Chasing carrots

Because I couldn’t find a donkey…

It has been hot in England recently… hotter than usual, even for summer. There has been no rain in my part of the country for weeks now and the ground is parched and cracked. Harvests are being brought in early, fields are already shorn and neatly dotted with straw-bales, and the human population has been slowly wilting in the scorching, heavy air. So, it was with some eagerness that we awaited the promised rain and thunderstorms.

They didn’t arrive… The forecasters shifted their predictions to the next day, then the next… and all we had seen was a spot or two of moisture accompanied by a distant, lazy rumble of thunder. When the rain finally arrived last night, it was no more than the briefest of light showers. The dog and I, nevertheless, headed outside to enjoy the fall of water, watching its instant evaporation on the superheated concrete of the paving, but glad of the momentary respite.

Although the weather is a national preoccupation in England, we generally don’t suffer too badly from its vagaries. Ours is temperate climate. Summers are generally warm, winters cold but not glacial… but whatever the weather is doing, we will soon be complaining about it. On the odd occasion, we do get a severe winter… by English standards… or an unusually hot summer. We are prepared for neither, and both can bring the country to its knees at temperatures other nations would consider mild. We don’t cope well with what we consider extremes of anything… be that weather or behaviour…

There is a ‘normal’ for everyone… parameters within which we are comfortable, because they are familiar. They do not have to be good, or what we would choose… they are just our accustomed and accepted standards of normality. Step beyond their boundaries and, depending upon your temperament, you are in a zone of unease, or one of excitement. Such boundaries shift and change with time and circumstance… and the adaptability that is one of humanity’s greatest assets can also be its greatest handicap, as we learn to accept a new ‘normal’ very quickly and alter the parameters to suit the moment.

I was talking to my son about this as we headed out to the local farm shop on Saturday. Because of the changes in his life and capabilities caused by the brain injury, he has been redefining his ‘normal’ on a regular basis. He tends to forget where he has come from, and what he has endured and achieved to get here, and the latest version of ‘normality’ takes a great deal of the journey for granted.

We took the country lanes back to my home after we had done the shopping, stopping by a field gate so he could get out, lean on the gate, and watch the fast-forming clouds race in. It is a simple thing, but I remembered the first time he was able to do that a few years ago… and the wonder we both felt at that achievement.

This time I watched as he lost himself in the moment, seeing emotions on his face shift from bright to dark and back again, like the cloud-shadows on the land. The wind was getting stronger as dark clouds raced in. The little bit of rain had enhanced all the colours, turning the dry grasses to gold and illuminating the green of the hedgerows, where blackberries glistened amongst the wildflowers. The changing weather and the experience of beauty lifted him out of his normality and allowed him to see what he might otherwise not have noticed.

“You forget,” he mused. “You strive for a goal, but as soon as you attain it, there is always another ahead…. And the goal you just reached becomes worthless, no more than a stepping stone…when you should be content.”
“Carrots.”
“Eh?”
“Carrots on sticks. Donkeys. The donkey keeps walking to where it thinks the carrot was… and when it gets there, the carrot has moved, so it keeps on walking… but the carrot is always out of reach.”
“Expectations. Yep… We do that to ourselves all the time. It didn’t rain… I could be disappointed because I expected rain… but what the day has given me instead,” said the son who had just used his walking frame to cross the rough terrain of a farmyard…and in public… for the first time, “is even better.”

As we drove home, the clouds closed in above us, darkening the sky, deepening all the colours of the land. The wind gathered momentum, whipping sun-dried leaves from the trees into great golden plumes that danced across the road like aureate autumnal spirits. The earth smelled sweet and fresh as the rain poured down on the wide vale below us. Sometimes, you just have to leave expectations behind and leave space for life to happen.

A drop in the ocean

With the April workshop looming close, Stuart and I needed a break from work and headed off for the afternoon. We wanted to pay our respects to one of the influences behind the weekend, so we took advantage of a rare break in the weather. It has rained a lot lately; many of the fields we passed were flooded and the river at our destination had overflowed, drowning the riverside pathways and marooning benches that would normally be filled with people.

We’re pretty lucky my local area… there are no rivers, just the springs and streams that arise in the chalk and meander through the Vale and we are far from the sea. Most of the time that seems a pity, as I love moving water and miss the waterfalls and waves, but with the recent persistent rain I can only be grateful.

