through a didactic and literal imposition of ideas.

The odd thing is, that once you start down that particular path, forgoing the visual feast of spectacle in favour of simplicity, other things too begin to fall into their proper places and decisions that have been put off because none have felt quite ‘right’, seem to present themselves, their potential problems already solved… or else solutions seem to manifest from nowhere.

All it takes is a slight change of perspective… and in keeping it simple you find that you are allowing space for the possible to happen.

…And By Opposing End Them

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“To be, or not to be: that is the question:Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet.

 That really is the question, isn’t it?

There is a huge amount of stuff out there purporting to tell us how to come to full consciousness. Some of it valuable, some less so. No school, however, can confer or guarantee the gift of Being. That is for the student to find within themselves and in this we are all students. All  any school or system can ever do is open a door and show a way, arming the student with the tools of the quest we have found to be of use, a map lovingly crafted by those who have walked this way before and a perhaps a star to follow.

That little word, Being, encompasses so much and will be defined subjectively by each of us, filtered by our emotions and intellect and shaped by our beliefs. It is very hard to pin down in words and describe completely what one means by the term.

In practical terms at least, it is for me partly an inner honesty that can see and accept the personality that masks the inmost self, observing the actions and reactions and understanding the motives without judgement or pity or the need to excuse. The outer shell we wear changes so much depending on our companions and situation and there are so very many masks that most of us do not truly know who we are. We pick an image of ourselves that we feel can accept… it may be a happy one or not, but it is familiar and we cling to it fondly until we actually find the courage and honesty to look at ourselves more deeply.

Viewing oneself warts and all is never comfortable. Few of us want to own to ourselves, not really, that we are different from our accepted self-image. Far safer to see ourselves only as mirrored in the eyes of others, never stopping to look beyond or to question the accuracy of the reflection, forgetting, perhaps, that what they show is only the image we have projected into that moment.

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Of course this, as with most things, is a double edged sword. It allows, for instance, the timid to face an interview with all the appearance of confidence, but it also allows us to hide within the illusion, failing to address our fears and frailties.

But there can be a ‘turning within’ where the puppet of the personality can be seen for what it is, malleable and fluid, amorphous and shaped by the reflections it casts back upon itself. With that realisation comes a serenity that can face the world unafraid and embrace a wider life.

Now, don’t think for a minute that means the fears disappear. We still feel them. But our perspective shifts and we see them differently. I never understood the quote from Rumi until I was obliged to face my own fears: “Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.” And I know that I for one held back from life and hid behind many masks, mainly from myself.

Many years ago, for example, in an attempt to escape prosecution for assault, I was threatened by my attacker with exposure of an incident of which I had been the victim not the perpetrator, but for which, in my own mind at least, I bore the shame. I was afraid of my sons’ reaction… a moral and emotional coward, still a victim in my own mind, I caved in and begged the police to drop the case. They declined and the prosecution went ahead successfully. So I found the courage to tell my children myself and was thus able to do so with love.

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What had undoubtedly been my greatest fear had been faced, and more to the point, let go. In exorcising this fear I found a freedom, by letting it go it could no longer cause hurt and the guilt and self-disgust that I, in my self-perpetuated victimhood, had harboured so long could heal and dissipate.  As an additional gift, I found the inner freedom to uncover the good in the negative experience and let it be of use to others.

We worry about the past is in case it haunts our future, as I think it is only the future that breeds fear. When fear strikes it is of what might happen, what could…imagination runs riot into the future. Yet in the moment we stand with our fears and face them, or we run and hide. And if we can face them we face our Self and they hold no terror as they slide into the past.

I think we find this inner freedom and self-awareness go hand in hand with a certain serenity. Within it we understand that time does not really exist and so we can live in the moment. Think about it, Now is already the past before we have had chance to count it, and the future has become the present and slid into memory as I write. If only now exists, where else can one Be?

“’…tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d”


Originally published 2012