Looking back…

The Silent Eye is busy gearing up for the annual April workshop. Every year we host a residential workshop weekend in Derbyshire and every year people come from across the globe to join us for an adventure of mind, heart and spirit.

Past events have seen us travel through time from the far distant past to the unwritten future. The weekends are a frame for spiritual exploration, the costumes and colour bring the stories to life, while the scripted ritual drama engages the imagination and emotions, allowing us to learn from a shared experience.

Inevitably, these weekends have their ‘best bits’… the memorable moments that stand out from the rest. Such moments are largely subjective and doubtless everyone has their own, although the warm, friendship and laughter are a common thread.

Some of the highlights from the April workshops stand out not just as ‘workshop memories’, but as very special moments in my own life. I will not forget the opening of our very first ritual weekend, The Song of the Troubadour, when Steve and I sang the song written for that moment. Steve can sing…I cannot… yet together we harmonised. My unreliable voice soared, proving that limitations can be swept away, as we were carried on the wave of energy and emotion that lit up the temple.

I will not forget the shamanic drumming that opened each of the remaining rituals that weekend, nor the Child who sat at the centre of the sound, radiating peace. Nor the embrace given and received by the Mother, a moment of simplicity so beautiful I never thought it could be surpassed…until the Vigil.

At four in the morning, I took my place in the silent temple. An hour later, I was joined by Steve and then Stuart, the three of us forming an arrow of intent. We hoped a few would join us in stillness before dawn as we brought the Silent Eye into being. We never expected that every one of our Companions that weekend would be there, at that unearthly hour, to offer their gifts and support for the birth of the school. That was unforgettable.

Next came Land of the Exiles, where an interstellar craft touched down on a sentient planet and the crew sought to teach humanity and empathy to the mechanical mind that had taken charge of their ship. It is the hillside ritual that stands out for me most, and the parts of it I did not see, but heard of later. Gold winged, gold crowned and followed by a green Osiris, as Isis I waited on the dew-drenched hill for Anubis to bring the Companions to witness the dawn.

The wrappings of the mummified and near-hypothermic Osiris, were created with rope…and almost caused an accident when an early motorist caught sight of me tying up the green and white Osiris on the hillside… and steered his vehicle into the hedge.

Meanwhile, jackal-headed Anubis stalked the corridors, knocking on the doors of the Companions to collect them. I heard about that later… few were expecting that figure when they opened their doors and the reactions of some have become legendary.

I can attest to what a huge and surprising figure Anubis made that morning. I had left my room for a moment to prepare the temple… and returned to find the Jackal standing there, looking about eight feet tall and filling the space with his presence. Even though I had helped make the costume and done the ‘god’s’ make-up in the pre-dawn light, it was a startling sight…and I knew what to expect!

On a more serious note, what stands out in memory is a chant within a ritual and the cathartic journey of our Sekhmet, whose character grew from vulnerability to strength. What is played out in ritual changes nothing, though it may set the wheels of change in motion. When what is played out in ritual with intent is carried out into the world and acted upon in full consciousness, change and growth are inevitable…and beautiful.

In River of the Sun, we revisited ancient Egypt, this time following Rameses and his mentor, Menascare as the young pharaoh came into his power. Although the pharaoh’s nemyss appeared to have a life of its own, and Menascare, who was doubling as tech, had an iPad strapped to his staff to allow him to control the music, there were moments of great beauty, especially when once again, the written role of the young priest echoed the personal journey of its player. Such moments are not written with foreknowledge… though we knew there was only one person for that role once it was written. These moments are gifts. The Cave of the Seers was another gift, for many reasons, when a Presence other than our own filled the vessel we had crafted.

Leaf and Flame, based upon the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was memorable for a number of reasons, not least of which were the props and ‘special effects’ we had to come up with. It is not easy to behead a giant… even less so when he then has to pick up his head and walk away, offering the severed head to the assembled company and asking them to ‘pick a card, any card…’ from it.

