Great expectations…

It had been a while. A long while, actually. And… if the bird would like to cover its ears… I was really fancying roast chicken. I don’t usually cook much for me, you see. I have cooked at my son’s house pretty much every day for the past decade or so anyway, so coming home to roast a chicken for one doesn’t really cut it.

The dog, of course, would disagree. In her eyes, I am not roasting a chicken ‘just for me’… it is mainly for her, but I might get leftovers. And, on the odd occasion that she has been ill, that has happened. This time it is me who is unwell and I fancied roast chicken.

So, I duly bought and roasted, smelling the enticing aroma as it filled the kitchen. Simply cooked with a little olive oil, seasoning and herbs… nothing fancy. A few potatoes and some carrots… my appetite is not what it should be, so why overface it? Even though the thought of making a nice , fluffy, Yorkshire pudding was tempting. It isn’t as if I am on a diet or anything. On the contrary… having eaten everything I have fancied and still lost fourteen pounds this week, I can not only afford to indulge, I am almost duty-bound to do so.

With apologies and profound gratitude to the bird on my plate, I have to say it looked wonderful. Smelled wonderful… and tasted like the contents of a chemical waste plant. About the same as pretty much everything else I have tried to eat this week. I was devastated. I had just so fancied a bit of chicken…

I expect it is the pills. I’m told it will get worse if I start chemotherapy. Maybe I should have made a curry.

But there was nothing wrong with the chicken… except, I’ll admit, from the chicken’s personal perspective, with which I can currently empathise. The expectation caused the disappointment. Yet why, after a week of such disappointments, should I have expected anything else?

Hope they say springs eternal… possibly, though, not from a roast chicken breast… but in more general terms at least. Maybe that is the problem? That while there is the possibility for things to go in a different direction from the one we expect, we always lean towards the more hopeful sde, rather than accepting that actually, we might not get the change we would prefer?

But maybe it is exactly those limitations that we need in order to truly appreciate what we have?  Did I, whilst volubly bemoaning the morphine-tainted chicken, once think to be grateful I was here and able to moan that the fowl tasted foul? That I was not only here to eat the stuff, but well enough to have bought it and cooked it myself too? And still had the breath, and the luxury of choice, with which to complain about the taste?

Even in the relatively wealthy Western society in which I live, there is poverty. There have been times in my life when any food at all would have been good… so to rail against how a bird tastes to me, when the dog and my friend both thoroughly enjoyed it, seems churlish… and yet the reasoning for that was all too easily forgotten.

It is only ever expectations that disappoint. And they are our own, painted on consciousness by hope and habit, perhaps, but constructed nonetheless out of the chimaera of a future yet to come into existence.

There is nothing wrong with hope… nothing at all. It is the carrot that draws us forward to attempt the impossible and without it, the world and our lives would be a very much poorer and bleaker place. But there is always another side to the blade… and we have to remember that the potential for disappointment goes hand in hand with the expectations raised by hope.

Even so, I really hope the chicken works better cold in a  sandwich…

Walking the line…

“… so fear was originally there to help us survive.”
“Yep… and with not many sabre-tooth tigers roaming the suburbs, we found other things to fear. And fear is intimately linked to how we judge people.”
“How so?”

It was one of those early morning conversations over coffee and from the nature of fear we had progressed to how we unconsciously judge the people that we meet. It is all very well to say that we should not judge…but we do. At least to a certain degree. Sitting in moral judgement upon someone’s actions is a slightly different matter, but we do seem to be programmed to make judgements about the people who arrive in our lives. It comes from the same primitive survival instinct as fear and is part of the same process. If a hunter comes face to face with another spear-wielding man, that snap judgement would be the deciding factor; does he run from a foe, throw his own spear, or welcome a fellow hunter to the chase?


Our need for such judgements may not be so acute these days, but the instinct remains. We just use it in a more abstract way. A new person arrives on the scene… a new colleague, perhaps… and an immediate reaction determines what we see as our best approach. How we judge them then determines, rightly or wrongly, what we expect of them too.

But how do we make that judgement? Against what measure are we holding them? We only have our own normality, our own world view, with which to work… and that, of necessity, becomes our median line. Some people will quickly climb high in our estimation, others will let us down.  People will either surpass our expectations or fall below them…and hopefully we can rejoice at the one and learn from the other.