Our little river is usually no more than a foot or two deep and seldom wider than a stream. It gave up trying to contain the influx of water a while ago and has expanded until it looks more like a lake. Riverside playgrounds and sports fields are all under water, roadside streams have escaped their confines and flooded the fields and driving is hazardous in places.

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I lived beside a river in Vichy long ago and saw the power of water in flood. It is hard to imagine it, even from news footage, until you have seen and heard it for yourself. As with many things, real understanding comes only from direct experience.  The water of the Sichon flowed into the more famous Allier half a mile from our home on the Rue Charlot. The Sichon was confined in a concrete channel about twenty feet wide and a set of vertical steps, rather like a ladder, led down about twelve feet from the little gate by the front door. The concrete extended to make wide banks creating a channel perhaps eighty feet wide.

While it was pleasant to watch the sparkling, fast flowing stream from the kitchen window, seeing the birds and wildlife that visited even its man-made banks. The concrete was ugly and I couldn’t understand the municipal mentality that had built this monstrosity to confine the river.

Until the first winter. Then I understood.

All one night there was noise… but in the blackness no way of telling what was causing it. Come morning, one look from the kitchen window solved the mystery. Huge branches battered the walls of the house as churning, mud-brown waves raced through the confines of the concrete channel. It was incredible to watch. It got worse, hour by hour, as I saw the waters rise to within an inch of the kitchen windowsill.

What could be moved was taken upstairs, along with supplies… there was such elemental force in the floodwaters and they rose with such speed and volume. There was no question of what would have happened to anyone or anything caught in their path or in the debris they carried. Somewhere in one of the boxes of photographs I still have a picture taken through that window, but it is not as vivid as the one in my mind that hears the noise, smells the water or remembers the rising fear.

I have been lucky, seeing this so close yet merely as an observer and not as a victim of the extremes of the elements. It was a place where evidence of the uncompromising power of nature was always close. Vichy, for all its elegance as a once fashionable spa town, lies in a region of volcanoes. Indeed they are the source of its famous thermal springs and the volcanoes of the region are only dormant, not extinct. The heat in summer can be intense and the thunder storms regular and spectacular. I have swum in a lake in an old crater, smelt the sulphur from the vents in the caves of the Puy-de-Dôme, and seen the remnants of the effects of previous eruptions. You know the earth in charge, not man, even in this seemingly gentle and beautiful landscape.

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Taking pictures of the local flooding that here, at least, is little more than an inconvenience, so minor in comparison to that experienced by many, I was reminded how close we live to the awesome power of Nature, even within our regulated cities. We try our best to tame her, and our industries cause such destruction and yet, even if we make our planet uninhabitable for our species and many others, we are only destroying ourselves.

We tend to forget that we ourselves are just a very small part of Nature… a mere drop in a vast and moving flow of life that wears an infinite variety of forms. The elements of earth make up our bodies and her tides and seasons are echoed within us as they flow through our veins and hearts.

In a million years… a mere heartbeat for the life of the world… what will remain of us? Very little, perhaps, but life will continue whether we would recognise its forms or not. Even the shallow flooding in the fields serves to remind me how small we are in comparison to Nature. She is older than we by far. We, with our little lives may come and go, but she remains.

Saving for a rainy day …

The fish need feeding… their food cannisters need refilling too. The bird feeder needs completely restocking…and it is freezing outside. Not only is it cold enough to make a snowman shiver, it is raining… the kind of rain that falls as stinging darts making the presence of each drop sharp and immediate. I shiver, watching the blood withdraw from my fingertips, feeling them shrink and stiffen with the cold and I wrestle with the frozen metal of the lock. Raindrops trickle across my scalp, slithering down my neck. It is not a day to be outdoors… but the fish and the birds need to be fed, regardless of my misery.

Opening the shed, I squeeze past my son’s wheelchair to reach the feed. I remember, just for a moment, coming onto the hospital ward one day and seeing the longing on his face as he watched the raindrops on the window pane. I’d give anything to be out there, he had said. To feel the rain on my face again. Back then, we had no idea if he would ever be able to do so…at least, not without help.

What if, I wondered, this were the last time I ever felt the rain? I know, all too acutely, how life can change between one moment and the next. How normality, freedom…even life itself… can be snuffed out without warning. Such thoughts may seem morbid to some, but I have found that an awareness of the finite nature of the life we know only enhances our ability to appreciate its beauty. Yet, here I was complaining.

