A touch of inspiration

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I knew I should have pulled over and written it down. All the way into work, the words just flowed. It was good stuff and I was learning as I spoke the words out loud, writing the imaginary article with my voice in an attempt to fix it in my mind. So many things just clicked into place, opening my eyes to shreds of understanding that came together in a perfect tapestry of glowing colours… There was no way I was going to forget this.

But. There’s always a but… The cat was waiting behind the glass of the door…and the door wouldn’t open. The keys were still in place on the inside. I couldn’t wiggle my key in far enough… and it was raining….then the cat needed to be fed and let out… and my son shouted through for coffee…. and by the time I had finally managed a moment to pick up a pen, the entire thing had gone, vanished as if it had never been.

Midway through the morning, with my hands full of soapy dishes, it flashed back into consciousness. I dropped the dishes, dried my hands and grabbed the pencil that is kept on the counter… and realised it had gone again. Completely. Not a single thread of thought joined one moment to the next… yet, I know it is still in there, hiding in the dusty corners of consciousness. Memory, even the memory of a thought, doesn’t disappear. It may be placed beyond our reach in the deepest dungeons of the mind, or the retrieval system may itself fail, but the memories remain.

They can be very good at hiding though.

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When inspiration strikes, it is elusive. Unless captured on the instant, it disappears into the depths of memory and may remain forever hidden. Writers are well used to this phenomenon. Most of us waft around with an assortment of pens and pencils, a notebook or three and have been known to scribble such thoughts down in weird and wonderful ways. The trouble is that when inspiration strikes while you are driving through rush hour traffic on a busy road, you cannot stop to scribble at all and it is both inadvisable and illegal to try to fiddle with the mobile phone’s voice recorder.

Fixing  a thought in memory by speaking it aloud often works. Sometimes, so does creating a visual scene for it in imagination and placing the words and concepts within it. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t. Attention that has held the concept firmly in place is dragged away by events and the moment is lost.

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It isn’t just writing inspiration that comes that way though. The spiritual realisations come in a similar manner and are just as elusive. They can be even more difficult to pin down too as they are often so abstract that a single phrase encapsulates a whole world of meaning… and yet the phrase in itself means nothing; it is only a catalyst and a key, a crack in the doorway that lets the formless light of illumination flood in.

And then it is gone…and you feel as if, for a moment, you had been given the greatest of gifts, only to lose it in the mire.

Nothing is ever is wholly lost. Sometimes memories are placed beyond our reach by our own minds, by malfunction, or buried so deep in the archives that without the correct ‘file-path’ we can never find them again. Sometimes they are buried for a reason..perhaps to protect us from what we are not ready yet to remember or to know. But they are always there.

Just as a story may take years to come to fruition after the first seed of imagination emerges, so too, when the time is right and the ground fertile, will the seeds of inspiration thus planted germinate and bloom.

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Filling the cup

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Image: Pixabay PD

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

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

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

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

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

Or had I?

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

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

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

You can’t take it with you…

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The hottest day of the year so far and what am I doing? Sunbathing? Gardening? No… I’m building bookshelves and unpacking dusty boxes. They say that you can’t take it with you, but that applies to a more distant removal… a mere downsizing means that you can. At least some of it. Especially if it has pages and a spine.

I did re-home or dispose of a good many books when I moved. I really did. To those who pointed out that I have too many books… I must finally admit that they were right, although not in the way they meant it. I do not…in fact, I believe it is impossible to have too many books. The problem arises when what you lack is bookshelves in which to house them. And walls that have space for more shelves.

For the past few days I and my trusty screwdriver have been tackling the MDF forest. I am currently taking a breather from lugging boxes of books…and looking for the buried-somewhere-I-wouldn’t-lose-it tape measure to see if I can squeeze at least one more bookcase in somewhere.

There is, however, a growing pile of empty boxes on my bedroom floor and several rapidly filling bookcases are finally looking lived-in. Or lived through… which is probably closer to the truth. The books are not just books… they are a reference library, a playground, an adventure… they are a spiritual quest and repository of knowledge… and tucked between their pages are memories.

Many of those memories go back a very long way, to the people who first owned the books. My grandparents’ names are inscribed in copperplate within the covers of many of them. My own is inscribed in a childish hand in those I wait to read to my grandchildren, as I read them to my sons. All of the pages hold memories of the emotions and realisations experienced as I lived an adventure of imagination and learning.

And some of them hold other things, more tangible. Like the photo that fell from between the pages of a children’s story that has my very first ‘love letter’ on the back. Okay, we were ten or eleven… but he sent it because we would miss each other while he was on holiday… and signed it, ‘Love, Neil’…. and my heart felt that first feminine flutter of a daughter of Eve.

He will be middle aged… getting old, just like me. Looking at that handsome young face, though, it did not occur to me to wonder where he is now and what he looks like. I remembered only the tenderness and excitement… the silly things like walking past his door and hoping he would see me… and the thrill of that first letter from Ingoldmells. None of that was in the photograph… just a boy on a beach, but the tide of memory came rolling in.

It was then that I realised that you can ‘take it with you’… and we do.

All the books I have ever read have left their mark, just as all the people I have met have done. Every experience, every word, every lesson. Some have passed through my life with the lightest of touches, barely ruffling the surface of memory, leaving neither footprint nor scar. Others have buried themselves deep and secure in the fastness of my heart and soul.

I realised too why the physical books still matter. Their presence is their trigger. Every day as I pass them, the names on the spines, author and title, nudge memory into action and what I have learned from them, the adventures they have taken me on, the joy I have experienced through them is all brought back closer to the surface. They remind me of who I am, who I was and how I hope to grow. I do not need them… I enjoy them. They do not define me… but they have helped to shape me and, as I revisit the memories in their pages, will continue to do so.

Everything we experience leaves a trace in memory. We dismiss the majority of what we see and do as it lacks emotional importance and it is filed away so carelessly that memory will seldom retrieve it. Other things stay in the surface of the mind… the things that mark or matter, the times of intense emotion or revelation. Even those need a trigger before we recall them. Age, illness and injury make the memories appear to fade… I don’t think that they do, it is our access to them that becomes more difficult or even impossible. But what each of these moments and people have truly given us, that stays with us, changing us as we grow , gradually becoming part of who we are. Whether we dismiss something…or someone… as being of no importance, or embrace the gift we are given in full consciousness… nothing is lost or wasted. Least of all Love.

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 today reading 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 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.

Forget-me-not

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Image Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patterns in the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andromeda Galaxy. Image: NASA

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

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

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

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

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

animation by brian0918™
Part of a DNA double helix