Outside in

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It was odd. I look at this particular blogger’s page every day…and every day there is a reblog button. On every post. Except today. I clicked into the title, hoping that by going deeper, I would find what I was looking for. Nothing. I couldn’t understand it at all. There were, in fact, few of the usual options and I could not imagine what had prompted the blogger to make this particular piece unshareable. Or why I suddenly had to fill in a form to leave a comment. Or why, when the theme had not been changed, it should look so different.

They must, I decided, have been the victim of some online horror… trolls, ID theft, hackers… all sorts of scenarios began to roil around in my mind. I thought about my own online presence and its security and wondered if I ought to take the hint and tighten things up. I hoped my friend was okay. These things can be nasty and upsetting. Perhaps I should email to check?

In those few seconds, my reaction to the lack of a simple button was going a long way…and the possible causes and consequences were already starting to pile up in my mind and imagination. Until I realised what the problem was. Between clicking the link in the daily email and arriving at the site, somehow, I had been logged out of WordPress. There was nothing wrong with my friend’s page at all. What was wrong was how I was seeing it; as an ‘outsider’.

I was looking at the page in the same way as any casual visitor to a WordPress blog, if they had no account and therefore did not possess the magic password that admits them to the privileges of the ‘inner circle’. It was an interesting lesson. Because I remain logged in unless WP logs me out, it is a world I never see. Equally, there is a world unseen by non-account holders that contains much more than they would see or could know. They might get intimations of it… reading references to reblogging perhaps or seeing the ease with which the exchange of comments can flow, but it is a world to which they do not have the keys. For a moment, I had joined them, looking at my ‘world’ from the outside in and not only was the perspective strange, but it made me realise  how quickly I had accepted a different reality, becoming used to what I do know and forgetting that I haven’t always been ‘on the inside’.

It was obvious as soon as I realised. With any group, of any kind, those on the inside are privy to knowledge that the uninitiated cannot see clearly, even if there are clues of its presence. It doesn’t have to be anything of great importance… it can be as simple as showing the office newbie where to bang the coffee machine to get it to work…. but there is always some level of inner knowledge that brings a group together and binds the individual threads to a common centre.

We’re all aware that looking at someone else’s life from the outside in only shows us part of the picture…and not always a true one. Even though we know that we cannot see the whole story, we can forget it too. We may not see the tenderness of a father when we look at tattoos and bling…yet it may be there. We do not always see the hidden grief behind the outward smiles. As a species, we are not only adept at assuming masks, but we are pretty good at forgetting they might be there and react by forming an opinion based solely upon the surface; for reaction is instinctive, not considered, and springs from that basic fear that fuels our instinct for survival.

It seems even worse in some ways when you consider how often we judge ourselves in the same way. Even just looking at physical surfaces, how many of us feel we are the ‘wrong’ shape, size or style to fit the mould that others deem good? How much more confidence would we have if those comparisons were never made or thrust upon us?Instead of looking at ourselves from the inside out, we rely on the world to mirror ourselves back at us, accepting that incomplete image as the whole truth and basing our actions upon it. We learn to value ourselves by the reactions of others to the partial person they can see, instead of looking at ourselves as whole and unique, with inner depths not visible to those who see only a glimpse of our true selves.

We are not our reflections, we are ourselves. The world looks from the outside in and sees but a fragment of our being. We can learn to look from the inside out, privy to all our secret depths and gifts; knowing that for every weakness there is a strength that is ours alone and that we are more than the two-dimensional trigger of reaction seen by a passing stranger. And if we look deeper still, to the very core of being, we may find that we are more than we had ever thought.

Time traveller

nick north days

As the first lightening of the sky separates silhouettes from the blackness, the temperature plummets and cold floods my body. I can feel its bite and the reactive crisping of muscle and sinew as I huddle into my coat and my hands seek the warmth of pockets. Breath clouds the air in front of me, parting to let me pass as I walk and streaming over my shoulders. The smell of wet earth and leaf-litter has an illusory warmth of its own and an early bird lifts its voice in song as I walk round to the village shop in the pre-dawn darkness.

December… and there are fairy lights in the trees, sparkling with a promise of things to come. Gradually the village will fill with them and the night will become a wonderland, for now, the bare branches of one winter tree are decked with pinpricks of blue. Even so, the sight of these few lights in the darkness flood me with a sense of excitement as potent as when I was a child. Although I walk in the silence before dawn, it is the teatime dark of a winter afternoon, with the shop windows of the city reflecting light and colour onto pavements wet with snow-melt. Tall people cast their shadows as they rush by. The noise of traffic and voices and a chestnut seller touting his wares, the pungent smell of charcoal and toasted shells warm the air as I hold tighter to the hand that is both safety and guidance. I am five and we are going to see Santa’s grotto at Lewis’s in town…

I am in Schofield’s, where a young mother works on the haberdashery counter. Grandad has taken me into town and we call in to see her. She is showing me a painting on the wall of the store. She is going to buy it and bring it home. She is not really a Christian, but this portrait of Jesus speaks to her of courage, resolution and serenity. It will remain on the walls of our home for many years and define my image of Jesus.

