The edge of the precipice

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Driving home, there was one of those moments of sheer, unadulterated joy when the fields were lit with pale sunshine, the sky a clear blue and the feel of the car around me occupied my whole being. I can’t think of a better way of putting it. It is one of those things for which words seem too small. Yet, you could argue, it is only a car… getting on a bit, less than perfect and just a machine.

On the other hand, what it means to me, personally, is something quite different. The world inside the car is a place out of the ordinary. It is a haven from importunate necessity, an oasis of silence in spite of the roar and rattle it carries with it; a place where thoughts can blossom and bear fruit. It is possibility, control and freedom… and sometimes escape. It allows me to serve the needs of everyday life, as well as to follow my heart into the hills.

In itself, it is none of these things. It is just a metal box on wheels. It becomes, however, the symbol for all these things and more because it is the vehicle of my choices.

It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to learn to drive. I had started… had my first lesson… in my late teens just before a drunk driver ploughed into the car in which I was a passenger. A fractured skull and a rearranged, reconstructed face left me too afraid of cars to try and drive again. The blow to the fragile self-confidence of a teenager was profound and the scarred face itself a major life-lesson it took many years to appreciate for the gift it was.

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Over the years many people encouraged me to try and learn to drive. It was nearly twenty years before I found the courage to try again and only then because I felt it necessary when my partner was terminally ill. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise… I was too scared and had absolutely no confidence in my ability to become either safe or proficient. Fear had me completely caged, but I came to a point where I felt ready to tackle the bars of my self-imposed prison.

Perhaps those who had encouraged or pushed me to learn earlier were right. Or perhaps I would not have had the confidence to learn before I did. I may have missed years of enjoyment… or avoided a potentially lethal fear hitting the road. Who knows? Be that as it may, I made a decision and went for it.

All I do know for certain is that by the end of that first month’s lessons I was hooked. I loved it. These days, even some twenty years later, there are few places I am happier than behind the wheel. I love driving. Facing the fear had proved it to be no more than a shadow and, critically, one I finally realised that I had adopted and accepted as a habit. The car, previously a symbol of distress and panic, became a thing of confident joy.

It is often the way. There are choices we have to make, fears that we have the opportunity to face; personal precipices where we stand on the edge looking out over what seems to be a huge gulf of terrifying uncertainty knowing you can only fall or fly.

There is a moment of calm and clarity when you know that you can choose your course of action. There may be those who urge you forward or who seek to pull you back, holding you in safety away from the edge. Yet while their advice and counsel may inform your decision, you are the only person who can make that choice. You are the only one who has the power to choose what course of action is really right for you at that time. It is only necessary to be genuinely prepared to face the moment and make a conscious choice.

You may choose to turn away from the edge… to step back into the safety of the known. You may choose to step off the edge of the precipice, knowing that you may fall.

And sometimes you find that you have wings.

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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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Bean-Stalker…

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One of the ‘Cove Stones’ from the Avebury complex.

*

…Crisis!
The milk cow has finished giving…
Akin to a second weaning, but worse, this is a call to arms.

‘Go forth young man and make your way in the world,’ says Mum.

Jacques is anything but worldly.
He believes in magic.

He believes to such an extent that he is willing to give everything he has in return for five beans… magical.

Mum knows better and now she has her answer…

‘…Five beans… magical? Bah!’

Jacques will never amount to anything so she casts the beans aside without a second thought and banishes him to the attic supper-less and badly beaten…

Jacques’ tears of pain at his worthlessness activate the beans in the night and in the morning a stalk stands proud in the ground outside his window yoking Earth and Heaven…

‘Up the stalk then young Jacques, my lad, and see what you can find.’

‘… As if it were not enough to have yoked the two spheres,’ mutters Jacques but secretly he is thrilled that his ‘faith’ has paid such dividend…

*

…Heaven turns out to be just like Earth only everything is bigger.

At the top of the stalk is a Big Woman…

‘Mum’ Jacques calls her, cleverly, and then plays helpless, asking for food.

