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.

mill lass

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.

Filling the cup

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 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.

A pattern in the night

Image: Pixabay

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 hand. Nothing to do with typing too much 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 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. 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 sleepy child 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.

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.

Exploring reality?

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It was one of those conversations where a simple thought ended up taking us a long way. There had been a dream… one of those where it seems more real than reality and a lifetime is lived in the space of a night, and though completely out of context in terms of the waking self, it has its own validity and depth.

In such dreams you have relationships… ones that feel, to the dreamer, to be as full and rounded as in an ordinary day. That’s where the discussion started. How do relationships work in dreams? They are built on memory… How can a dreamer have memories of events neither their dream-self nor their day-self has experienced? And if that is impossible, how can there be relationships of love, friendship, fear? And yet, when we dream, we feel them. An interesting one to ponder…

You could put it down to a ‘straightforward’ psychological ability to synthesise emotional relationships in dreams based on experience in ‘real life’. You might consider past life memories if you believe in that possibility. We considered the theory of parallel and multiple realities where a dream might be a glimpse through a rift between them… We came to no conclusions except that the phenomenon is strange, whatever the cause and must be akin to what is felt in full awareness with those who have visionary experiences.

The more you think about it, the odder it seems. Most of us can call up the image of a face of a stranger… any face will do… probably one you have seen but taken no note of that has lodged in the photographic part of the memory. The image may be sharp or hazy… but the emotions are basic, little more than a gut reaction, if that. What you are calling up is a deliberate construct. Nothing more than a mental photograph about which you know nothing.

It made me think, for some reason, of my experience with PTSD. The flashbacks take you into a snapshot of emotion… the images, sounds, sights and smells are all ‘real’ during an episode, a moving image in which you walk… but the memory is false, being stuck in a scenario that has lost its connection to time and cannot therefore move forward or be filed in the past.

When a face to which we have a connection already comes unbidden to the mind, it brings with it a whole raft of response based on the span of time and emotion shared up to this point as well as our feelings for what the future may hold. It calls up their history, our own and our shared story; you know so many things about that person… not just that face.

And that is where the problem of dreaming takes you; if a dream is no more than a mental construct, how can it have such depth? How can there be past and future? You know nothing of the past, present or future… you have no memories, no experience of the people you meet in sleep. They should be ‘flat’… their stories as empty as if you tried to show the whole of an epic trilogy in a single photographic frame… yet instead there are those who imprint themselves on our memories and find a place in our hearts or our fears, because, somehow, we know them.

Dreams bend the rules of normality in so many ways and the most ridiculous situations can seem absolutely feasible. The most meaningful of relationships can flower in what may be measured as the blink of a sleeper’s eyelid. We did come to one conclusion; perhaps, just perhaps, our dreams serve other purposes than those posited by psychologists and scientists… maybe they allow us to explore the impossible and through their very impossibilities and give us space to question our perception of reality itself.

Slimegrobbels and custard…

“Tell me a story…”

My granddaughters and I were sitting on the floor of their pink-painted cabin at the bottom of the garden. I had evicted yet another invading spider and, while the youngest sat on my knee, her almost-five year old big sister was sprawling in the pink armchair.

The three of us had been playing. I had pushed little Imogen on her swing until she giggled with joy and had chased Hollie around the garden, swinging her up onto my shoulders and teaching her to stand on her head in a fairly unorthodox manner. Somehow, small children make you forget the aches and pains… at least until next morning when you try to move again.

By this point though, we had settled down in the playhouse and eaten a meal of chocolate-dipped worms and green slimegrobbels with custard… a menu chosen by Hollie and lovingly prepared by the smallest of chefs. I could only be thankful that the meal was imaginary… and delight in the serious expression with which Imogen, barely two years old, ‘cooked’ and ‘ate’ the ‘food’ while Hollie supervised. Watching a child’s imagination begin to flower is a beautiful thing.

As we settled down in the pink palace built by a besotted father for his princesses, Hollie asked what we should play next. I asked her to tell me a story.

“I don’t know any stories…” She held up empty hands, but that, I knew, was far from the truth. Not only can Hollie tell a good story from those she has heard, she also creates whole imaginary worlds for us to play in.