Painting by Warner Sallman
Painting by Warner Sallman

The lady makes clucking, soothing noises as I cry for my Mam. I am tiny, very tiny and the lady lifts me up easily and stands me on the counter in Woolworth’s. I’ve lost my Mam and I’m scared. Really scared. A man in a uniform comes and they whisper. I just want my Mam. I see her white face coming and cry even harder. She picks me up and hugs me. Then scolds and smacks my legs… not hard… and hugs me again. She’s crying too. The vision that looks out of the child’s eyes sees that she is little more than a child herself.

The five minute walk to the village shop takes the hours of excitement, anticipation, comfort and abandonment that the child once felt and now feels again as memory slips back to incidents long forgotten by the conscious mind, following a chain of associations that the mind can only observe but could not have deliberately constructed.

It is surprising how little it can take to lift our presence out of the present and into a memory so pristine and intense that we feel it with all our senses, even while the senses are busily engaged in the work of the moment. Our presence exists in both the now and the ‘other’ and we have effectively travelled in time to a moment that no longer exists and yet which is filled with sensory and emotional impact. Somehow we experience the moment in exactly the same way that we did once upon a time, yet we also observe it from within with the mind of the now, even while we walk through the now itself.

Where are we when we go back in memory? When are we? The body is doing what it does in what we call ‘now’, operating almost on autopilot as if the thing we call ‘I’ is no longer present, yet perfectly conscious of what we are doing… rather like leaving a foreman in charge, capable of making necessary decisions but not authorised to act on behalf of the boss. Yet we are not ‘back there’, even though we re-experience a moment that was then as if it was now. We observe, even though we can see through those younger eyes. We cannot alter those moments or affect the outcome. We cannot act, only relive.

The only action we can take at such times is to observe and possibly learn more from the reliving by seeing through the eyes and mind of an older, and hopefully wiser, self that has access to a wider knowledge… a ‘bigger picture’… and can therefore look on with more understanding than the child it once was.

Where are ‘we’ at any moment, if time and distance, holds no sway in the realms of mind? Not even death holds meaning in memory as we walk again hand in hand with loved ones long dead and feel their warmth. The body that ages can still be a child, the dead can walk and events long over can be not just replayed but relived. ‘We’ are not the time, the place or the body… we stand within them at will or at the whim of a chain of associations and both live and observe their passage and their mark. Perhaps we are more than we think…

A bird in the bush?


The dog has just eaten her dinner for the first time in days. I have not been worried. There is a pattern to her behaviour that I perfectly understand…though precisely how she arrived at her conclusions escapes me. We had a visitor over New Year. Whenever this particular guest comes to stay, Ani’s food bowl remains untouched for the duration of the visit. She does not starve, managing instead to purloin, through persistence, puppy eyes and sheer cheek, a steady stream of delicacies usually lacking from her normal, balanced diet.

The fish in the aquarium, though equally aware of our visitor, have not changed their eating habits at all. They respond with their usual gusto to whatever is offered, being particularly fond of a slice of courgette. They also appreciate the algae wafers with which they play their own version of aquatic football, chasing and passing the last remaining  morsels with speed and agility.


My son, meanwhile, has, through the occasional provision of food, acquired a cat. Not a full-time cat, but more of an opportunist that has taken up residence in his home. The cat now known as Oscar, may yet prove to be a more feminine feline than the name suggests. Either way, he/she already has my son trained and as he has me trained, I spent some time today searching for a pet shop that was open where I could acquire the necessities for his new companion.

And then, there are the birds. The little robin that now comes daily for his dinner at my garden table along with innumerable other birds…and the kites who draw our attention every time they treat us to a display of their aerial mastery. Like today, when everything stopped as we watched them swoop and dive from the kitchen window, eventually grabbing the camera and heading outdoors….as always.


The fish never change their behaviour because there is no cause to do so. Their diet does not change just because we have visitors. Their world is bounded by the glass of their tank. It is self contained and the conditions of their existence remain constant. There is nothing new for them to react to. The dog, on the other hand, knows full well that my guest will oblige her with treats, ball-throwing and cuddles. It is a simple, frank arrangement. The cat, reacting to the offer of food, has capitalised on the situation with feline finesse and cunning and now owns a fully trained lap in a warm house, along with a brand new litter-box, catnip and toys. The robin has me trained, knowing I come when he calls… and the kites, oblivious and glorious, have us trained by their power and beauty.

