A silver cord

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As soon as I was considered old enough to wander alone… a ridiculously young age by today’s standards… I would knock on the doors of the various elderly relatives that lived within a stone’s throw of home or school. Their doors opened onto another era that to my young eyes qualified as the ‘olden days’. There would inevitably be a cup of tea; none of your new-fangled tea bags or ‘gnats water’, but the rich mahogany brew that seethed in perpetuity beside the flames of the range. If I was lucky and timed it right, there would be a slab of fruit cake topped with a slice of tangy cheese or perhaps a curd tart, or we might toast a teacake in front of the fire on the toasting fork and I would sit and listen, fascinated as the old ones spoke of their lives.

Between my great-grandparents and their siblings, I was lucky to have a window on a bygone world, yet it was a window with a heart and a voice… and it told stories. I heard tales of the long hours in Victorian mills where they had worked as ‘bairns nobbut as big as thee, lass.’ Of how their schooling had to fit around their working day and of the dreadful accidents and conditions in which children had worked within living memory… this memory, the one that paused to take a sip of their tea before leaning back to continue. I heard too of first dances and maypoles and Christmas stockings that were rich if they held an orange. Of traditions and forgotten legends… and of wars and national rejoicing and mourning. I learned history in a way no book or museum could teach.

Sometimes we went over to Castleford to see my maternal grandmother’s family. Not so many mills there… but I would seek out Great Uncle John on his allotment filled with dahlias and he would tell me some of the lore of the coal mines and of the pit ponies who lived their lives in the darkness of the mines, even then. The last working colliery horse was brought out in 1999. I heard him tell how dangerous the job still was, for man and beast and saw with my own eyes the coal dust embedded in his pores that was never to leave him… it had filled his lungs too.

And when, as was inevitable, their ranks gradually thinned, I attended their funerals, paid my respects to them, one by one, laid out on the parlour table in their coffins. The families gathered. I was a child, but there was no thought back then of protecting children from the reality of birth and death. I was ten when I helped deliver my little brother. The women gathered…these were women’s mysteries, a domestic magic of sisterhood that took no thought for age or youth.

Contrary to the opinion of many today, I don’t think for a minute that it did me any harm to be part of that. Far from it. I not only learned history, I learned to value people and their individual stories. I learned that I was incredibly lucky to have been born into a time and place where I was allowed to go to school and learn for a few hours a day and then be free to play, to be well fed and warm and sleep in a bed on my own instead of with half a dozen others. So I learned gratitude too.

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It was only many years later that I realised I had learned something else; the old ones had enjoyed sharing their stories. They had enjoyed the company. Most of them were old, infirm and seldom left the house any more… in short, I realised that many of them were probably lonely and glad of a visit from the blonde urchin who usually had to remind them whose daughter or granddaughter she was. It didn’t matter… I drank in their words with the dark tea.

I was reminded of all this when I read an article on loneliness and its negative effects on both personal health and well-being and its greater impact on society, employability and even survival. Further research highlighted some of the links between loneliness and poverty. It makes interesting reading and raises a lot of questions.

Our society is so much richer than the world that our grandparents and great grandparents knew. To our children, even the era of our parents fits the term ‘olden days’… a far off memory of an almost unrecognisable civilisation. While technology and the sciences have advanced by leaps and bounds and our daily lives are full of gadgetry even the science fiction writers might have dismissed as far-fetched, some things have not changed for the better.

We are a mobile society and in search or upward mobility we have moved away from the towns and villages where our families have lived for generations. Families are spread across the globe in a more fragmented way than ever before in history… individual family units break down and separate with tragic regularity and relationships seem to bear the heading ‘disposable’ all too often.

I remember years ago a TV ad campaign encouraging people to check on elderly neighbours, offer to run errands, bring food or get the house ready for winter. It highlighted the isolation that can come with age and marked me enough to stay with me all these years. Back then I lived at the heart of a large and close-knit extended family… it was never something I thought could happen to me. But the world has changed and it could happen to any of us.

The support network that would once have honoured our old ones and cared for them has foundered in very many cases and, between that, the reduction in relative income and the very gadgetry we may fall back upon in solitude to fill the silence, we become an increasingly isolated society on a human level, while ironically being able to stay in instant touch with the virtual world and family members in the furthest reaches of the globe.