“You know lots of stories…” Hollie sighed and rolled her eyes in a manner that will serve her well when she has children of her own.

“Just pretend I don’t know any stories, Grandma… so, you’ll have to tell one.” I had walked into that, so we snuggled up and I began with the traditional words…

“Once upon a time, on the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl. She was as pretty as a princess and loved to wear a red riding cloak with a hood. Her name…” I could see the satisfaction as Hollie recognised the tale, “was Fred…”

Fred???”

“Fred.”

Hollie, her interest well and truly caught, sat forward in her armchair as I told how Little Fred Riding Hood had gone to visit Grandmother in the woods, carrying a basket of slimegrobbels, because Grandmother’s best friend, the Wolf, was poorly…and how, when she arrived at the cottage, Fred found that the wicked witch, disguised as a woodcutter, had changed them both into gingerbread men who had been packed in a giant’s lunchbox and had to be rescued by the fairy godmother who turned them into pumpkins by mistake.

Imogen was almost asleep, but Hollie had listened to every word. She sighed again.

That was just a pretend story, Grandma. Now tell me the real one…where Red Riding Hood isn’t called Fred… or anything else…” She went on to give me a synopsis of the whole adventure so that I would not miss any of the important details.

I smiled and told the story, pleased that my little granddaughter could tell the difference between a ‘real’ and a ‘pretend’ fairytale. It wasn’t simply that she knew the original plot well, she recognises that such tales have to be told in a certain way… ‘properly’, she called it. That is a common thing for children. The words and how a story is told matters.

What struck me most, though, was that from the way she was telling me the storyline, she also seems to understand, at some instinctive level, that while fairytales are not true, they are real in their own way. They have their own integrity and, when ‘properly’ told, they are important. Arbitrary changes are not allowed as they alter the essence of the story completely and, at the heart of every old fairytale, there are lessons to be learned whose sense will be lost if the salient details are altered.

In the days before the majority could read or write…and even further back, to a time before the written word was invented, storytelling would have been very much a part of the life of the tribes and families as they gathered around the light of the hearthfire. Stories would have been valued, from the anecdotes the old ones told of their youth, to the tales of the hunters, to those told by the shamans and teachers.

Much wisdom can be concealed within a story… and such tales would have been learned young, perhaps long before they were fully understood. Because they were stories, not obvious lessons, they would have been remembered and both the stories themselves and the hidden wisdom they held would have been passed down through the tribes and clans, just as we still remember the fairytales of childhood and tell them to the children at our knees.

As I sat there with my granddaughters, I felt that we were part of a story that goes back to the earliest human lives… and forward into a future that will one day leave even our memories behind. I remembered my own early years, looking up at great grandma and saying those same words. Images flitting across the screen of memory like gentle ghosts… a child absorbing lessons unawares, their stories attached to the emotions they engendered… and to the love of the storyteller .

Will Hollie tell her granddaughters about Little Fred Riding Hood one day? Will Imogen teach her grandchildren to make slimegrobbels and custard? How far into the past do we reach with that one simple phrase? How far into the future will one shared fairytale carry us as children uncountable say the magic words…

“Tell me a story.”

In black and white

 

Shadows, by Nick Verron
Shadows, by Nick Verron

I held out my foot, and pointed the camera… the reflection of black shoe and white skin in the black gloss desk was interesting. Thought provoking… just a reflection… perfect symmetry but as a negative colour. “Our lives are just a collection of images, aren’t they?” said my son. “Just reflections of the images our minds perceive.”

We had been talking about photography again and looking at some of the images he had taken and discussing why they work… or not, as the case may be. One in particular caught my attention… a black and white rendition of ducks on what looks like the edge of the Rimfall of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is surprising how much difference the black and white rendering makes to a shot. Uninteresting, everyday objects seem transformed and we look at them in a new way. They evoke a different response.

When I was a very young woman, my grandfather gave me a camera. I had always enjoyed taking pictures, but knew nothing of ‘proper’ photography. This new camera was a pretty basic SLR and I had no idea how to use it and determined to find out. I recall the moment it all changed and I began to see the creative possibilities of photography. I saw something from the top of the bus on my way to work and, that evening, grabbed the new camera, donned the boots, hat and scarf, and tramped through the village in search of a picture. I had never done that before… until that point I had done no more than take snapshots of places, people and events. But the long row of telegraph poles, high on the hilltop stood starkly black against the snowdrifts and I found that I really wanted to take that shot.

