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.

 

Chain reactions

Iceland, Volcano, Rainbow, Evening

I caught myself singing while I was hoovering… ‘Give a Little Whistle…’, a song I haven’t heard in years. It comes from Disney’s Pinocchio and the more I look at the story as it is told in the film, the more I see. It is the tale of an old wood carver who makes a puppet and yet wishes it were a real boy… a child. The Blue Fairy gives life to the puppet and promises that if he is “brave, truthful, and unselfish” and listens to his conscience, he will one day be a real boy. Jiminy Cricket becomes Pinocchio’s conscience and their journey through the temptations and trials of life begins.

The story is not unlike our own. And if we look at it symbolically, we may gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the way our inner child, the soul child, must learn and grown through its experience of life and through our mistakes. Our journey too is informed by that still, small voice of conscience, though we think of it as internal and silent, something we alone can hear and can choose to heed or ignore. We always have that choice. Sometimes, however, the voice belongs to an external agency… a book, a situation we observe or a friend… that can hold a mirror before us and allow us to see ourselves as we are. The picture is not always a pretty one and it takes courage and compassion for a friend to hold up that glass for us.

We see conscience in action every day, especially in our interactions with others. Once words are said or a tone is used, they cannot be recalled and no apology can erase them, even if we are forgiven and understood by others who see us more clearly than we do ourselves. Most of us will do that at some point or another, but that doesn’t excuse thoughtlessness, carelessness or unkindness… yet with the best will in the world, sometimes we simply react unthinking to whatever situation confronts us.

The worst of it is, that even though we may be behaving in a manner we can see, at some level, to be wrong, we simply do not or cannot find a way to stand back and think things through once we are in the grip of strong emotion, especially when we are, ourselves, hurting. Yet people are like a range of small, but potent, volcanoes and when one erupts, those around it may become part of a chain reaction.

Volcanoes are dangerous things when they are ready to spew lava and ash across the landscape, yet they are beautiful when they are at peace. Like a volcano, strong emotions can bring destruction, or be a creative catalyst; new lands may be born from volcanic activity… just as easily as they can be destroyed. Change is never brought about by placid indifference, but by the same token, a force unleashed will always affect its environment and, when that force arises within us, we have a responsibility to direct the flow.

One of the definitions for ‘reaction’ is ‘a process in which substances act mutually on each other and are changed into different substances, or one substance changes into other substances.’ Interesting if you apply that to human behaviour… to act upon mutually, with the result that both are changed. You can see that in  our interactions with each other, but it becomes especially apparent when we react without thought to the promptings of pent up emotion or pain. Anger, revenge, envy… reacting to negative emotions changes us, and often those around us, into something most of us do not want to be.

We see the other end of the spectrum with positive emotions like love, compassion, understanding. They too change us as we act upon them… and there seems to be that distinction. We act, rather than react, from those higher emotions and the changes that are wrought are both positive and visible, in ourselves and in those around us too. It’s something to think about… and puts a new slant on the saying that we should be the change we wish to see.

Frost-flowers

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Could I stop the car and get a picture? No. The narrow roads of the Derbyshire Dales are simply not wide enough to just pull over where you will. I know every stopping place on that road and have probably stopped in all of them to wield the camera at some point over the past few years. I knew that there would be nowhere to park, so drove on, drinking in the beauty of a magical land.

I had left a grey, mizzling day behind me, but the weather followed, depressingly monotonous. It takes more than a dismal day to depress me when I head north, leaving the place where I live for the place where I come alive. The road holds many personal landmarks for me, marking stages on the journey from south to north. There is the arbitrary point where it ‘feels’ as if I have left the south behind… then a stretch of anticipation thirty miles wide leads to the point where ‘north’ begins. Finally, there is the crest of a hill… and as I drive down it I can see the high peaks on the horizon.

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One last town and I am there. In the north. The land rises, all green and black on a damp, winter afternoon, until the hills open out as you reach the high places and ancient sites curve against the sky. The green is vivid, the clouds low and the temperature drops. Buzzards watch from the hedgerows and as they lift on great, speckled wings, they carry my heart with them. It is always the same.

Except, this time it was different… and truly magical. The clouds had come down, enveloping the world in soft mist. The damp grass glowed with a green fire again the chill. But the trees and the dried stems of a forgotten summer were white… pristine white with a thick coating of hoar-frost. They seemed made of spun-glass or sugar, delicate and friable, yet they are hardy and withstand the worst of the English winters, high up on the hills. The perfect setting for a fairytale.