We managed… with shadow play, Halloween props and a masked head. Granted, the bouncing of the ‘head’ as it fell caused some mirth in the temple as I dropped the football just a little too late… but on the hole, it worked well. The totem animal cards that were picked out by each of the Companions were uncannily pertinent too…

Mordred and Morgause making wagers over a gameboard… the temptation of Gawain and the ad-libbing of the temptress’ husband… the hunt in the green forest… the wedding of Gawain and Lady Ragnell, it is hard to pick a ‘favourite’. The most powerful moment though was one of sheer panic… you invoke Pan at your peril, and although we had not consciously made the connection at that point between Pan and the Green Man, the panic set in, affecting the most seasoned ritualists at one point… then that energy exploded in another way as Gawain was preparing to meet the Green Knight for the return blow.

We also had the Foxes and their fire dance that year… and a very special moment indeed as we led their procession into the arena.

After the prop-heavy Leaf and Flame, the Feathered Seer weekend was kept deliberately simple, returning to a more traditional ritual style and delving into the teachings of the Silent Eye. The story followed a young seer as she sought to preserve the wisdom of her people from marauders and brought the ancient and sacred landscape into the temple. It was unusual in that Stuart and I spent most of the weekend dead… representing the ancestors and the unseen presence that guides.

One of the greatest gifts of that weekend was the attention that everyone brought to the moment. When our shaman opened the temple, the energy levels rose. When the Companions walked the pattern of the enneagram, they did so with a grace and flow that was beautiful to witness. When both patience and silence were required, both were given in full measure. When our Lore Keepers acted out the tale we asked them to share, they did so with a flair, flamboyance and energy unlike anything you can imagine. The other highlights are less easy to convey; the emotion as fear was symbolically faced and dissolved, the work of the temple that was sent out into the world… and the innumerable synchronicities that let us know we were not working alone.

This year, with The Jewel in the Claw, we step back in time to the moments before Shakespeare’s demise. He takes us to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England where political intrigue is rife, and a queen holds a vision for the future of her realm. As April approaches, I wonder what new memories we will forge?

Twitching the curtains…

I stood at the window, doing the dishes and watching the sun set behind the houses. The old lady who lives at the end of the street walked by and smiled at me through the glass; there is no sense of privacy when the footpath runs right outside your kitchen window. Another window looks through the kitchen of my little flat to the bathroom and I panicked a few times, just after I moved in, realising that I was in the bath with a clear view to the street… The bedroom and living room look out onto fields, but they are also visible to the cows, the birds and anyone who happens to be in the gardens either side. When I notice, I still find this odd.

I was raised in Yorkshire, at a time and in a place where everyone had lace curtains. They were important. You could hide a good deal behind net curtains, from the poverty that neither asked nor expected to be helped, to the tragedies and comedies that are played out in every family home. As long as the ‘nets’ were white and the doorstep scrubbed, all was right with the world…at least as far as your public image was concerned. The curtains, often discoloured by coal fires, would be washed with ‘dolly blue’ to counteract the natural fading of the white fabric, or with lemon juice, borax or soda… it didn’t matter, as long as they ended up white.

My own generation grew up and the nets became more of a style feature than a social necessity. Heavy cotton lace gave way to light, synthetic fabrics that allowed more light in, but still preserved privacy…and still needed laundering once a month on principle. I never grew out of that.

As modern housing incorporated more efficient heating and glazing, the windows, and therefore the nets, got bigger and so did the washing of them. Status… according to some unwritten, underlying hangover from an older era, came with having matching nets throughout the house…and although you could suddenly buy coloured nets, if they were white, they had to be properly white.

But for all our new-fangled fabrics and fancy designs, the net curtains still hid the tragedies from public view and kept the sordid secrets of many a family and gave but a hazy view of the outside world.  There was a time when the heavy lace curtains served a very real purpose, giving dignity by protecting the poverty they so often hid. When they became a fashion accessory for the home, I wonder if we missed the point somewhere and, instead of preserving dignity, they served only to help us isolate ourselves.

These days, modern decor trends state that, unless you are going for a romantic, country or shabby chic look, net curtains are passé. When I moved in to the new flat, my own net curtains were never going to fit…and they were already passed their best. I didn’t fancy clambering over the sink once a month to launder them and the ‘look’ I was going for was sparse and practical, largely due to the new limitations on space. From what had been a fair-sized family home, I was downsizing to a place just for me, the dog and an aquarium full of inherited fish. Lace curtains were the least of my problems.