 

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I never became a ‘proper’ photographer, amateur or otherwise; I still just take pictures. Grandad’s old  SLR died fairly soon afterwards on a Spanish beach and life had other plans for me than letting me play with cameras. But that brief interlude, learning to see through the restriction of a lens, left its mark. The observation that comes with wielding a camera doesn’t fade, and the world took on a visual richness and a depth of interest that remains.

Processing photos is an interesting thing to observe too. The addition of deeper shadows can make colours sing and light dance and sparkle, changing a picture from mediocre to arresting in seconds. Sometimes a detail may drawn the eye and, with a little judicious cropping, the image of something familiar becomes an abstract work. Or perhaps you capture a moment in glorious colour, but change it to monochrome instead. Such changes can be startling, altering what we percieve and how. They change the mood, make us think; lifting us out of the ordinary and dropping us into unfamiliar territory. Our points of reference are altered, or taken away altogether, and it can be difficult to decipher an image at first glance.

Playing with the settings on the camera and idly snapping away at my son’s home as we talked, perceprion, recognition and memory were all called into question. Our lives, as my son had said, really can be compared to a collection of images, string together as memories. Moments perceived quite often in black and white, then coloured by memory and emotion. Sometimes those inner images are altered by abstraction from their place in time, or we turn up the contrast so high that we can’t really make out what we are seeing. The filters we apply to experience make things feel unfamiliar when we look back at them in memory.

When the shadows are very dark it may seem as if they are all we can see… yet we are not really seeing shadows, or an absence of light, just its interuption. Light and shade go hand in hand. You cannot see one without the other. On a photograph, it is the shadows that throw the light into relief and allow it to illuminate what we are seeing. In our lives, the dark times are the backdrop against which we can see what we have lived and who we are.

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City rhythm…?

I couldn’t remember the last time I had walked so far on urban pavements. I generally avoid going into town with all the dedication I would show to avoiding, say, a dinner invitation from a ravenous vampire…and for much the same reasons; both leave you limp and lifeless. But, with the car off the road, the cupboards bare and the fish needing medical supplies, I had little choice.

It isn’t that I don’t walk… just that I live in a rural area. A tramp across the fields with the dog is a very different affair to walking on concrete. Quite how different, I had not realised until today. It isn’t just the external stuff like traffic, noise and scenery… walking on concrete changes everything.

The first thing I noticed was how much my pace and posture changed, from the relaxed mooch to a business-like stride. The rhythm of my steps was very different, I covered the ground faster and my back was straighter than usual, shoulders low and head held high.

The next thing I noticed was that the few people I passed all smiled before looking away. This, in itself, is unusual in towns, where most people avoid eye contact at all costs. Then it dawned on me why… I was singing.

I could see why I was getting the covert glances… and smiled to myself as I realised exactly what I was doing.

When I was very young, we did not have a car. My mother didn’t drive, my father was stationed abroad, so it was either the bus or Shanks’s pony. As far back as I can remember… and my memory is pretty good… as we walked, my mother and I, we would sing. It helped pass the time and took my mind off the distance my little legs were covering.

It started with my mother singing to me until I learned the words, which I soon picked up. There used to be a tape of a very small girl singing Gracie Fields’ ‘Sally’. I was so young at the time that my logic was a bit odd by adult standards; I could only sing that song and no other because I had a poorly finger… and the finger was poorly because my mother had made me eat cabbage.

Later, we would sing old music-hall favourites, popular songs, lyrics from musicals and even the odd aria. We could sing the entire score of ‘The Five Pennies’ between Town End and Waterloo Lane, and we knew the scores of any number of films. Sometimes we recited poetry instead, from Spike Milligan to the monologues of Marriot Edgar, via Wordsworth and Keats. And we always practised any numbers I needed for the musical comedy routines of dancing school.

When my own sons were small, we walked everywhere too. I did not drive and, in a city with excellent public transport, did not need to learn. And, as we walked, we recited those same poems and sang many of the same songs.