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I drove on, lost in breathless wonder at such ephemeral beauty. Some things are just gifts of the moment, not meant to be captured, but only lived and enjoyed. The frost on the trees would melt at the first breath of warmth, leaving only a memory of their delicate beauty.

The next day we were in Great Hucklow for the monthly meeting of the Silent Eye. Arriving early, we walked through the misty, frosty lanes; just as beautiful as the day before, but not quite as strange and ethereal as the frost-flowered trees against the brilliant green of the hills. There was a vague sense of disappointment… the scene was so close to the wonder of the day before… and yet, it was not quite the same. Still, at least, this time, I could take pictures.

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It was on leaving the village for the next leg of our journey that the magic unexpectedly returned unbidden and my companion saw the magic I had witnessed. Again, it was impossible to stop and photograph the strange, white trees against the green. It was almost a repeat of the previous day… and over almost as quickly as the car passed through the landscape.

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Ephemeral as they are, these gifts that touch the heart with a fleeting magic are more precious than those repeatable, habitual patterns that bind our days. You cannot go back to recapture any past moment, nor can you conjure at will the gifts that life or Nature gives. All you can do is be ready to accept them when they are given… ready to notice, moving through the world with attention and awareness… ready to live them to the full, then let them go. Sometimes the moment is the only thing you can share a moment with and memory the only lens through which it can be recorded. Like the frost-flowers, experiences melt away, leaving only the sheen of having been experienced in their wake, yet it is such moments that add a richness to our lives.

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Man and Machine

https://scvincent.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/250px-jetsons.jpg

“What’s the first letter of the alphabet?”

“A…”

“Okay… then turn it to A.”

“Okaaay…”

“Now twiddle the little whirly thing all the way…”

This conversation came to you courtesy of mother and son. No, not a toddler and young mother… the son is nearly 30… and Mum still has all her marbles… well, I like to think I do. My sons would beg to differ on that point, of course. As  matter of principle.

This was a highly technical conversation… but he’d lost me early on so he decided to dumb it down a bit.

My son is teaching himself photography, and while I am seldom found without a camera in my hand I have no real understanding of the mechanics of the thing beyond the basic optics I learned in physics. I certainly don’t have a fraction of his technical ability… and he’s trying to share that with me. Mostly unsuccessfully, I have to add.

I’m not bad with technology, though, as a rule. It doesn’t scare me and I can generally work it out. My sons, however, have grown in an era when the technological advances come so thick and fast into our everyday lives that while they have developed an almost instinctive understanding of it, I question whether we have almost lost the sense of wonder as we daily see the science fiction of our childhood become mundane gadgetry. Some of the stuff we use every day has outstripped anything those of us who watched the first moon landing might have imagined as possible. We even take for granted the way we can type on a screen and be read instantaneously all across the world. Technology is in every corner of our lives.

Even the dog is microchipped.

Yet for all the incredible gadgets around us, it is the ‘human’ things that still move us the most. I include Ani in this category. Not because she clearly thinks she is head of the household (and she may well be right about that…) but because it is through very human qualities that we interact.

I was crying earlier… call me a wuss, or whatever local epithet fits best…. There was a video. One of those from dog rescues… and we’ve probably all stumbled across many of them. Old dog dying in the street, rescued, cleaned, fed and given a  home for what were literally its final few hours. They could have put the dog to sleep given the state it was in, but chose instead to give a little care and allow the dog to know companionship, touch and love.

As she always does, Ani picked up straight away on the tears, and I watched the video with her head on my knee, my hands in her fur as she waited in stillness until she decided I was ready to be cheered up and brought the ball.

Those few minutes sort of said it all really. While my mind and emotions reacted to the story that technology brought to my attention, the physical sense of touch and warmth, the comfort of an aware presence that cares enough to respond to changing emotions, the love I feel for the little monster whose muddy paw prints currently decorate the sofa… again… all were engaged and very present.

It made me think about how real our lives are.

Virtual reality through television, computers, smartphones and the like is a constant bombardment of information, stimulating the mind and emotions… but only if we allow them to. We can also lose ourselves in the detachment and distance that technology allows. We can allow the bombardment to numb the mind and emotions. Yet when we treat them as the tools they are and allow ourselves to see and feel, they open a wealth of possibilities to us.

But those possibilities would have no meaning for us if we had nothing to relate them to. Would I have wept at the video if I had never loved a dog? Or simply if I had never loved? Or laughed with my son at the role reversal as he tried to explain as if to a child, had I never experienced that before?