The problem here is that if we let the uncontrolled ego have its way, by setting ourselves as the median line, we may also be setting ourselves in a position of unconscious superiority. If that happens, then everyone else starts at a disadvantage… the people we meet will start from a ‘lower’ place than that which the ego sees itself as occupying. This means that before anyone can begin to meet our expectations, they have a steep climb ahead of them before they can hope to meet us on an even playing field.

The higher our ego sets us on that scale, the lower are the chances of people fulfilling or exceeding our expectations. If someone does manage to climb above our median line, the chances are that the owner of a ‘superior’ ego, instead of applauding that success, will feel themselves weighed down by it… and look for ways in which they can bring that person back down to, or below, the median line of ‘normality’…at least in their own mind.

The ‘superior’ ego fears being overshadowed by the success of others and reacts to any inkling of such success with resentment and prejudice. The higher the other person is perceived to climb… and it may be no more than a perception… the more the ‘superior’ ego looks for them to fall. These are such destructive emotions that, while the other person continues with the normal ups and downs of life, embracing both successes and failures, the ‘superior’ ego finds itself on a slippery slope of its own creation.

We cannot abstain from judging altogether…it is an instinctive function of our safety mechanism. We should not have to lower our hopes for people either… for in trusting and hoping for their success we help ensure it. Imposing our expectations, though is a different matter… expectations breed disappointment.

Stickman, Handshake, Gun, Aiming, SmileWhat we can do is remember than our own median line is not a straight path, but meanders with every step we take, and we can fall or climb just as easily, and as often, as anyone else. No matter where we stand in terms of our social position, educational achievements, affiliations, beliefs or ethnicity, we are equal partners in the human family. Our median line should not be drawn by the ego, but from the one thing we all share… our humanity. We are each as fragile, as fallible, and as capable of reaching the heights as each other… and regardless of the judgements passed upon us, we share a gift of possibility that allows us to walk our own path.

From weeds to wildflowers…

When my son’s old driveway was constructed, no-one thought to lay a weed membrane beneath it. Consequently, when a nice crop of weeds grew between the blocks I, as the designated gardener, had to tackle the things. I won’t use weedkiller,  so that meant pulling them up one by one…and as I don’t like killing plants just because they happen to be growing in the ‘wrong’ place, I felt I should do what I could to salvage them.

I had started learning about herbs and wildflowers in my teens, fascinated by the natural properties of plants, so I recognised them all. Luckily, they were the type of weeds that are being sold as fashionable wildflowers these days.

I don’t have a proper garden here… just a small green space that has been looking at me accusingly, waiting to be transformed. I planted the salvaged seedlings and waited to see what would happen. Not all of the plants survived the move, but by the next summer, I had majestic spires of primrose verbascum, starry white feverfew, the tiny snapdragon-like flowers of toadflax and a small clump of purple loosestrife dotted amongst my few roses. The plants grew, the flower bed was full and the tiny garden was buzzing with bees and attracting butterflies.

This summer has been such a busy one transforming my son’s garden that I did little more than cut the grass in mine. So, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I noticed quite how well the rescued seedlings were doing. They did not merely survive, they flourished and spread. They have planted their own seeds outside my windows where I can watch the bees frantically harvesting the last of the summer bounty from the loosestrife. There is a giant rosette of mullein by the door that will reach over five feet high next year and forget-me-nots tucked in every corner, just waiting for spring. I even have a baby cherry tree that the birds must have planted.

It may sound rather daft, but I was touched when I realised how well the garden was growing. I know the plants are just doing what plants do, but the way they have filled the available space seems almost as if they knew they could have been consigned to the compost bin had I not felt the need to do my best for them.

Without even trying, I seem to be acquiring a garden and it is spurring me on to do my part and start digging flower beds as soon as work, back and weather permits. It may take me a while to make a garden as I will need materials, but gardening is all about patience. And as for plants, I can fill the space with seeds and ‘weeds’ fast enough once the beds are prepared. I have never had a taste for orderly beds and controlled planting. I like cottage gardens that, once planted, are allowed to do their own thing.

I couldn’t help thinking, about the parallels with all the youngsters I have known and who have passed through my kitchen over the years, many of whom would have been considered the ‘weeds’ of society. There were a good many troubled teens within my sons’ circle of friends. All I ever did was feed them, trust them and give them a place where they could be themselves. Almost without exception, like wildflowers they grew and flourished, becoming young men of whom any mother would be proud.