Even so, for a good while I felt exposed… vulnerable. That veil between me and the world, I thought, had served me well over the years. Without the nets, not only did I have an unobstructed view of the world, but people could see in. I found this strange and disconcerting, until I got so used to it that I no longer notice until something reminds me.

It has changed a few things though, this living in full view. I now make conscious choices about where I stand in the bathroom, if I should close a door, where I dress or whether to pull the big curtains closed. I choose what I allow the world to see, rather than automatically being hidden behind the nets. It is a subtle but important distinction.

It has made me conscious too of how much, over a lifetime, I have hidden behind my own ‘lace curtains’, presenting a socially acceptable picture to the world regardless of inner turmoil, tragedy or personal distress. That may sometimes be a matter of dignity, but it can also hide a deeper significance.

It is easy to retreat behind a polite facade and hide from the world, as long as the ‘nets’ look  white. It is even easier to use them to hide from ourselves, pretending that the ‘unwashed dishes’ and ‘unmade beds’ that cannot be seen through the veil, are not really there. It is not until the curtains come down and the light floods in, illuminating the dark and dingy corners of either a room or a life that we see what is really there…and it is only when we do so that we can begin to act to put it right.

Fewer windows, these days, seem to be veiled by lace curtains. I wonder how many others have noticed the difference it makes to their personal outlook on life as much as to their homes. Are we beginning to hide less, in this climate where so many things that were once swept under the proverbial carpet can be spoken of with an ever-lessening stigma? Spousal and childhood abuse, once so well concealed by those net curtains and never spoken of except, all too often, with blame for the victim, are no longer quite so easy to hide and are  little better understood by the general public. Are we ditching the nets because we are moving towards a more open society or the other way round?

When I first moved in here, I could not help noticing just how much is blocked by those net curtains, looking from both the outside in and, more importantly, from the inside out. I no longer need to leave my home to be intimate with a dawn or a sunset. I can see the stars from my bed… or step outside; it is no longer a necessity, it is simply a choice. By allowing the light to stream in unfiltered, I look out at an undiminished world… knowing all the while that it could gaze back at me, yet most of the time, it has better things to do. That seems to bring an unexpected freedom, a new honesty to the relationship with land and sky as well as a new level of choice and responsibility. Unadulterated light shows me the dust ball under the bed as clearly as the ones in my own being… and once seen, both can be addressed. Living in the laight also makes the colours sing and the crystal sparkle and shed rainbows… and perhaps it could do that for me too.

Field of dreams..?

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Long, long ago, when the world was still young and I was younger still, I moved into a house with a garden. It wasn’t much of a garden, long-deserted, overgrown and gone to seed, but my mind painted it in rainbows. Since getting married, we had lived in a flat and a ‘street house’ that opened straight onto the pavement. My only forays into gardening had been herbs on the kitchen windowsill. It was the first time I’d had a garden of my very own, though there had usually been one at my parent’s home and my grandparents’ long-established gardens were places of magic and mystery.

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It is odd to think that although I remember every home I have lived in very well, as well as those of my grandparents,  I remember the gardens better. I have but the vaguest of memories of my father’s family home. We probably did not visit all that often as my father was stationed in Kent where we lived in married quarters and I cannot have seen Longfield after I was about three years old. I recall the tiles on the floor of the porch, the billiard table in the cellars, and being helped to slide down the great oak bannister that framed the huge staircase in the hall. Outside, though, my mind still paints the shadows cast by the rhododendrons, the slopes that ran down the hillside into the woodland and the wide expanse of the croquet lawn below the terrace.

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I can still see the garden of the married quarters where we lived in Maidstone until I was three and  where I searched for an absconding tortoise. I could sketch, plant by plant, the gardens of my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents. It was here that I first began to learn the names of plants as a child and had my first lessons in herb-lore. I learned which were poisonous, which could be eaten or used in the kitchen or for medicinal purposes, and best of all, some of the folk traditions that went with the plants.

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When I finally had a garden of my own, I remember standing outside the back door one winter morning and looking at the mess we had acquired. I had no gardening tools other than a trowel, no plants and no money. All I had was a dream of life and colour.