And we are losing the stories… the human thread that is woven through our lives from past to future. Our TVs and computers flicker in colour and capture our attention… We might even be watching programmes on history. But once our attention is captured, we don’t sit and listen to each other very often, even to those we might live with, let alone the elderly who ‘take so long and repeat themselves so much…’ Yet theirs are the only eye-witness accounts of our history that we will ever hear first-hand; theirs the silver thread in the tapestry.

There is the well-known concept of the silver cord that connects body to soul in life, remaining in place until death, just as the severing of the umbilical cord signals our entry into life. I have to wonder how much of the richness of life we are losing in our isolation from each other… how much our children… and we could learn… and how much nourishment the heart could draw from the silver thread of story woven by our ancestors… even those who still walk amongst us.

Hug someone

stats 385It is early when I wander through to the kitchen… the world is silent except for the little grunting noises Ani makes as I cuddle her good morning. I don’t speak dog fluently, but I have a feeling these short, low grunts are an expression of affection; you only ever hear them during cuddles and that is how we start our day, the small dog and I.

As the kettle boils I think about the headline I’d glimpsed about a twenty second cuddle being good for your health. I hadn’t looked up the science behind it, prepared to agree unquestioningly that cuddles are good for you. Just having someone close enough to open their arms to you, someone you trust enough to be able to hug back… that shows you have affection in your life and that has to be a good thing. Even if the arms, in this case, are paws.

Cuddling is instinctive in many situations, from the moment a mother holds her newborn child to her heart it becomes a gesture of warmth and comfort. We cry on friends’ shoulders, reach out to hug each other for sheer joy, and it is one of the simplest and most eloquent expressions of friendship, empathy and love.

I don’t need the research to back up the logic of this, but I look it up anyway. Yep, cuddling affects oxytocin and cortisol levels… the bonding hormone and stress marker. And apparently cuddles have even wider health benefits for women than they do for men. That explains a lot… Women tend to be more tactile than men and, as an advocate of listening to what your body is telling you, perhaps it is a response to something deeper than a romantic longing for closeness.

I wonder if dog cuddles count scientifically? I know they do, but wonder if the research has extended to include pets. The work done with MRI scans show dogs have complex emotions close to our own, not that any dog-person needs to be told that. I tap a quick query into the search bar; sure enough talking to them also reduces stress levels. So at least now I have a scientifically based excuse for talking to animals. Not that I need one.

The coffee kicks in and I make a mental link with the recent stories on the negative health implications of loneliness. If you don’t click on any of the other links, this one is worth the read. The results are stark and shocking in their reflection of how society is moving away from closeness to aloneness. Being on your own can be wonderful, but serious loneliness isn’t. It is appalling. I recall many years ago, finding myself feeling just such utter aloneness and isolation. It went on for a while… so long it was desperate enough that I had to resist the urge to reach out and touch people I passed in the street. Which sounds overblown, but honestly, that’s how it feels. And that was only a few weeks. Can you imagine what it must be like for those who are lonely for years? It can, according to the studies, quite literally knock years off your life. ‘Even more than poverty’ says one report… but don’t get me started on politics at this time of day…

By now we are back from our walk and I’m on the third coffee. I’ve been pondering the obvious link between these three bits of research. The extension to that is the social support that is lacking in the lives of the lonely and isolated. There is introspection instead of stimulation and interaction … and while introspection can be a good thing when it comes through choice, it must be an increasingly limiting conversation when it is all you have.

Modern communication methods are also a double-edged sword. While it is easier than ever to keep in touch with people across the world it is also easier than ever to just send a quick message instead of picking up the phone or putting on your coat and going round to see someone. For those who do not have the technical expertise or the funds to access the technology this trend becomes yet another nail in a coffin that suddenly seems more realistic than proverbial. The high cost of travel for those on a limited income coupled with the long hours many have to work in order to survive further compounds the problem. We have created a society that is increasingly isolating us on a physical level and I wonder how readily we are accepting that isolation without realising its consequences?

Then the coffee joins up another couple of dots and the well-known mental and physical benefit of helping others adds itself to the mix. So, even if we aren’t in need of cuddles ourselves, giving them to others still does us good.

Deeper reading of the research and commentaries and a bit of thought beyond the specifics and you can’t escape the idea that affection and companionship are good for health. And that the physical demonstration of that in terms of interaction… cuddles, eye contact, touch or a shared smile…even talking to the dog… is measurably good for us; physically, emotionally and psychologically.