Perhaps it was the rhythm of my footsteps, but walking into town today, I found myself singing those old songs. And, quite apart from the fact that I should never be allowed to sing in public, for fear of offending passing eardrums, most people don’t do that.

It is one of those things that is simply not done,  though I cannot for the life of me think why that should be so. If I’d had a child by the hand, no-one would have batted an eyelid, but a solitary adult, singing to themselves, draws strange, strained glances followed by a rapid averting of the eyes. Had they been close enough to hear me sing, I could have sympathised.

I did have a child with me, though. She has never left me and will always sing as she walks. We may simply see the inner child as the first psychological blueprint of our growth, or we may see it as the soul-child and a link to something deeper still; the two do not preclude each other. For me, she is more than nostalgia or memory, I carry her within and she is, in many ways, the ‘mother’ of the adult. She exists as a purer state of being, uncontaminated by the failures, frailties and falsities of an  adult existence. It is through her eyes that I see a world filled with wonders. It is through her that I touch excitement, faith and hope and it is she who still reminds me that love is unconditional. And, if she wants to sing, that’s fine by me.

The space under the stairs…

Image: Pixabay

I am not at all certain what it was that sparked the memory, but I had a very clear picture in my mind today of a magical place that has not existed for the past half a century. I could call it my childhood home, though we probably only lived there for about five years, until I was ten. I have a good visual memory and remember even my very first nursery, but this was the house where isolated vignettes of memory became a continuous story… and nowhere was more fascinating to a small child than the space under the stairs.

As you entered the house, the staircase rose to your left, the kitchen door was on the right, and the hallway led straight ahead to the living room. In the dark, triangular space beneath the stairs was a small table upon which sat my mother’s Imperial typewriter… a great black affair with a temperamental red and black ribbon and keys picked out in ivory. It was heavy, already ancient and each key made a satisfying ‘clunk’ when depressed. I spent hours typing on that thing, though I had to use the red inked part of the ribbon, as my mother needed the black for her writing. I must have typed ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ more times than I had hot dinners, disentangling the arms with their raised letters when my fingers worked quicker than they could.

On the back wall was a bookcase that held my mother’s manuscripts, a set of encyclopaedias and a carved wooden bear she had been given in Switzerland for her twenty-first birthday. The tallest wall held another bookcase, guarded by an alligator. Quite why she had this product of the taxidermist’s art in her possession, I never really knew. I did ask, but there appeared to be no reasonable answer. Although I was never entirely happy about stuffing animals and birds, having seen too many of them under their glass domes in my great grandmother’s red velvet sitting room, I did quite like this alligator. He smiled, and, when a guardian of knowledge smiles on you, all is right with the world.

Behind the alligator, there were books, of every description. From fact to fiction, on every conceivable subject… and, in spite of my tender years, I was free to read them all. Victorian moral tales rubbed shoulders with Madam Blavatsky and Spike Milligan. T. Lobsang Rampa shared a shelf with an autographed copy of Longfellow. I curled up with Bullfinch’s Mythology and Edward Lear and was as likely to read myself to sleep with Wilde, Bronte or Wheatley as I was to pick up Enid Blyton or C. S. Lewis. It was, had I but known it at the time, an amazing education. And not just for the books I was able to read.

My mother’s philosophy was simple… if I read something I was too young to understand, it would do me no harm and might encourage me to learn. For words I did not know, there was a dictionary. For things of which I knew nothing, there were the encyclopaedias. For concepts I did not understand, I could ask. And, as long as I could frame the question, there would always be an answer.

The answers might be phrased in a way a child could understand, they were often illustrated by analogies, but they were never ‘dumbed down’ or dismissive. Nor were the answers always cut and dried. While one plus one might equal two, discussions on more obscure subjects, like the nature of the soul, the thorny question of whether we only have ‘three score years and ten’ to learn all a human soul might need to learn and whether or not reincarnation was a reality, were always left open-ended. We explored the ideas, discussed the options and examined a variety of beliefs but the conversation would still end with the same thought… “Only you can find your answer.”

How could that be? If something is true or false, I thought, surely it is always true or false? It took a while to realise that simply being true is not Truth and that although there must be Truth somewhere in the vastness of Creation, we are probably not be big enough to see much of it. Our perspective is that of a grain of sand looking at the enormity of the Universe… and our vision is limited.