More than ever we have the world of experience at our fingertips. And all experience matters, as it fuels our understanding of the world around us… and the world within. We can let it wash over us as mindless waves as we vegetate in front of a box, or we can use it as the building blocks of growth.

It reminds me of the Lego days… days when we would empty the box of mismatched bricks on the floor… and like experience, they hurt if you tread on them with bare feet… but the possibilities for the imagination to take flight were endless. Even if the shapes were angular, the aeroplanes unflightworthy and the castles just miniatures… you could build something that could transport you to another place where imagination changed all the rules and anything was possible.

Filling the cup

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Image: Pixabay PD

Poised to write, I leafed through the notes scrawled on my pad. I remembered the conversation and context… it was worth writing about. Given the sketchy nature of what I had written, it was a minute or two before I recalled that I had already done so. It isn’t the first time that has happened. I was quite excited about the pondskater notes when I found them the other day too, only to remember a few moments later that the piece had been written some time ago. I turned the page, skimming through scribbles meant to be informative reminders, but whose meaning evades me. Which bones at Newbury?

Odd phrases jump off the page. “Atoms on the body of God, unable to see, not noticed when sloughed…” That sounds like a conversation with my son. “Steal standing stone.” That was for But ‘n’ Ben. “Castigated as outlandish and irrelevant in their time, raised to beatitude when dead. Their beliefs can no longer be questioned…”  Each scribbled phrase a reminder of a conversation, condensed into a few words that convey both much and little.

Some I remember better than others. “Systems are two-dimensional, experience is three-dimensional.” By extension, gnosis, that indefinable grace that comes through no logical channel, could be said to be four-dimensional. It had made perfect sense at the time. Any system of teaching, no matter how beautiful, is of itself, flat. No more than transmitted knowledge. It is not until someone works with a system, experiencing it, that it takes on depth and meaning. It comes to life for them, as a seed comes into bloom with all its colour and perfume. Yet without the seed there would be no flower. Knowledge can be shared, but understanding has to grow and it can only do so through experience.

Then “no problem with memory, just retrieval” seemed rather too appropriate. That was another conversation with my son, but if ever I needed an illustration of what we had been talking about, this was it.

The scribbles in the notebook are just snippets of conversations that lasted hours. An odd phrase that stuck in the mind that was written down later… notes on works in progress… isolated ideas that made it to the page. Yet without the context of the conversation, they relay but the tiniest fraction of what was said and often seem to make little sense. For a while, that bothered me.These were conversations that lit up the mind and sent it spinning down unexplored pathways… and I’d lost them!

Or had I?

Without the step by step volley of ideas, it might be difficult to pin down exactly what we had been talking about and how we arrived at those realisations. It might be hard to put them into meaningful words… the details may fade…but the essence of the experience remains.

Somewhere in the vaults of the mind, every moment is neatly filed away. We could not handle so much detail on the surface of memory. Only those things we need to remember remain at the most immediately accessible level, the rest is buried deeper, requiring a trigger to bring it to the forefront of consciousness. Ideas that accumulate like pennies are exchanged for the banknote of understanding. The pennies are not lost, but they look different and take up less space… we do not need to carry their weight.

No experience, no conversation is ever lost or wasted, even if it seems forgotten. The essence of what we can draw from each moment is added to our store of knowledge and understanding. We would not even try to identify each individual drop that makes up a glass of wine… and how could we, when there is neither beginning nor end to any drop that is part of the whole? Experience fills the cup of life, each moment melding with what has gone before, another drop in the Cup. And sometimes, it sparkles.

Forget-me-not

Image Source
Image Source

As I pulled the book from the shelf and opened it, a flower fell from between its pages. Its colour gone, its petals so fragile they cracked and crumbled as I caught the little thing. Still there was enough left for me to recognise what it was… a little sprig of forget-me-nots. My face remembered before conscious memory kicked in, the smile and the tear meeting halfway across my cheek. It was a long time ago, but for a second, imagination painted two hands where there was now one and the soft blue of the flower glowed ghostly blue. At its centre, the golden eye of a distant sun looked back at me. A very long time ago.

How much my life has changed in twenty years! How much the world itself has changed. Children who have grown into parents, people who have moved through my life, taken centre stage then exited quietly, to other lives or beyond life. Technology has moved at a pace that makes my daily life barely recognisable, opening a world of knowledge and communication whilst closing the doors on many more human moments of contact. Twenty years to see the sharpness of youth fade to softer tones. The hand that gave me that flower would barely recognise so much of my life today.