An early lesson in parenting stayed with me, where a study had, over a period of weeks, spread all kinds of food before toddlers, notorious for preferring the ‘wrong’ foods, and let them eat as they pleased. The results were that, given a wide enough choice, the toddlers” diet was a balanced one. Without knowledge of dietary needs, instinct had fed them correctly and with a more varied diet than that provided by their parents. When I had read that study, it had made me think seriously about how I was raising my son…and not just in terms of food.

We have all sorts of unconscious ambitions and expectations for our children. There is a fine line between giving a child the tools they need in order to live at ease in society and shaping them to conform to our image of what they ‘should’ be. It is difficult for a parent who wants the best for their child to simply stand back and let them grow into who they are supposed to be.

It isn’t just children either… all sorts of relationships are subject to those unconscious expectations, from the most casual acquaintance to the closest affection. Even our relationship with ourselves. I have to wonder what gifts they would give if, like my ‘weeds’, we recognised them as wildflowers and let them grow in their own way.

Chasing carrots

Because I couldn’t find a donkey…

It has been hot in England recently… hotter than usual, even for summer. There has been no rain in my part of the country for weeks now and the ground is parched and cracked. Harvests are being brought in early, fields are already shorn and neatly dotted with straw-bales, and the human population has been slowly wilting in the scorching, heavy air. So, it was with some eagerness that we awaited the promised rain and thunderstorms.

They didn’t arrive… The forecasters shifted their predictions to the next day, then the next… and all we had seen was a spot or two of moisture accompanied by a distant, lazy rumble of thunder. When the rain finally arrived last night, it was no more than the briefest of light showers. The dog and I, nevertheless, headed outside to enjoy the fall of water, watching its instant evaporation on the superheated concrete of the paving, but glad of the momentary respite.

Although the weather is a national preoccupation in England, we generally don’t suffer too badly from its vagaries. Ours is temperate climate. Summers are generally warm, winters cold but not glacial… but whatever the weather is doing, we will soon be complaining about it. On the odd occasion, we do get a severe winter… by English standards… or an unusually hot summer. We are prepared for neither, and both can bring the country to its knees at temperatures other nations would consider mild. We don’t cope well with what we consider extremes of anything… be that weather or behaviour…

There is a ‘normal’ for everyone… parameters within which we are comfortable, because they are familiar. They do not have to be good, or what we would choose… they are just our accustomed and accepted standards of normality. Step beyond their boundaries and, depending upon your temperament, you are in a zone of unease, or one of excitement. Such boundaries shift and change with time and circumstance… and the adaptability that is one of humanity’s greatest assets can also be its greatest handicap, as we learn to accept a new ‘normal’ very quickly and alter the parameters to suit the moment.

I was talking to my son about this as we headed out to the local farm shop on Saturday. Because of the changes in his life and capabilities caused by the brain injury, he has been redefining his ‘normal’ on a regular basis. He tends to forget where he has come from, and what he has endured and achieved to get here, and the latest version of ‘normality’ takes a great deal of the journey for granted.

We took the country lanes back to my home after we had done the shopping, stopping by a field gate so he could get out, lean on the gate, and watch the fast-forming clouds race in. It is a simple thing, but I remembered the first time he was able to do that a few years ago… and the wonder we both felt at that achievement.

This time I watched as he lost himself in the moment, seeing emotions on his face shift from bright to dark and back again, like the cloud-shadows on the land. The wind was getting stronger as dark clouds raced in. The little bit of rain had enhanced all the colours, turning the dry grasses to gold and illuminating the green of the hedgerows, where blackberries glistened amongst the wildflowers. The changing weather and the experience of beauty lifted him out of his normality and allowed him to see what he might otherwise not have noticed.

“You forget,” he mused. “You strive for a goal, but as soon as you attain it, there is always another ahead…. And the goal you just reached becomes worthless, no more than a stepping stone…when you should be content.”
“Carrots on sticks. Donkeys. The donkey keeps walking to where it thinks the carrot was… and when it gets there, the carrot has moved, so it keeps on walking… but the carrot is always out of reach.”
“Expectations. Yep… We do that to ourselves all the time. It didn’t rain… I could be disappointed because I expected rain… but what the day has given me instead,” said the son who had just used his walking frame to cross the rough terrain of a farmyard…and in public… for the first time, “is even better.”

As we drove home, the clouds closed in above us, darkening the sky, deepening all the colours of the land. The wind gathered momentum, whipping sun-dried leaves from the trees into great golden plumes that danced across the road like aureate autumnal spirits. The earth smelled sweet and fresh as the rain poured down on the wide vale below us. Sometimes, you just have to leave expectations behind and leave space for life to happen.