Like all ‘mums’ everywhere she is only too happy to oblige the little fellow, she leads Jacques into the kitchen perhaps thinking he will grow to be as big as her own man… who eats everything… including ‘young men’…

‘Quick, he’s coming’ cries the Big Woman as the heavenly-ground starts to shake…
‘Into the cooking pot, he’ll never think to look in there.’

‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ says the Big Fella,
‘I smell the Blood of an earth-bound ‘un,
if he be living or if he be dead
his bones I’ll have to grind my bread…’

He does not think to look in the cooking pot for food though and after consuming what is put before him he falls asleep whilst counting his gold pieces and starts to snore…

In a flash Jacques is out the cooking pot and out the door and hurtling back down the stalk with the gold pieces…

*

Mum is pleased but like the milk the gold pieces soon run out.

Now what?

Jacques climbs back up the stalk to see what else he can find…

This time the Big Woman is a bit suspicious, ‘do you know anything about missing gold’ she asks, ‘I do actually ‘ says Jacques cleverly as the ground starts to shake again, ‘keep me safe and I’ll tell you where it is’ so the Big Woman puts Jacques in the oven, ‘he’ll never think to look in here.’

‘Fee Fi Fo Fum,’ says the Big Fella,
‘I smell the Soul of an earth-bound ‘un,
if he be free or if he be caught
his flesh I’ll have to nourish my heart.’

He does not think to look in the oven for food though and after consuming what is put before him he falls asleep whilst petting his golden-egg-laying hen and starts to snore…

In a flash Jacques is out the oven and out the door and hurtling back down the stalk with the golden-egg-laying hen…

Mum is pleased, the golden eggs never run out but the hen eventually dies.

Now what?

*

Jacques climbs back up the stalk to see what else he can find…

This time Jacques waits until the Big Woman goes out then sneaks into the kitchen just as the ground begins to shake. He leaps into the copper and pulls the lid over himself thinking, ‘he’ll never think to look in here.’

‘Fee Fi Fo Fum,’ says the Big Fella,
‘I smell the Spirit of an earth-bound ‘un
if he be moving or if he be still
I’ll take a draught and drink my fill…’

He does not think to look in the copper for sustenance though and after consuming what was left out for him he falls asleep listening to his self-playing harp, and starts to snore…

In a flash Jacques is out the copper and out the door and hurtling back down the stalk with the self-playing harp…

…But the harp calls out to its Master, ‘Wake up, wake up!
The earth-bound lad is stealing away with me.’

So the Big Fella wakes up.

Quick as a flash he comes charging down the stalk after Jacques.

But Jacques is too quick and Jacques is too nimble and he reaches the earth before the Giant and takes an axe to the bean-stalk so that it comes crashing down with the Big Fella still clinging to it… and in the fall… the Big fella breaks his crown, and wakes Jacques up!

***

 

‘Aye’ of the Unicorn: Enneagram…

*

As the weekened progressed

we were to work our way around ‘the limbs’

of an elemental pentagram.

*

Two sites from the region

were given over to each element.

*

In the first we would consider the element in question

with the help of a conducive environment and our core text.

*

In the second we would construct and walk our pentagrams,

again in a conducive environment,

whilst examining notions of our magical self

in relation to the element and its inner psychology.

*

Mid Saturday and Sunday mornings

we considered and worked with the element of earth.

*

Our character Macbeth is given reason

to believe that he has the potential to become king,

but his treacherous manner of achieving this desire leads to all sorts

of trouble both for him and his soon to be acquired kingdom,

and when he finally gains access to the crown he discovers

that to be king is not all it is cracked up to be!

*

Like a castle sinking into the earth

his kingdom, his sanity,

and ultimately his life slips from his ignoble grasp.

*

It could have been so different,

had he only sought integration

instead of dominion.

‘Aye’ of the Unicorn: Whirligig…

*

As the weekened progressed

we were to work our way around ‘the limbs’

of an elemental pentagram.

*

Two sites from the region

were given over to each element.