We are all caught by our reactions. We may be reacting to new situations, yet the reactions themselves are not new…they are the product of a lifelong conditioning created from our responses to all the experiences we have encountered, our personalities and the way we notice and react to the needs and desires of others. Some of those reactions are not even truly our own but have been learned from our society and our parents. This is not necessarily a bad thing… it is from those who raise us that we learn our early understanding of empathy and compassion.


It does become a problem, though, when we allow unthinking, unconscious reaction to be the ruling force of our lives. We are able to respond on auto-pilot, without any thought or consideration for what we are doing or why. We may well end up doing the right thing that way, but it is not always for the right reasons, nor is it a conscious act…a choice. And that automatic reaction can so occupy our attention that we fail to see what is right in front of our eyes.

Which is why, while we were watching the kites through the kitchen window at the front of the house, revelling in their speed and power, we almost failed to see the kite that had perched in the tree at the back of the house. Sometimes the best things can be hidden in plain sight and we are blinded to them simply because we are operating on auto-pilot.


Making assumptions

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                                           Image source: freehdw

It wasn’t much, in the greater scheme of things, but I was unaccountably angry. Not much I could do on the far end of a phone, but even so… the incident had hit a tender spot. It wasn’t even my story this time, but, like most people, I have been on the receiving end of it often enough and it never fails to ‘get my goat’. Even worse, I have been as guilty of it as anyone. It is a very difficult flaw to avoid, based, as it is, in some of our oldest instincts for survival.

“You should not judge a book by its cover”… or so the saying goes. In the world, of books, however, we all know that the cover is the first thing you see and the first thing likely to make you pick up a completely unknown tome. Scroll through an online bookstore and you will find yourself dismissing what may be excellent works, simply because the cover does not catch your eye or appeal. If we stop to think about it, we know exactly what we are doing… but we still do it, unconsciously passing judgement based solely on appearances.

Initially I imagine that the snap judgements we make, based largely on visual signals, was a safety mechanism. After all, who wants to get up close and personal with, say, a sabre-toothed tiger, before deciding it might not be very safe after all. You would want a bit of a head start before running, and the sooner you can judge a potential threat, the sooner you can run. We still use the same mechanism for safety today, judging the speed of cars before crossing a road, for example. The physical signals that keep us safe must be acted upon instantly, leaving little or no room for thought.

The mechanism has been extended to people too. There are other signals, some invisible like the sensitivity to olfactory messages so faint as to be undetectable and some are intangible and unquantifiable, like gut reaction and empathy. You usually know when you meet someone who will have an impact on your life, whether they ‘give you the creeps’ or you instantly warm to them. Eventually, your emotions become engaged at some level or another, beginning with reactive emotion, but open to the possibility of higher emotions, just as  unconscious reactions  can be informed by the conscious mind.

Those first, instantaneous judgements are almost involuntary reactions to stimuli perceived. They are made before we have time to bring knowledge, logic or experience to bear on the moment. We are not consciously responsible for the flags that are raised at such times. Where we do have a responsibility is when we then fail to step back and take a look at what we do next.

We are also responsible for those judgements made through prejudice. Often the prejudice itself goes unrecognised, disguised as something it is not, or is hidden beneath ‘good intentions’. It may have its roots in culture, era or personal background…and sometimes it stems from that overweening arrogance that simply feels itself superior to others. Most of the time, we don’t even realise we are doing it, but every time we do, it leads to dismissiveness, distrust or condescension at best.

At worst, it is an expression of racisim, sexism, ageism, classism, intellectual snobbery, disability discrimination… there is an endless list of ‘isms’ and terms for our negative judgements, and the sweeping, inclusive judgements that are allowed to blanket a whole section of the community in our eyes are the worst and most dangerous.

We never meet a community. We meet a person. Even if we are introduced to a whole assembly, we still meet each one as individuals. There is an instant where there is nothing else but that first contact between two people who know nothing at all of each other except what their senses can tell them. We will almost inevitably begin to categorise unconsciously and make certain broad assumptions about each other, based on our knowledge and experience of life, yet those assumptions are very often wide of the mark.

It is just as likely to be the ‘yob’ in scruffy denim and leather that helps a young mum with a pushchair onto a bus, rather than the guy in the business suit. The Rastafarian plumber who shows up to fix a leak is as likely to teach you the true beauty of the human soul as the preacher in his pulpit. It may well be the tramp to whom you give the price of breakfast who gives you the greater gift. And yes, those were lessons learned through experience and each has their own story.