Only the good die young…

virgin rainbows 082

Sitting in the interminable traffic I had been listening to music and the lyrics of a Billy Joel song had sparked a train of thought. Switching off the stereo I explored it a little, allowing the thoughts to conjure images and wander off at tangential angles. The song had a simple and, at the time of its release, controversial story, but some of the lyrics fit so well with  some of the core tenets of the School that I had to take notice. Take the religious element out and it ceases to be controversial at all… just thought provoking.

They showed you a statue and told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
But they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done…

Isn’t that exactly how so very many of us are caught by ‘the system’? The statue… the idol… is success. It doesn’t matter in what… but within the parameters of our allotted field… be that businessman, housewife, artist or artisan… we are expected to aim for and achieve a measure of ‘success’ that is comprehensible to the world. The housewife must have the pristine home; the businessman is measured by the material trappings of commercial acumen, the artist by the name he carves for himself. The temple is the cage that this need to conform imposes upon us and its name is acquiescence. We accept the bars of this cage, one by one, first from our parents, schools and culture, then, once we pass a point of critical mass, we are blinded to the fact that the temple we have built is a prison and blithely… proudly… keep adding the bars of our own cage. Our dreams take second place and the things we might have really wanted to do slip further and further down our list of priorities.

We ain’t too pretty, we ain’t too proud.
We might be laughing’ a bit too loud.
Ah! But that never hurt no one…

Not only that, but many of the very qualities that would have allowed us to do the things we might have done are leached from us by the pressure of conforming to that standard we have been set and have accepted as a goal. All our energy is channelled into the business of achieving; we grow tired, the passion wanes, the embarrassment at stepping outside the accepted bounds grows; we are afraid of looking like idiots, of being laughed at, of not being good enough… of failing or letting people down… even of being seen to be different. And that last applies in some subversive and surprising ways. Many who look like rebels to one section of society are simply conforming to another set of standards. We forget how to play because we are too busy ‘playing the game.’ In a nutshell, we can lose ourselves. That’s a hell of a price to pay.

The stained glass curtain you’re hiding’ behind-
Never lets in the sun…

Of course, while we are doing as we ‘should’, behaving as expected, the world nods in approval and we feel pretty good. Basking the approbation we increase our efforts… much as we did as children, being good to earn our parents’ praise. Even when that nagging yearning reminds us of a different life we might have chosen, that ‘stained glass curtain’, that sense of virtuous compliance with expectations… both the world’s and our own… colours our vision of life, casting pretty shadows that prevent us from seeing through the window to where we might play, and forms a multihued veil behind which we can hide from the touch of the Light.

We are almost afraid of that Light, even when we glimpse it through a crack in the glass. It makes us uneasy in our safe little world, reminding us of a life that seems beyond our reach… a place where we could play, instead of playing the game, where there is freedom to dream and to reach for the stars… a place where we can laugh for sheer joy at the daily miracle of a sunrise instead of politely because it is ‘expected’. A place where we can simply be ourselves and revel in life itself. Yet we are afraid, conditioned by the cage, not knowing any more how to be that self we have lost. Even when the cage door stands unlocked.

We all have those cages on some level. Some are veritable fortresses, some mere gilded filigree… but they all have the bars that enclose. Bars called duty, need and responsibility form the framework upon which the heavier bars of ambition, image and ego are added, one by one and breaking free without breaking faith is no simple thing. Some of the bars must remain, but we can open the door, walk beyond the curtain… cease our self-imposed slavery to expectation. We can learn that we may move between a cage which, when open, is no more than a shelter, and the clear space beyond … because neither are the whole story. There is a freedom in that ability to move between the two.

It was the title that had first set me thinking, though. Looked at in this way, ‘the good’ are those who in the eyes of the world conform to social standards, achieve in visible manner and are probably pillars of the community. Yet there are many such who have no access to joy. Their life of the heart, their inner child has been bound and fettered early as they knuckled down and worked hard. When, having achieved and attained, they look around at the ‘things that they might have done’, they are lost… adrift in their own forgetting. You could say that they ‘died’ young, often before they have ever lived. The ‘sinners’ in this scenario are those who walk a less conventional path, or who have retained a sense of the ridiculous, nurtured their inner child and remembered how to play, just for the sake of playing. They have an inner light that shines and, like moths, they draw us. They too have their cages, but they can see the open door and move between inner and outer at will and carry laughter with them.

I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.
The sinners are much more fun…

You know that only the good die young!