*

In the first we would consider the element in question

with the help of a conducive environment and our core text.

*

In the second we would construct and walk our pentagrams,

again in a conducive environment,

whilst examining notions of our magical self

in relation to the element and its inner psychology.

*

On Saturday morning and afternoon we

considered and worked with the element of air.

*

Our character was Lady Macbeth who displayed

her own inner boundaries by acting as Super Ego

and inciting her husband to commit regicide

before turning insane with guilt and taking her own life.

*

What did we not want to become in our magical self?

*

Master of the Universe.

Instead, we shall blow where the spirit listeth…

Shadows

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To the small creatures that call the tree home, we are no more than a temporary addition to their landscape. Spiders and beetles wander over our legs or drop from our hair as we rest with our backs to the trunk, feeling the sleepy life of the tree through our spines. Our world is in the darkness and we are grateful for the cool oasis of dappled shade. Around us the earth bakes in the noonday sun that saps our energy, while the birds, butterflies and bees reap the harvest of summer.

On a hot day, there is no better place to be than within the shade of a tree, looking out upon a sweltering world without feeling the heat of a sun that blasts and sears. Yet hiding in the shadows is not always the best option. There are many who seek the safety of the shadows rather than allow their true selves  to be seen by the world.  For some the darkness is a cloak to hide a nefarious purpose.

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Sometimes it is depression or fear that keeps us in the shadows and we see that darkness as a place from which we long to escape. Outside seems more attractive than where we are, yet we know that it is the heat of the sun can sear and that it shows every line that is written on our brow. We look out with envy on what we see as a happier world from which we feel isolated, yet we cannot walk out into the daylight.

For many, the darkness is a refuge. We fear that the light will shine on us, showing  the flaws and weaknesses we believe define us, showing us without the veil of illusion behind which we seek shelter. We cannot see that the light casts both our flaws and our gifts into relief; or that what we see as a flaw in ourselves may be a gift to another, or the catalyst that enables strength.

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We each carry our own shadows and sometimes hide within them, sometimes hide from them. There can be no shadow without light and that too we each carry, no matter how dark our days or even our deeds. We cast out own shadows when we interrupt the flow of light. The light shows us whole, imperfect and beautiful in our imperfection…works in progress, unfinished masterpieces of human nature.

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Through a child’s eyes…

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I love Lady’s Mantle… Alchemilla mollis… the soft little alchemist. The shape and gentle shade of the downy leaves and the pale froth of yellow-green flowers. It is a lovely thing in my eyes. Yet it is not till the rain falls on the upturned leaves that you see its full beauty. Tiny creatures are caught in the water droplets, magnified into strange shapes. The water looks like ice, the surface tension palpable. I am reminded of the movement of mercury. Diamond-bright spheres nestle in the folds like so many crystal balls and the child who gazes into them can see worlds and dreams unfold there.

nicks 02622A cluster of tiny orb weaver spiderlings on the fence… hundreds of miniature jewels, alive and wriggling… the whole ball no more than an inch across. They had come together and woven a world. The finest of webs anchored them to the fence. Just watching them my imagination wove stories too… flashes of fairytale and science fiction, incomplete and exciting; ephemeral images that were gone as soon as they arose.

birds 2 0541A fly lands on a rose leaf, brilliant and iridescent. A creature usually an annoyance revealed in all its beauty, illuminated by the morning sun, casting rainbows from its back. Tiny, sensitive hairs protrude from the colour and multifaceted eyes looks back with an expression I cannot read. It is an alien creature. Another lands on the fence, metallic turquoise, the colour of ancient Egypt… I dream of a land unseen and a time long lost in the gilded mists of another clime.

birds 2 064A big bumble bee with its deceptively lazy flight lands on the pond brush, left to dry on a flower bed. What can it be looking for amongst the plastic bristles? What has it found to keep its interest? It ignores me completely as I watch, seeing the light reflect on the flat planes of its legs, wishing I could stroke the fat, furry body. Is it a bumble bee? I think it might be a tree bee… the fox red and the white rump… It doesn’t matter, it is beautiful anyway. I remember fairytales from my childhood about bees… they are magical creatures.