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I took the kitchen shears to the vast meadow that had once been a lawn and to the overgrown privet hedge twice as tall as me. It took me days to cut the stuff back. Then I started on what had once been flower-beds, removing the obvious weeds, softening the hard, squared corners and trying to identify what might be in there that was worth saving. Dead wood was removed from old roses, unidentified shrubs pruned and woody stems that still bore traces of life cleared of bindweed. By the time I had it tidy, the snow was falling… and I was in love.

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My love affair with plants blossomed through the dark winter days as I read every gardening book I could get my hands on, delved deeper into herb-lore and planned impossibly expensive planting schemes in my mind. In reality, our meagre budget would not run to plants, so I set about nurturing cuttings, raising seedlings and collecting spare plants from everyone I knew. Even so, the huge empty beds were going to look bare for a long time to come.

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As winter deepened and turned the corner into spring, I began to learn the most valuable lesson of gardening…patience.

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With the winter rain and snow, Nature watered the mutilated garden well. The threadbare hedge I had hacked put out new leaves, filling the bare patches and becoming a dense, dark backdrop against which my few flowers would glow. As the seasons turned, the lawn became a vivid green starred with daisies and crocus. Self seeded lupins, dug up from the old railway line, were steadily filling out and patches of pretty ‘weeds’ I had encouraged to grow, like yarrow and loosestrife, were showing promise. I planted what I had acquired and waited.

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Spring brought clumps of snowdrops and aconite, followed by daffodils and tulips. They had been hidden, invisible beneath the soil and were a beautiful surprise. I recognised the poisonous but beautiful leaves of monkshood. The scarlet leaves that had prompted me to leave an untidy clump of plants alone in winter revealed themselves as geraniums. ‘Dead’ roses and an ancient hydrangea recovered and bloomed and a drift of lily of the valley filled the air with fragrance and memory. By midsummer, the dismal mud-patch had become a riot of life and colour, buzzing with bees and a paradise for butterflies. It had done most of it itself, in spite of the efforts of the novice gardener. All I had done was the groundwork.

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I learned a lot from that garden and the lessons have stayed with me, rooting themselves and flowering, bearing fruit that I have plucked and tasted in many areas of my life. The perfect visions I had created in my mind were surpassed by the hand of Nature when she was allowed free rein. But, no matter what had been hidden in that garden, it would not have thrived, nor would I have been able to see it, had I not cut back all the dead and dying material, letting in the light.

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I had worried about the empty beds; I did not realise that the seeds of beauty had been sown long ago and were silently waiting to bloom. So often we think we must strive to achieve something, only to find it is already there, dormant within us, waiting only for our care and attention to grow.

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In the movie, Field of Dreams, there is a phrase oft-misquoted as ‘build it, and they will come.’ I have read the sentiment before, if not the exact words, in Dion Fortune’s book, Moon Magic, when ‘Lilith’ speaks of building the temple in order for it to be indwelt by the gods. No sacred space, be it temple, church or our own being, is truly alive until it is a home for something more than its physical form, no matter how beautiful. No gardener creates the beauty of a flower. We can only clear and create a space, enabling the conditions in which it can grow and bloom.

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Where I now live, I have a small space I laughingly call a garden. I have planned the garden I would like to make, right down to the last detail… knowing it will probably never be anything other than a dream. For now, there are only a handful of rescued plants, no flower beds to speak of and a threadbare patch of grass that cannot be called a lawn. I doggedly exercise a gardener’s patience, waiting to see ‘what happens next’, trusting that when the time is right, the seed of purpose will grow and reveal itself.

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Even so, there is beauty. I need not lift a finger to see the seasons turn, the light change hour by hour or the stars illuminate the night. I need not dig and toil to create what is surpassed by every blossoming dawn. I need only watch to see the birds and insects at work, the dew scatter diamonds on the grass or the small dog fill the space with joy. Dreams are wonderful things, but you have to choose to make them happen, and you have to work to bring them into being. And sometimes, we work so hard chasing dreams that we forget to see the beauty of what is already there.

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Fan dancers

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I used to collect antique fans… I have a thing about them. Ever since I saw my great-grandmother’s little fan in the china cabinet as a girl, I have wondered about their stories. Grandma’s fan was a simple affair; pierced ivory brisé, threaded with a faded yellow ribbon to hold the sticks together and still wearing the ribbon hanging-loop she used to carry it over her wrist. She was a handsome woman when I knew her, already in her sixties when I was born, but there were some old, faded photographs of a young woman who had been more than handsome. Born when Queen Victoria was on the throne, she grew to womanhood  through the Edwardian era, she was married when George V became king. To a small child, this was ancient history! And Granny had been there!