For those who see Love at the centre of creation, this is no surprise; to put it in simple terms even the scientists now agree… love matters.

As a society we are constantly being urged to improve our health, wellbeing and quality of life. The cost of gym membership and therapy is high. Time and energy are limited. But at least we can to resolve to share more smiles, meet more eyes and hug more. Even if it is only the dog.stats 3986

Adapted from a post originally published on scvincent.com

The tale of a fish

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I’ve inherited an aquarium, for the second time. The first time it was a gift when a friend’s husband passed away…she needed to re-home the fish and, knowing my younger son had a keen interest in them, she gave the tank to me. My son however, had unexpectedly acquired a lovely little flat and moved out. Which left me with a huge aquarium of which the dog did not approve.

The dog too was a recent acquisition at that time. My elder son had decided an assistance dog might be a good idea, so Ani had come into our lives. He too had found a lovely home and moved out, but the small dog had remained with me. You may detect a pattern developing here. My younger son, rather liking the tank and in the interests of appeasing the confused canine (who thought it her duty to protect me from the fish) adopted the aquarium and took it home, leaving me fishless. Meanwhile, my elder son created a huge pond for me to clean enjoy at his new home.

It should, then, have come as no surprise that when I finally moved out of the old place and into my younger son’s little flat, while he and his family went on to pastures new, the aquarium remained behind. Five years on, and although there are a number of fish in the tank, most of its original occupants have departed for celestial seas; only two of them are still with us. One is a small sucker fish whose presence I am aware of but who I have never really seen, the other is Mad Fish.

Mad Fish was a bit of a mystery. My son thought he might be some kind of tetra, but was not at all sure. There had been two, but one had died, leaving the other fish on his own. He was referred to as Mad Fish not as some vague insult, but because his behaviour was very, very strange; he spent almost all his time swimming in circles with his nose to the glass, particularly at night. “I think he’s lonely,” my son had said. “Missing his mate.” I watched him for a couple of weeks while, at the same time, learning about the various fish, how to look after them and trying to identify Mad Fish’s species. I learned a bit about fish behaviour and, when I finally found out what Mad Fish was, I began to think my son was right.

fish

He’s a Buenos Aires Tetra… which meant nothing to me, so I looked them up. They swim in shoals… maybe Mad Fish was trying to be a shoal with his reflection? Was he lonely? And was that just instinct… or emotion? Do fish have emotions? My relationship with the fish in the pond certainly makes me think so… but I looked up the science of if too.

Until very recently, we didn’t even know for certain whether fish felt pain, let alone had emotions.  It was discovered that they had a nervous system equipped to feel pain. Then came the next question… in order to suffer from pain, rather than simply react to it from self-preservation, there would need to be a level of consciousness. They experimented some more and found that fish could learn. Well, I could have told them that… Simon, the bubble blowing koi and his cohorts, have learned exactly how to get me to feed them whenever they choose. And anyway, it’s on Youtube… just look up ‘fish playing football’.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for the scientists, so they had to go for the labyrinth solving techniques…and found that fish can solve complex tasks, plan, co-operate and use faculties human beings don’t begin to develop until they are four years old.  Which, according to the scientists’ criteria, means they have not only a level of intelligence, but also of self-awareness… consciousness.  And science has a hard time explaining the essence of human consciouness, let alone that of creatures we have, for so long considered the epitome of mindlessness.

Consciousness and the ability to be aware…of joy and suffering, of pain and belonging… it is something we share with so many creatures in this world, many of whom were considered ‘dumb animals’ until so recently. Science does not know where consciousness comes from, nor how it arises…nor how far consciousness may extend into the natural world. We do not have the language to communicate with most of our world, we can only observe. Lives that are so very different from our own may well be showing levels of consciousness we simply cannot see or understand, but we cannot dismiss, simply because we do not see.

Do fish have feelings? If they are self-aware, then it would seem possible and must make us begin to question our attitude towards them and their treatment at our hands. After watching Mad Fish today, I, for one, am in no doubt.

I managed to find a local supplier of Buenos Aires Tetra and introduced a tiny shoal to the tank. I’m not ashamed to say I cried watching Mad Fish’s reaction. He stopped, mid dash… then dived across the tank, swimming in figures of eight through the shoal, over and over again at top speed. They followed him around the tank for a couple of hours, nose to tail. He is definitely  the top fish… and a happy one. Now, they are a shoal… and he hasn’t swum in circles or looked at his reflection once. He is not alone, he belongs… and it has changed his behaviour completely. I wonder how many people suffer that kind of emotional isolation…and what would happen if we all felt  that sense of kinship and that we truly belonged to the human family…and the greater family of Life.