birds 2 062Another lands briefly on an orange rose; a last raindrop trembles on the tip of a leaf, mirroring an inversed world. The heart of the rose is a firework exploding into life… a rayed sun in a heart of flame. A universe being born. Close by the irises are opening in the pond and the stars are out as the seed pods of the marsh marigolds burst open revealing their hidden treasure of seeds. In each tiny seed new life awaits, and that is both magic and miracle.

birds 2 048“I have forgotten how to play.” I read this sad statement a few days ago. The ability to play as children is something we take for granted until, one day, we realise we are grown and the carefree games cease. If we are lucky, we may share play with children of our own, laughing with them and feeling once again the inner liberty that can express itself through the unselfconscious movement of body and the imagination. If we are luckier still, we do not forget but find other ways for that inner child to be held in wonder at the world as it unfolds before our eyes.

birds 2 091Yet the heart and eyes of a child live on in all of us; asleep, perhaps, ignored sometimes. Do you remember the child you were when the adults talked over your head? Or when you were told it was bedtime yet you could hear people still laughing downstairs? Remember how that felt?

nicks 1There is a child within who still wants to play, to gaze on the world with eyes full of wonder and a light heart. To feel the magic of fairytales alive in the buzzing of a bee, to weave delicious stories around faces in rock and tree.  Sometimes, all you have to do is open your eyes and heart, letting your imagination run wild with bare, grass-stained feet and the Otherworld will open its doors and let you in.

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To have and to hold

From behind the curtain I am watching the birds in the garden. I am waiting for the hawthorns to grow tall and become a haven for feathered things. They are, for the moment, little more than bushes, but even so, every morning, sparrows and blackbirds, bluetits and doves visit my little patch. Ravens and jackdaws fly in most days, while Ani lies by the open door and watches, or bounds out to scatter them when she sees that I am watching. Every day, overhead, the great red kites soar majestically. Yesterday one landed on the roof behind my home and I watched, not daring to move for the camera, as the huge beauty surveyed its domain.

It was a rare privilege. Though I would give the proverbial eye-teeth to take a really good photograph of these birds in the wild there are some things you can only experience, not seek to catch. Had I moved for the camera I would have missed the moment; had I sought to capture it, I would have lost something precious. Some things are simply a gift from the Earth, just for you in that moment, to be enjoyed, cherished only in the heart… not to capture.

There are things, moments, that are so beautiful, yet so ephemeral and fragile that they cannot be held or possessed, only accepted. Like a sunbeam that cannot be caught, but only felt as it plays across your skin, or seen as it lights the rainbows in a diamond… or like a butterfly whose fragile wings are crushed by a child’s grasp at beauty. The ancients knew and told the story of Eros and Psyche… Love and the Soul…. Psyche could be with Eros only as long as she did not seek to look upon him and when she did, he disappeared.

By seeking to hold we can often lose the very thing that moves us. Yet it seems we are programmed very early on to want to ‘have’ what touches us, instead of being able to simply love something that is free to be itself.

Even language seeks to impose a degree of ownership on all we do, and particularly in regard to human interaction. Language conditions us and the careful choice of words can have devastating effect, for good or ill. While we may be aware of the effects caused by the deliberate usage of words in terms of propaganda, we unconsciously do the same all the time, not realising, perhaps, the insidious implications a single word can have.

Even the simplest statement… “I have two sons…” implies a degree of possession. We do not intend it that way, we may simply be using the easiest words… we may be indicating affection rather than ownership, if we think about it at all… yet the verb ‘to have’ implies ownership at some level.

Yet, when we possess something it ceases to be itself and becomes little more than an extension of ourselves… it loses more than freedom and autonomy, as its own identity becomes subsumed in our projection of our own. Even deeper than that, we often become, even in our own eyes, defined by what we think we possess… yet in truth, we come into the world naked and leave it the same way, so we possess nothing. We may think we hold things for a while, but the only thing we truly ‘own’ is our self. And even that is debateable.