I was angry when I took that phone call because of the assumptions that had been made based on how a person is automatically labelled in the mind of another. The assumptions had doubtless been made with the best of intentions too, but they were wrong, applicable only to the averages within a generic label, not to the individual concerned; a situation easily avoided by the simple expedient of getting to know the individual person beneath the all-encompassing label. Discrimination should be brought to judgement. It isn’t all that difficult to take a moment to look into someone’s eyes, maybe share a smile, and let them open the box of surprises that is another human soul.

Changing tides

scotland trip jan 15 732He tripped, catching the pointed toe of the winklepickers on the kerb. Righting himself he looked around, his eyes darting self-consciously to seek out any possible observer, even while he reassumed his pose of studied nonchalance. Do they even call them winklepickers these days? From the anonymity of the car, I watched… the shutter of memory capturing the scene in vivid detail.

I took in, with some appreciation, the shiny black shoes, drainpipe jeans and striped shirt. Honey gold hair, worn a little too long to be called short, carefully coaxed across his brow. From one hand dangled a blue jacket… but what had caught my attention was the brown waistcoat and large, black satin bow tie.

This was a late summer Saturday. His attire both too warm and too contrived to be casual. An incongruous look, even if he was going to a wedding or other social gathering. Heading in the direction of the town centre and around fifteen, at a guess, I couldn’t see him making his way to such a function alone. The town and the plate glass reflections of shop windows were, I guessed, his goal. And possibly a girl. He looked nervous enough.

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You could read his emotions in the way he walked… every step seeming to shout ‘look at me!’, even while something in his stance suggested he still wondered if he looked as cool as he felt or as idiotic as his father may have told him.

I smiled to myself; a mother of sons. There is something very fragile about those first, tentative steps into a grown-up world of independence and learning to express the person you know yourself to be on the inside. It is a time of great vulnerability when the desire for acceptance and approval can lead to you conforming to the patterns laid by others, responding to their image of who you ‘should’ be.. and a time when the fledgling wings are easily clipped, damaged or irreparably broken by an unkind word or a lack of trust in your ability to become an individual in your own right.

The indulgent smile froze for a moment as I realised that some aspects of teenagerhood are not reserved for teenagers… but can happen to us all at any point in our lives. I thought about my hair.

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It had been red once before, but although it had felt outrageous, in retrospect it was fairly tame, almost natural. A small, domesticated and timid attempt at self-expression. It had been building for a while and though the mahogany was quickly allowed to fade back to propriety, the lava was rising.

I was fifty-four when I dyed my hair rebellious; a colour somewhere between disaster and flame. It was short too; I had hacked it off with the meat shears in an act of sheer defiance… carving an image that owed no thought to anything but my own freedom to choose. I loved it. It carried danger signals and waved a flag of independence, screaming in no uncertain terms that enough was enough and I would no longer take either the garbage or the begrudged crumbs of affection upon which I had subsisted for far too long. I had no idea where this was going, but that it was going to go somewhere… anywhere….I was very certain….

Basically, I was little more than a come-again teenager, facing the world all guns blazing to assert a self-image I had yet to form and a confidence I had yet to feel. It was a time of change and reaction where I tore off the masks I had allowed to take up residence and began to wear instead the passion for life that I had always felt and kept locked primly away in the staid closet of domesticity.

Such a conflagration can go either way… but having once embraced the searing of the flames, I grew to love the contentment of the warmth of glowing embers. I did not need to display the blazon of a passion that will always burn. The challenge became a more carefree confidence, the red once more its gentler, natural shade, though now comfortably streaked with silver and growing wild. Outwardly, I have come full circle, back to the place I began, yet I see now through different eyes from another arc of the spiral of understanding.

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Major changes always bring on a moment of panic, while the wave rises high and gathers momentum. A new job, new parenthood, the end of a relationship or the beginning of a shared life… all call for us to readjust our perception of who we are as values and the demands we make upon ourselves are shaken out of their accustomed patterns and rearranged. We can change our style, choose a different expression of who we are, or who we want the world to perceive, but these are no more than outer manifestations of an inner state of mind and heart. At some level of consciousness we are always wondering who we will be when the wave of change finally crashes to the shore, spreading its fanning arches of foam across our lives.

As I watched the youngster walk up the hill, I realised I could not have told him the answer to that question…it is always one we have to learn for ourselves through lived experience. We will be who we have always been… our essential self does not change; we may learn and grow, we may alter our perspectives, swap one mask for another or discard them altogether… We may seem to recede into our own shadow or blossom in the sunlit fields of joy… but the essence of our true Self remains as clear and pure as the day we were born…and at any moment we may turn and drink from the well of being that resides within.

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