Yet, so much has not changed. People are still people, with the same hearts and hurts, the same dreams, the same problems. The places are all filled, as generation after generation play an eternal game of musical chairs, each taking the place of those who went before. The sky is still blue, the earth still as green and a babe in arms still has that soft, milky smell as every babe ever born. Forget-me-nots still bloom, and seem to tell a story similar to our own.

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Tiny leaflets pierce the soil, barely distinguishable from any other plant, except to the gardener who knows them well. They grow, and buds small and pale, emerge baby-pink and fragile from the protective cocoon of sepals. As the petals begin to unfurl, their colour changes and deepens as they mature and become what they were always destined to be, opening wide to mirror the sun with a golden heart… then, slowly, they fade through the pastel shades of age, setting seeds that cling to everything with which they come into contact. They are carried far and wide and will spread, perpetuating their delicate beauty long after they are gone.

For a moment time stops as I look at the crumbling flower. I am there and then, yet here and now too and the two are not separate but occupy the same time and space within me as, for a scintilla, I am conscious of being outside of the constraints of perceived time. The moments that unfurl like petals in memory have never left; they are not ‘gone’ or ‘lost’ but remain as part of the garden of my own life and from the memories, as much as the moment when the flower was fresh, seeds are continually sown and grow.

I return the papery fragments to the earth and the flower has gone full circle… my hands are empty, yet the smile and the memory remain and will bloom every time I see a forget-me-not. They always do. No experience is ever lost, it only slips from consciousness to take root in mind or heart.

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.

 

 

 

 

Pondskating

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Salmon of Wisdom
Dodging hazelnuts swims the hungry salmon, swallowing the nuts as they plunge into the depths. Pity the poor pondskater skimming the surface while beneath lies the kernel of wisdom, waiting for those who plunge deep below their surface and get their feet wet.”

That bit of oddness represents a page in my notebook. I have but the vaguest recollection of writing it. I know I was sitting on the kitchen step… I know there was wine… and I can see the context of the conversation from the notes either side. We were obviously deep in the throes of discussing the April workshop.

Which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Salmon of Wisdom. Or pondskaters.

I cannot remember the entire conversation that surrounded the notes, though reading them brings back the essence of it. I can’t even recall if this bit was mine. It can be difficult to say when the conversations go so deep and phrases, ideas and sparks are passed one to another, each adding something to the growing light of understanding. It doesn’t really matter… copyright notwithstanding, you cannot exclusively own an idea, only share them.

I do know it was born of one of the ancient tales, so can guess it was introduced to the conversation by Stuart who drew upon them for Crucible of the Sun . One version of the story tells that a salmon swimming in the Well of Wisdom ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the water, from the nine hazel trees that grew around it, thus gaining all the knowledge of the worlds. Anyone who ate of the fish would also gain that knowledge. The salmon may have been an ordinary fish, or one of the immortals, that it could be eaten and yet not die.

The trees have the hazelnuts… they fall into the water, which indicates a transformation and the fish has them too. Knowledge exists in the outer world and falls into the depths. The fish, swimming in the depths and following its instinct to feed , can acquire knowledge that has become understanding by being taken into the inner being… and perhaps that is where the wisdom comes in; something that cannot be lessened by being consumed… like the fish that does not die when it is eaten.

Pondskaters, on the other hand…Some have wings and may reach the nuts in the tree, but they are too fragile, too frail to pierce the shell and eat. Their natural milieu is the water’s surface, poised between the worlds, neither in one nor the other, unable to break the surface tension of the water and swim in the depths. The pondskater can see both worlds, yet is unable to assimilate the kernel, the inner heart of wisdom.

I remember the essence of the conversation, and it was quite specific at the time. But finding those lines in the notebook, I realised that the wider analogy we were speaking of could be applied equally to the many levels of our own being. There is the purely physical where the kernels of knowledge grow as experiences that fall into our lives. There is the part of us that instinctively feeds upon those experiences, each coloured by the flowing emotions they evoke as we try to understand them. With enough, we may find wisdom, which, although it cannot be shared in the precise way knowledge can be shared, can be brought into the world and will only grow with the more who partake of it from each of us. And then there is the pondskater.

Bounded by its very design and nature, our consciousness belongs in both the inner and outer world, the realms of both knowledge and understanding and, though unable to fully access either for itself, can see them both. Perhaps, as we define reality through observation, that is its role… to witness and thus make real … realise… what exists beyond its reach. Being of both worlds and neither, perhaps its apparent lack of ability to access wisdom allows it to observe and create in the purest sense a reality that can hold and see wisdom and trace its beginnings in knowledge and experience.

I wonder if the pondskater ever asks where the trees came from? Or why the water is so deep?