It was with real excitement that I used to wait for the monthly Dusting of the China Cabinet, when Grandma would let me carefully take out the small antiques and curios, the memories in porcelain, ivory and silk and clean them with a soft cloth before rearranging them. I loved the paper-thin bone china of the tiny coffee-cups, the opaque glass Easter egg and, of course, the fan.

I could see the swirl of gaily coloured gowns, shy eyes meeting bold ones over the top of the fan, coy glances and maidenly blushes. Fans have a language all of their own and somehow I felt that I knew it. The little brisé fan, soiled now with the years, had been Grandma’s first and it was the first one to capture my heart. I learned to love them, from the social history of advertising fans, to the glorious feathers, mother of pearl sticks and ornately carved guards that protected their secrets. Many are exquisite works of art in miniature, incorporating many arts and crafts into a single, practical thing of beauty. Some of them were painted by people whose names have gone down in the annals of art history, others painted by the young girls themselves. They tell stories both in their design and in the hidden history of the hands that once held them. I always promised myself that I would collect fans one day if I could, and for a while I was privileged to be the custodian of such beautiful things.

There is more to my fascination, though, than their physical beauty. Before the onset of mass production, every fan was as unique as the hand in which it danced, rather like reality, fanning out before us from the single point of our unique perspective on the world. While I always wanted to be able to display my fans properly, I was always afraid of damaging them. The only way to put them on show long term is to stitch their spokes to a backing, hold their weight on a stand and encase them in a glass frame. This helps to stop them fading and warping… but while it preserves their form, it robs them of their mobility, stills their fluttering dance and puts them beyond reach…essentially rendering them useless… they can no longer fulfill their purpose.The best way to care for them is not to make a show of them, but to allow their own form to protect them, folded between the guards but ready to fly at the touch of a hand.

All things have their purpose and to fix and bind what should be free is to deny that purpose its free expression and its chance to be part of the dance of life. Where our own perceptions are fixed and blinkered, held in a showy rigidity that we can use to justify thoughts, words and actions, we too protect the outer form and cage the inner dance. We do not need the cold, glassy cage of fear. The outer layers of being with which we face the world are enough to protect us…and once those guards are opened, the true beauty that lies within is set free.

 Butterflies, late 19th century fan

The man without a face

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I must have been ten or so. We were on a school trip to York. As we walked beneath the arches of Micklegate Bar, a man walked towards us. The group fell silent, then the whispering started, and many pretended not to look or gawped instead. I knew about the ribbons he wore on his chest… they meant he had medals. I don’t know whether he was a veteran of the first or second World Wars… There was no way to tell how old he was. He had no face.

If I had the skill to capture memory with a pencil, I could draw him perfectly still. I have never forgotten him. Taut skin stretched and puckered, dead white with even whiter scars crisscrossing where his nose and one eye should have been. He had no hair… no ears… only holes in the side of his head. His mouth, little more than a pale line.

He looked neither right nor left, the crowds of tourists parted like some biblical sea in front of him as everyone seemed to want to keep their distance. He must have been accustomed to that effect… he had to have lived over twenty years that way. For some reason, the way he walked, perhaps… the smartness of his dress… I thought he was an airman.

Beneath the narrow archway he passed within inches of me, close enough that every detail of his face was imprinted on my memory. I remember clearly the personal dilemma… should I look away in case my gaze was an intrusion or look at him because he was a human being, and a serviceman, and I came from a family that had also served. Few families had not through the course of those two wars, but my father served still when I was young. He could have been anything… anyone… and so, somehow, he was everyone.

There are few now living who remember the start of the first Great War in 1914… the war to end all wars, or so it was hoped. The last serving veteran in Britain was Florence Green of the Women’s Royal Air Force, who died in 2012 at the age of 110. Claude Choules served in the British Royal Navy (and later the Royal Australian Navy) died 2011, also aged 110. He was the final surviving combat veteran of the conflict. Harry Patch, who died aged 111, was the final survivor of the trenches. Harry had fought at Passchendaele where it is estimated that well over half a million young men were killed or injured. No-one even knows how many.