Slowly, I learned to ask the question… not just of others, though I learned much from listening to their opinions, thoughts and beliefs, but of something both within and without myself. There is always an answer… though sometimes I am still too ‘young’ to understand it and it only becomes clearer as time and growth open the gates of understanding. Over the years, I found many possible answers, but every so often one comes along that feels ‘right’ in an inexplicable way. It does not necessarily mean that it is true, but it has a rightness about it that answers the need of the moment. Some are discarded as new facets of life open, others become part of who you are and evolve as you grow.

The lessons we learn as children are not always good. We learn behaviours, prejudices, fears and opinions that will shape or scar us for life. What we take on board is not always what we are taught… it can, just as easily, be a reaction against what we are taught, by life, books or people. But sometimes, we are given gifts we do not appreciate until we have lived enough to understand them better.

The alligator is long gone, his stitched seams undone, his sawdust spilled. The carved bear went missing in transit, the typewriter fell silent and the Longfellow was lost in a move. Many of those same books sit on my bookshelves today but, fifty years after we packed the space under the stairs into boxes, I still carry its magic with me.

The gift of memory

One of the things we take away from our weekend workshops are the memories. Faces, places, people, conversations and realisations, all combine to create a kaleidoscope of intangible souvenirs that find their own place in the hierarchy of memory. We may share an adventure, but the memories are unique for each of us and it would only be by combining all of them that a true picture of the weekend would even begin to emerge. We each bring our own perspective to the experience, and what will seem unimportant to one may be awe-inspiring to another. Some of what we experience will seem so mundane that it fades into the background, barely registering its presence in our minds, some moments will make such an impression that they remain fresh and evergreen for the rest of our lives.

Memories are more important than we consciously realise most of the time. They form the foundation of who we are and, in many ways, define who we become. Our loves and dislikes, our dreams and even our most illogical-seeming fears all have a basis in memory and, when it is lost, through illness, age or accident, we lose much of the person we have always felt ourselves to be, as well as the person others knew.

It is not that the memories have been erased… they have simply been filed away and the key to unlocking them lost. This is something I have come to understand in a far more conscious way since my son’s brain injury…  all the details are still there, but he cannot access them unless he is given the right key. That may be something very simple and seemingly unrelated… and yet it can unleash a flood of memory and the chains of association reveal layer upon layer of recollection.

At our Northumberland weekend, I was given a birthday gift that did the same for me. The ceramic art reminded me of the Moorcroft pottery that I love with its colours and textures… which in turn took me back to running my own antiques stall, working with my mother and learning the trade, a day looking in awe at the glorious Moorcroft shop in Windsor with a friend… and the tiny plate I was given months later. It opened up a vast chain of details I had forgotten from my children’s childhood… a vintage fox fur with which two small boys chased each other around grandma’s shop, tea and buttered scones as Mum and I talked and taught the boys to play chess in the storeroom…and then back to my own childhood, playing in the toy shop that my mother managed and being fed sweets by Mrs Brown who owned both toy shop and sweet shop with her husband. The memories flowed…

The subject was bound to take me back… to a time and place when the world was opening its doors to me and I lived in a state of wonder and adventure. Paris… walking the wet pavements after dark, feeling my heart skip a beat every time the dome of the Sacré-Cœur came into view, talking until the small hours with the artists who were my friends in Montmartre… a time when the emotional rollercoaster of youth rode every high and low with untrammelled enthusiasm in a place I loved with all my heart.

There was something else too. The gift had been chosen because it would remind me, and that gesture of thought and friendship conjures its own memories, from first encounter to the birth of the Silent Eye and beyond… with all the faces and places in between… until past meets present and the future begins to reveal its paths at our feet, where yet more memories will be made.

Memory adds depth and richness to our lives and anything that sparks our innate ability to revisit a moment time through its good offices is a gift beyond price. Yet, we cannot and should not live in the past… even if we retrace our footsteps, seeking out places and people we once knew, the present and the past will never be the same, for we ourselves have changed, and hopefully, grown, often because of that moment in time to which thought and memory may carry us. We may never return, but the past lives in us and adds the colour and texture of its story to our own.