I asked myself the question once again. What if this were to be the last time I ever felt the cold of winter or the rain on my skin? Would I really want to remember it through a veil of misery? Or would I want to remember the clarity of the moment? The sparkle of rain on the first, burgeoning leaves of a nascent spring… the ever-expanding circles drawn by the raindrops on the silver surface of the pond… the aliveness of my skin, tingling beneath the touch of winter… the freshness of the rain-soaked garden and the smell of wet earth…

Some ‘last times’ we are aware of… we know they will be the last. We see them coming and they make an indelible impression on memory. I will never forget my last, tear-blurred glimpse of the Sacré-Cœur as we left Paris, thirty years ago. I didn’t know then that it would be the very last time… I still do not yet know if it was, for that matter… but it was the end of a chapter in my life and the beginning of a new story. I remember the final hug shared with a friend and his final words to me, hours before he died, as clearly as I recall the last time I closed the door on the family home.

Sometimes we only realise it was a ‘last time’ once the moment has passed… and those memories too entrench themselves, kept alive by emotion. But most ‘last times’ only become clear in retrospect… we will not know until it is too late to give them our attention and store them up in memory.

As we grow older, any farewell, no matter how temporary, takes on a new layer of meaning; as the years pass, the chances that some of these farewells will be ‘last times’ cannot help but increase. I would not wish to waste such moments in sentimentality, regret or in the imagining of some dire future… I want to enjoy them, storing them up in a treasure house of memory where life, love and laughter are the true riches of living.

There is a reason we are here, in this life, in these bodies and with these senses. Our lives are short… seconds, minutes and hours tick by, heading towards an unknown point, for few know the span of their days. For any one of us the world can change at any moment… yet we live our lives taking so much for granted or, as I was doing, railing against the downside instead of carrying away with us all the moment has to offer.

Living in England, the chances are that I will see and feel more rain than I could possibly wish for… but I do not know what the future holds. Would I really wish to be stuck behind glass watching the rain fall beyond my reach… and knowing I had wasted my ‘last time’ grumbling?

I fed the fish and the birds, smiled at the Indian airline label still attached to my son’s wheelchair… and went out to enjoy the rain.

All images in this post were taken in India by my son…where he felt the rain.

Rain on the window

The light changed, suffusing the clouds with a soft glow and shadowing the sky that strange half-light that heralds a storm. The rain, it seemed, had settled in, pattering against the window and drawing the eye to focus on the diamond streaks of misery. Yet, beyond the pane there was colour, molten gold flaming in the sky as the day drew to a close.

I picked up the camera, unwilling to get wet by going outside, but determined to capture at least one moment of the crepuscular display. The camera fastened its gaze firmly on the immediacy of the window pane and refused to look farther than its proverbial nose, consigning distant beauty to an indistinct netherworld beyond its focus.

I fiddled with the settings, desperate to circumvent the limitations of the camera, but to no avail. While I was doing so, the constant shifting of light and cloud meant that the opportunity to capture the moment was slipping away.

All I could see through the shortened lens was looming patches of darkness against consuming fire. The rain restricted the perception of the lens, not only erasing detail but transforming it into an uneasy vista of threatening possibilities. Yet it only took a flicker of the eye to look beyond the lens and see a different landscape that sent me outside, regardless of the rain.

It occurred to me that I recognised the pattern all too well. I had to ask myself, “Where do you focus? On the rain on the pane or the vista beyond?” and realised that, all too often, the instinctive reaction is to focus on the pain on the pane.

As soon as a problem comes into our lives, real or perceived, our focus shifts and offers exclusivity to whatever it is that has caught our attention. We get so caught up in that focus that we no longer see what might be waiting beyond our gaze. Instinct is a pessimist and sees only uncomfortable consequences and possible horrors.

We give our attention to the problem and, in our attempts to solve it, waste so much time and energy that we may miss the obvious solution. We may miss the moment too, when the perfect opportunity slides by unseen in the distance… or, even worse, refuse its gifts for fear of what might happen if we pursue it.

There is always a bigger picture beyond our immediate horizon. With every step forward that we take into the ocean of unseen possibilities, we expand that horizon, even though we may well end up getting wet.  We may not be able to see far enough to know whether what lies ahead will be stormy seas or a limpid lake, but unless we make a move, we will never find out and the moment will be forever gone, leaving us behind on the shores of our own trepidation.

Barefoot, I left the window to brave the rain and watch the dying light gild my little corner of the world. Caught in the magic, drops of liquid light fell to earth, caressing my skin and drawing me in, making me feel part of the moment, not merely an isolated observer. Sometimes, it is worth having wet feet.