Only human…

 From the archives…

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“Yo, missus!” I turned… a tattooed yob in shredded denim with more piercings in his face than you would have thought possible held out my phone. “Your bag’s open… you dropped this.” My handbag falls open with alarming regularity. I smiled and thanked him and winced as he smiled back, fearing the damage the piercings could do under the strain. I was genuinely grateful. It wasn’t the best of areas and I would probably have given him and his friends a wide birth after dusk.

When I first landed in the south and was asked in what part of the town I lived… a town I had known nothing about and moved to by the simple expedient of sticking a pin in a map blindfolded… folk would do that thing with their lips, sucking in air as if I had mentioned the unmentionable. It was, they said, a bad area. Granted, it was not the prettiest part of town, but the house was nice…spacious… with a cosy, private garden and the neighbours some of the nicest people I have ever met. The place was convenient. I could walk the boys to school every day and walk to work in the town and back; to be fair, I had to… I couldn’t drive back then. There was never any trouble, it wasn’t noisy or covered in graffiti and the gardens were all nicely kept. As a bonus there were both supermarket and countryside within a few minutes’ walk.ORC broch 043

Not that it would have mattered much, for in many ways it doesn’t matter where you live… once you have closed the door you are home and the world stays outside. I have lived in some beautiful places, and lived in some of the worst. I have lived, too, for a brief period, without a home and I don’t recommend it; at that point anything with a roof looks good. Admittedly, it is far more pleasant and less nerve-wracking to live in an area where you are not constantly looking over your shoulder as you walk home, but once that door is shut the world outside almost ceases to exist.

The outside of the house barely matters; the road, the area… they are not the place upon which you put the stamp of your personality. It is not there that you play with colour and texture and make a room that says ‘this is me’. Or perhaps, ‘this is what I think I would like you to think is me’. We do have a tendency to conform to what we assume others will be impressed by, find pleasing or to something that meets the current trend.ORC broch 038

You can tell an ‘honest’ room the moment you walk in… it may be untidy or kept in pristine condition. It may be full of costly antiques and artworks or done to the tightest and most creative of budgets… but the things that are there are real expressions of a personality, traces of a life lived and the interests of its occupant. There is a specific feel to the place that has that indefinable quality of a real home.

I had occasion to call at a little shop today near that first house in the town and it was there I almost lost my phone. The economic downturn over the past few years, the death of local industries and rising unemployment have all taken their toll on the area. I watched the local businesses that sustained the community close down one by one over the years, shattering lives and families that depended upon them. Council spending cuts and minimal maintenance of the streets have dragged the area visibly into poverty. No doubt behind many of the doors there are lovely homes; many of the gardens themselves are still neatly kept, but there is a feel of grey despair on the streets.

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It reminds me of deep depression… that state of mind when you are emotionally exhausted and can no longer be bothered how you look or what you wear, or even if you have combed your hair before going out.

The people too, clustered outside the little shop that now sports bars on its windows, all have that grey, despairing air. Their clothes are scruffy, hair unkempt, skin lacking the lustre of health. It is as if the poverty is a spreading infection leaching the energy from them, setting up a cross contamination between the area and the people.ORC broch 039

I was reminded of a recent report I had read on the impact of poverty, both physiological and psychological; how the scars of childhood poverty can remain in the adult brain, how adults living under the constant stress of reduced income…the ‘relative poverty’ that affects so many in an unequal society… see reductions in executive function and even functional IQ that helps perpetuate the very circumstances that cause them. It is a vicious cycle.

I found it infinitely sad. And pulled myself up. Who am I to judge? I, in my scruffy, grubby clothes from walking the dog, with no make-up and hair blown to unkempt extremes? Isn’t my exterior the same as theirs? Are my circumstances any different, balanced on that knife edge that robs Peter to pay Paul? Would I look any different to an observer? No. They are me, and I am them.

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Does it change who I am… who they are? Deep down? No. It may change the surface, it may alter the way in which you face the day, but a decent person remains a decent person regardless of circumstance, bank balance or social standing.

Chastened, ashamed of the judgemental thoughts, I went home, opening the door on a tidy house that I keep as best I can. It smelled of polish and disinfectant, the product of the six a.m. cleaning… overlaid with the vague inevitability of dog. She was waiting for me, tail thumping the ground, eyes bright and eager, ball at the ready. Does she care how scruffy I look or if I have showered yet today and done the make-up? Not a bit. She doesn’t judge by appearances, couldn’t care less what I look like. She works on ‘feel’, just as we do when we walk into a room. She doesn’t care about exteriors, she loves those she loves for who they are, not how they dress. If it feels right it is right, regardless of the surface. She has a lot to teach me; after all… I’m only human.

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Family feeling

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There was no doubt about it, this was a happy fish. You might not have really paid much attention without the contrast of the rest of them, but against their small darts and lazy swishes, this one stood out. It zoomed across the pond, a silvery streak of energy, stopping just short of the edge, changing direction, revelling in speed and jumping clear of the surface for no apparent reason except that it could. There was an impression of indisputable joy in every scale and movement. A zest for simply being alive on a day of spring sunshine.