As I watched the birds I was thinking about that. Would I want to cage a sparrow? No… I delight in their antics in the garden. I love them for their freedom. Would I want a red kite on a perch, just to say it was ‘mine’? No, I want only to see them ride the wind… though a little closer to the lens would be nice, I admit!

We all delight in the unexpected glimpses of wildlife. And, by their very nature, they are free… wild… unowned…untamed. Over the years a good many baby birds or injured ones have passed through my hands. While it is a delight to have that close contact for a while there is never any other goal, and no greater joy, than to see them fly free as soon as they are able. You are left with nothing but memories… perhaps a photo…with empty hands but a full heart. Maybe that is the only place we can truly hold anything.

Voices from the past

There was a jaw-dropping moment when it finally hit home…

We knew the story… we had discussed it long before Stuart had started working with it. The ‘hero’ was a historical king who lived around five thousand years ago. About a thousand years later, tales of his doings, combining events both real and symbolic, were collected and written down. Given the way that history…and particularly folk history… works, the scribe probably included tales once told of even older characters, going back seven thousand years or more, and reassigned them to our Hero.  A few hundred years later, they were standardised under the title ‘He who Saw the Abyss’…

Facts, dates and historical data are all very well. They allow you to arrange events on the canvas of space and time. What they do not seem to do is to really put things in perspective. When the realisation hit, it was mind-blowing… we were actually working with stories from one of the earliest human civilisations. These were tales that were already old before the pyramids were built. Two, three, some of them maybe even four times as old as the stories in the New Testament. Many of them contain the obvious origins of biblical tales… precursors to stories we associate with the early books of the Old Testament. And we were not only working with those tales… we were finding them wholly relevant to the world today.

Take Dickens… You read his work and he brings to life the world as he knew it. You can picture Victorian England quite readily, just because of his words. Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters take you back another century or so. Shakespeare another couple of hundred years. Julius Caesar wrote of his world two thousand years ago. Plato taught four hundred years before that… And that still only takes you about half way back in time to the birth of the tales we are working with! That starts to put things in perspective a bit.

It is not just the almost unimaginable distance in time and culture between then and now that is so startling, it is the way the characters are drawn, playing out timeless moments of human interaction. So many thousands of years…and we have changed not at all. Arrogance, entitlement, compassion and misguided emotions all played out then exactly as they do today. We did not need to translate an ancient tale into terms the modern mind could understand, it was already there.

The problems and scenarios they faced too, were not dissimilar to our own. Love and loss, anger and grief… and the wider issues of power and politics, ecology, the destruction of habitats and a obsession with the quest for eternal youth… they were all part of life thousands of years ago.

In some ways, it seems a tragedy that we have changed and learned so little. In others, it is reassuring, for the threads that bind past to present are unbroken and the learning curve continues. A few thousand years, after all, are but a very small part of the hundreds of thousands of years that our species has been around.

Hominins, our earliest ancestors, first made use of stone tools almost three and a half million years ago. Homo sapiens has only been around for some three hundred thousand years, and for most of that time we were busy evolving from our origins. ‘Civilisation’  took us a while… it is still a new venture for humankind, and we are  probably little more than pre-schoolers, compared to what we may one day become.  As long as we don’t break our ‘toys’ by squabbling over them, I see a good deal of hope in that.

As individuals, we learn best from experience. As societies, we learn from history… but the tendency is to see anything ‘prehistoric’ as irrelevant. Prehistory tends to refer to the period before written records were kept, and one of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform, came from the same time and place as the story of the king, Gilgamesh. There are so many similarities with the people in that story, and parts of it probably arose before the invention of writing… bridging the gap between history and prehistory. And we get to work with those stories for this year’s workshop… The moment that really hit home was a moment of utter awe.

‘Gilgamesh is among the greatest things that can ever happen to a person.’
– Rainer Maria Rilke.

The Silent Eye’s Spring workshop for 2019

Full details, cost and booking form are available by clicking HERE