If they are now gone, why should we remember?

There are children who grew in a fatherless world. Sons who had to become men too fast, taking the places of the lost. There were lives forever blighted by nightmares and memories, of what they saw, what they suffered… who they killed… Men and women who would speak instead of camaraderie and laughter and turn away to use a handkerchief or clear their throats.

And it wasn’t the war to end all wars after. It was ‘just’ another war in our appalling human history of bloodshed and violent conflict. We followed it with Dunkirk, D-Day, the Holocaust, Stalingrad… and still we fight, still the killing continues in every corner of the political globe.

To the soldier, sailor or aircrew who serve, the political debates and arguments matter little…. They are there because their country is at war, right or wrong. A dead German boy would have been mourned just as much by his mother as an Allied soldier. A Yemeni child just as much as an Afghan.

Last year alone it is estimated that over a hundred thousand human beings have lost their lives in armed conflict. It is hard to make sense of such a number. It is too big to grasp. Too impersonal. It needs a face.

Or not.

When I think of Remembrance Day, many faces flit through my memory, of grandparents and other family members… of friends who have served… of an old sea dog named Mick… and of a man without a face, whose face I will never forget, and who will, for me, forever be the face of war.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Robert Laurence Binyon [1869-1943]

First posted November 2015

Framing the past

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I had bought a couple of cheap frames while I was in town  Inevitably, as it was a spur of the moment purchase, they were the wrong size for the paintings I intended to frame, but, with the thought of the boxes of old scribblings and paper piled in the corner upstairs, a trip to the studio might produce something.

Now, let’s be fair. Although I paint and have a room grandly referred to as the studio, in actual fact it is the simple luxury of a tiny back bedroom now vacated by the last of the fledglings. It is space I inherited from my younger son and the luxury of a room little bigger than a cupboard cannot be overstressed when canvasses the size of a small county have, hitherto, been painted on an adapted deck chair in the living room, getting in everyone’s way and making dinner taste inevitably of turpentine and varnish.

It is ironic, of course, that I finally have this space to use uniquely for painting yet, when I do paint, I tend to bring the whole lot downstairs so I can spread out, oblivious of the mess or the turpentine flavoured coffee as there is now only me and the dog…and she will curl up quietly under the easel wherever it is. It is the only time she does.

yellow lightThe piles of boxes hold sketches and pads full of stuff going back years…decades. I keep meaning to go through them and throw the rubbish away, which would be most of it to be honest, but I never get round to it.

For years they were shoved into the attic to make way for an ever increasing household as my own children grew, stepsons, their children and dogs took over the small house. In relative silence I stood by as more and more of the things by which I thought I identified myself… books, paintings, photographs and memories from the past… were pushed to one side to make way for others and the necessities of daily life.

I imagine many people will identify with this if they think about it, in some form or another. It may be that personal pleasures and hobbies are foregone in order to fund things for the children. Time, energy and opportunity are spent where the priorities and necessities lie. And at some point most of us turn round and wonder who on earth we have become, because it sure as hell isn’t who we thought we would be.

It took me a while, of course… half a century or so… to really pinkgrasp that the ‘things’ don’t matter. They do not define me, simply remind me of times, places and people I have known. They may reflect my tastes or my efforts, my experiences or my hopes and dreams. But they are not me. They are not the experience, the person, the place or the dream. They are not even the memory. They are just things. Precious by association, meaningful because of memory, irreplaceable sometimes, but they only describe or reflect, they do not define.

And I have a feeling that once you come to that realisation, you are able to let everything go. I’m not suggesting a mass bonfire of memories and photographs here. I mean simply that you can enjoy them for what they are, triggers for memory, reflections of dreams…things you own, but which do not own you.

I was torn between cringing and chuckling at the awfulness of some of the things I had kept in those piles of papers.  But I found a few to frame. Not because they have any artistic merit at all, but because they remind me of a journey I have been taking all my life to bring me to today. They remind me that I have had the courage to try something new, to experiment, to play and explore, to laugh at myself, to not be afraid of mistakes or failure, because they teach us more than success, every  time.

So I framed past failures and hung them on the wall. And do you know something? They still make me smile.

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