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Embracing the new year

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I wander downstairs… the world is silent except for the little grunting noises Ani makes as I cuddle her good morning. I don’t speak dog fluently, but I have a feeling these short, low grunts are an expression of affection; you only ever hear them during cuddles and that is how we start our day, the small dog and I.

As the kettle boils I think about the headline I’d read about a twenty second cuddle being good for your health. I hadn’t looked up the science behind it, prepared to agree unquestioningly that cuddles are good for you. Just having someone close enough to open their arms to you, someone you trust enough to be able to hug back… that shows you have affection in your life and that has to be a good thing. Even if the arms are paws.

Cuddling is instinctive in many situations, from the moment a mother holds her newborn child to her heart it becomes a gesture of warmth and comfort. We cry on friends’ shoulders, reach out to hug each other for sheer joy, and it is one of the simplest and most eloquent expressions of friendship, empathy and love.

I don’t need the research to back up the logic of this, but I look it up anyway. Yep, cuddling affects oxytocin and cortisol levels… the bonding hormone and stress marker. And apparently cuddles have even wider health benefits for women than they do for men. That explains a lot… Women tend to be more tactile than men and, as an advocate of listening to what your body is telling you, perhaps it is a response to something deeper than a romantic longing for closeness.

I wonder if dog cuddles count scientifically? I know they do, of course, but wonder if the research has extended to include pets. The work done with MRI scans show dogs have complex emotions close to our own, not that any dog-person needs to be told that. I tap a quick query into the search bar; sure enough talking to them also reduces stress levels. So at least now I have a scientifically based excuse.

The coffee kicks in and I make a mental link with the recent headlines on the negative health implications of loneliness. If you don’t click on any of the other links, this one is worth the read. The results are stark and shocking in their reflection of how society is moving away from closeness to aloneness. Being on your own can be wonderful, of course, but serious loneliness isn’t. It is appalling. I recall many years ago, finding myself feeling such utter aloneness and isolation. It went on for a while… so long it was desperate enough that I had to resist the urge to reach out and touch people I passed in the street. Which sounds overblown, but honestly, that’s how it feels. And that was only for a few weeks. Can you imagine what it must be like for those who are lonely for years? It can, according to the studies, quite literally knock years off your life. ‘Even more than poverty’ says one report… but don’t get me started on politics at this time of morning…

By now we are back from our walk and I’m on the third coffee. I’ve been pondering the obvious link between these three bits of research. The extension to that, of course, is the social support that is lacking in the lives of the lonely and isolated. There is introspection instead of stimulation and interaction … and while both solitude and introspection can be a good thing when they are a conscious choice, they make for increasingly limiting conversation when it is all you have.

Modern communication methods are a double edged sword, of course. While it is easier than ever to keep in touch with people across the world it is also easier than ever to just send a quick message instead of picking up the phone or putting on your coat and going round to see someone. For those who do not have the technical expertise or the funds to access the technology this trend becomes yet another nail in a coffin that suddenly seems more realistic than proverbial. The high cost of travel for those on a limited income coupled with the long hours many have to work in order to survive further compounds the problem. We live in a society that is increasingly isolating us on a physical level and I wonder how readily we are accepting that isolation without realising its consequences?

Then of course, the coffee joins up another couple of dots and the well-known mental, emotional and physical benefits of helping others adds itself to the mix. So, even if we aren’t in need of cuddles ourselves, giving them to others still does us good.

Deeper reading of the research and commentaries and a bit of thought beyond the specifics and you can’t escape the idea that affection and companionship are good for health. And that the physical demonstration of that in terms of interaction… cuddles, eye contact, touch or a shared smile…even talking to the dog… is measurably good for us; physically, emotionally and psychologically.

For those who see Love at the centre of creation, this is no surprise; for to put it in simpler terms even the scientists now agree… love matters.

At a time of year when many of us make resolutions to improve our health, wellbeing and quality of life, it is worth thinking about. The cost of gym membership and therapy is high. Time and energy are limited. Perhaps all we need to do is to resolve to share more smiles, meet more eyes and hug more. Even if it is only the dog.

Adapted from an article originally posted on scvincent.com.