Patterns in the night

Image: European Space Agency & NASA  Acknowledgements:  Project Investigators for the original Hubble data: K.D. Kuntz (GSFC), F. Bresolin (University of Hawaii), J. Trauger (JPL), J. Mould (NOAO), and Y.-H. Chu (University of Illinois, Urbana)  Image processing: Davide De Martin (ESA/Hubble)  CFHT image: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/J.-C. Cuillandre/Coelum NOAO image: George Jacoby, Bruce Bohannan, Mark Hanna/NOAO/AURA/NSF
Pinwheel Galaxy Image: ESA/Hubble

I couldn’t sleep. I’d gone to bed sleepy, read until I could read no more, then snuggled down expecting the inner lights to go out within minutes. An hour later I was still waiting… and wide awake. It might have had something to do with the discomfort in my hands. Nothing to do with typing of course… not possible. I gave in and got up, heading for hot milk and more of the damnable painkillers. I wasn’t best pleased about the whole affair as I need to be up by six at the latest, Sunday or not, and it had been after midnight when I had finally gone to bed in the first place.

The previous night it had been the wind; gales howling outside. It is odd, I have no qualms about being high on a hilltop in the wind, buffeted by gusts and struggling to stay upright. That I enjoy. But I don’t like the noises the house makes in a gale. I hadn’t particularly cared for the creaks and groans of the trees either when Ani and I had been out for our walk in the wood. But I had slept as soon as the rain began to batter the windows. That I find soothing.

It is strange the associations we make with sensory impressions and how deeply they are ingrained and affect behaviour. The smell of candlewax I find both comfortable and uplifting. The sound of rain on an umbrella is happy… and on canvas the memories of camping trips and laughter come back. The list is endless…

I was thinking about it when I was cuddling my granddaughter. The small sounds of a baby seem to trigger the competence of motherhood again. The body knows what to do…how to lift and hold, how to rock and calm. Probably with far more confidence now than when the skills were first learned. The smell of paint reminds fingers what to do to create an image. The touch of flour tells them how to make pastry. The sound of a waltz reminds the feet how to dance.

I wondered how much our memory is rooted in the physical. All of it in some ways, as we can only experience through the senses. We know there is muscle memory, a pattern known to the body that it can repeat with increasing ease and accuracy as we learn new skills. Then we add the overlay of emotion, of course… a context that frames and defines each memory and colours our perception each time they are triggered. It is all part of the constant programming that builds up the layers of individuality that make us who we are.

Our experiences of the world are pretty limited really… limited by the portals of the senses themselves as to how we can perceive. Yet even if we experience the same event, emotion will make our perception of it different for each of us. A lifetime of such differences makes each of us a unique combination… individuals.

Andromeda Galaxy. Image: NASA

It shouldn’t be a surprise really, that pattern of infinite possibility born of limitation is all around us. Nine numbers can go on indefinitely producing other numbers that are unique unto themselves. Twenty six letters of the alphabet combine to make over a million words in English alone…three primary colours combine with light and shadow to produce millions of tints, hues and shades…seven notes create every song ever sung, every symphony played…

It is within this limitation itself that harmony is established. Paradoxically their very restriction creates the relationship between them that permits harmony, dissonance and growth and gives their distance both meaning and beauty as they spiral outwards towards infinity, allowing us to trace their patterns and begin to know them.

Within ourselves the five senses allow us to ‘harmonise’ too, understanding each other through the empathy of common experience. Seven billion humans alive today, have common ground through five shared senses. Untold numbers of other creatures share those senses too, and by their presence or absence their experience is defined. Yet every single one of us is unique, perhaps solely because of the thoughts and emotions with which we respond to those experiences. The jury is out on which of those two come first… whether emotion gives rise to thought or vice versa. I’m not sure they are separable or separate, regardless of precedence. Perhaps they are the manifestation of the same process on a different arc of the spiral.

Looking out of the door, open to the night at the insistence of the dog, I look up at the stars; visible traces of our own spiral galaxy, and wonder of what it too may be a part… what its relationships may be to other galaxies… what harmonies might be brought into being out there in the blackness… Billions of point of light. From here they all look pretty much the same and yet I can discern the patterns of the constellations; remember their stories and mythology… know that man is already out there exploring…

My senses have taken me from pain to infinity; my thoughts have travelled the universe, through both the inner uniqueness of man and the vast wonderment of space. My emotions have spiralled from annoyance to awe… all in the time it took to recognise a pattern in the night.

animation by brian0918™
Part of a DNA double helix