I watched for a long time… there was something in the argent streak of light and speed that drew an answering smile and an echo of its own joy in me too. The world fell away and we were kindred spirits for a moment outside time; its pleasure infectious. The fish reminded me of Ani when she runs and plays in the sun streaked fields… because she can. Ani too charges, stops, jumps and grins… and unlike the fish, her face has the mobility to express joy in a familiar way.

In the bushes the small birds chased. Mating perhaps, but it seemed to have no rhyme or reason other than play. I thought back to a video I had seen a while ago, showing a wild deer in a muddy pool. That too may, of course, have some scientific explanation… which is to say that animal behaviourists have decided that is what they think the deer is doing. To me it had just looked like my children when they were small, splashing around in water and laughing. It was having fun.

And then there was the kite. I have watched the great birds for so long now that I recognise the mode of flight… the steady glide of the hunter seeking prey, the mating ‘dance’ of the paired birds… the vigilance of the guardian when you walk close to a nest site. This was none of those… it was just playing with the air currents in the warmth of the sun. The feathers ruffled as it dived and swooped. Once again, the overwhelming impression was simply joy.

Joy is not an emotion we associate with birds and fish. Their facial expressions are alien to our own… they do not grin or weep, we cannot read their eyes. Dogs, for example, smile and frown. We can read their sadness, guilt and fear in much the same way as we can recognise those emotions in another human being. We have even, because of our long association, become adept at reading their body language. But the face of a fish is immobile and expressionless, its joys invisible to us to the point where perhaps we have not considered the sharing of such emotions.

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We tend to hold our own species as separate… better than… more advanced on every level, just because we can shape and manipulate our world on a grander scale, because we can communicate on a global level, perhaps, or because we have access to what we term the higher emotions. Yet termites build cities, bees construct huge geometric colonies… ants farm aphids and the trees in a forest communicate with each other. We have begun to recognise the complexities of language in other species… not always verbal… and the most cursory observation shows that animals too both love and grieve.

We have all heard the tales of the elephants who mourn the death of their kin. I will not forget the fox whose mate had just been hit by a car, desperately trying to get its dead friend to stand. There are tales of heroism and sacrifice by many animals… even though we tend to minimise those tales, thinking of them as natural instincts, unless they involve a relationship with a human being. Then we seem able to attribute them to love. Is that because we can recognise that emotion when it is part of our own journey or simply an arrogance that assumes we alone can love beyond self?

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Some things we know. Other creatures feel fear and pain, respond with the maternal instinct to protect their young, create dazzling displays to attract a mate… these are all observable behaviour. They are not, say detractors, in any way indications of emotions in the way that we humans experience them. The wagging tail that welcomes… the emotions are not the same, they say. We are just anthropomorphising… attributing our own emotions to these creatures. We should not read human emotion into the reactions of animals.

But as I watched that fish, grinning at its evident enjoyment, I was conscious that the detractors have a completely skewed view of the world that misses out one simple fact. We too are animals. Is it not arrogance of the highest order to think we are so much different from other species? Cannot our own fear and pain remind us that we share a thread of life? Is the instinct of the mother to protect her children any different in humans? Do we not create, with clothes… hair, make-up and shiny cars…. the same display as our fellow creatures, making ourselves as attractive as possible to a prospective mate? Even the word ‘attractive’ reminds us of why we value beauty.

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God forbid that we see ourselves as animals, though. We are the dominant species… Well, we are as a herd, perhaps, or armed with the tools we have created…but one on one with a hungry tiger, I doubt it somehow.

But even that view… that we are just another animal, holds the inherent implication that we are separate and ‘better than’; a kind of inverted snobbery that pays lip service to a recognition of our place within the natural order, as if by doing so our humility is in some way enough in itself to elevate us beyond being ‘just animals’.

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Ah, but we have a soul, say some. By what right do we decide whether or not another creature has a right to whatever heaven, survival or spiritual evolution we envisage?Try telling a dog lover their friend is soulless…

How about, just for a moment, we strip away the accumulated prejudice of centuries and the overlay of religious creeds that tells us that the beasts were made for our service… that we have dominion over the earth? It is, after all, a convenient creed for a collective conscience that still likes to eat steak. Yet did we need that justification? Does an owl agonise or feel remorse for eating a vole? But then, it eats it all… there is no waste… and it eats to live, not the other way round.

Could we not begin, perhaps, to see the awesome beauty of the intricate dance of nature not as something to be observed, explained or controlled, but as something of which we are an integral part? Instead of seeing the creatures with which we share our home planet as lowly and somehow less than ourselves, perhaps we could come to see that the shared thread of Life… that indefinable quality… is equally sacred and that the emotions we, as animals, can feel, might just be shared by other animals too.

Perhaps it is through a shared access to joy that we can see the inherent divinity of our world. Perhaps then it would be possible to recognise the joy of a fish for what it is.

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