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.

Anything goes…

I was born in… well, we can gloss over that. Let’s just say that my childhood was spent in an era of extremes. War and calls for peace dominated the headlines, crooners shared the charts with pop groups, hemlines varied between revelation and medieval and most married women… and God help you if you weren’t… still stayed at home to raise their children.

My mother had already broken that mould by working full-time when I was small. She had grown from a pretty young woman to look like Susan Hayward and dressed like Marilyn Monroe. She had fixed ideas on fashion and it was into this environment that my first stirrings of femininity would flutter.

I was blonde when I was very young, with pale wild waves that were rigorously moulded into an acceptable shape with rollers, curling irons and a back-comb, then glued into submission with lacquer. When I was about seven, the pale golden glory began to darken to a nondescript mousey brown. My mother, whose own enhanced hair colour cycled through several shades of auburn, objected to this and began the application of a vile peroxide product known as ‘Light and Bright’. Not, she would assure me, a hair dye. More of a colour corrector.

Although it was certainly unintentional and even though I was not conscious of it at the time, it was one of those ‘not good enough’ moments that undermine a child’s self-confidence. You begin to believe that who you are must be changed to conform to the ideas of others. All children spend at least part of their childhood wearing clothes others deem appropriate and it is one of the first areas touched by rebellion.

At eleven, all pretensions to sartorial freedom ended with the imposition of the cherry red uniform of the grammar school. The obligation to conform for nine hours a day (including travelling time) was mitigated only by the extremes of the decade that allowed you to wear pretty much anything the rest of the time. There just wasn’t much time left after school and homework.

By the time I was ready for teenagerhood, the decade-that-taste forgot was well underway, and for one brief, glorious moment, it was acceptable, even desirable, to have a wardrobe that contained garments as diverse as leather hotpants, orange suede platforms, white vinyl boots and psychedelic maxi dresses.

Then I started work and uniformity sucked me in once again. The unwritten dress codes of the working world were fairly strict at that time. Few defied them and prospered… especially women. Luckier than most, my first ‘proper job’ required no more than jeans and T-shirt. Being a window dresser, skirts were out of the question as, most of the time, I was either up a ladder or on my knees in a store window. Being part of an ‘artistic’ team, even though the others were men, it was de rigueur to go for colourful embroideries and sequins but even so, there was still the expectation to conform to a particular mould. My own taste was varied… mostly black leather or vivid colours… but it did not include jeans.

Then there was Paris… and I dressed how I damned well pleased. Mainly in red. After arriving in the expected British tweed, it was made apparent that the only expectation was that I had style. Any style… as long as it was my own. For a few brief years, I was able to dress as me. And I loved it.

Then I moved back to England and into the corporate world and became ‘a suit’. The mindset and social requirements can be as restrictive as the clothing and as difficult to escape when you leave that world behind. Off duty and on, there is an unwritten code that proclaims position. Rebellion came only in the height of a hemline and a refusal to wear dark, boring colours although ‘adventurous’ was seldom more than mid blue.

After the horrors of childhood peroxide, I had never dyed my hair. I just left it to grow and occasionally hacked the ends with the meat shears. When I was obliged to leave the corporate world and become a carer, I hacked to some purpose and experimented with various shades of red. Not those auburn reds that might have been acceptable to my mother, but brilliant, obviously fake scarlets and mahoganies, and finally my favourite orange.

It was a brief phase but an important one as I began to realise how little of ‘me’ was allowed to face the world. The clothes were still stuck in the rut of practicality and the expectations of the corporate world still lingered. It is only in recent years that I have thrown caution to the winds and begun to embrace my inner hippy.

Photo: Steve Tanham

My hair once again grows wild… though slower than I would like now and it is peppered with silver. ‘Sparkles’, my granddaughter calls the silver hairs. The hemlines creep ever closer to the ground. The embroideries are more discrete than they were in the 70s. And I’m comfortable. Not just in the flow and drape of the fabrics, but in my skin.

I was lucky. My sons already fondly call me weird, so externalising a little minor weirdness was no big deal. The conservative village where I live might not always agree. The others whose opinion I care for already look beyond the surface… for which I am grateful, as the surface is more than a little worn these days. But I think it is fair to say that love gives us permission to be ourselves.

After decades of conformity, I found that it is as simple as that… a change in the way you choose to present yourself to the world makes all the difference to how you see yourself, to your comfort and self-confidence. After a lifetime of feeling obliged to conform, we probably don’t even think about it much. We are who we have become, through choices… our own and those of others… and necessity. It is not easy to make a change when habit means that you don’t realise that is needed… or when you seek to be what you think those around you would like you to be. Yet how often do we ask? Those who truly care for us, love who we are, not who they would like us to be… or even what they see.


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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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‘Know thyself’… Pausanius tells us it was inscribed in the court before the temple of Apollo at Delphi. We are given to understand it is associated too with the Inner Temples in ancient Egypt. It is one of the first phrases we come across in esoteric studies and where else could we begin? It is not the easiest thing to look into the mirror of the soul and admit to oneself what one finds there. Even less to share that openly with others by dropping the social masks and simply being who we are.

I first learned the concept as a child from my grandfather, but it was one it took years to begin to truly understand and longer still to try and put into practice. As we grow through adolescence and youth our self-image constantly shifts, changing as it reflects the desire to become who we think we ought to be, the image we feel the world should see, the mirage of our desire to become something different, perhaps, from who we are.

I have a feeling that it is only later that we have the inner space to truly look into that mirror, and by that time the masks we wear are so firmly in place it is difficult to strip them away and see what lies beneath. Many of us find it difficult to admit our worse characteristics, our fragilities and weaknesses. Even more, perhaps, do we find it difficult to truly admit our good points, gifts and talents as human beings. Our society tends to call this pride or ego and we see that as something to be shunned. Yet why should we fail to recognise the good when we can, it seems, accept the flaws far more easily? We are complex creatures.

Of course, unless we know ourselves from all angles, understanding who we are, how we move in the world, what the impulses are behind our reactions and actions, we cannot even begin to make a conscious change. Without that knowledge the changes that occur naturally through time and experience are simply reactions. Yet there is a difference , too, between knowledge and understanding. A child may know that fire is hot and learn not to touch. A parent sees the danger of the invisible ‘fire’ in radiators, hot irons, cookers… and understands how to keep the child safe.

I want to learn, to know. To understand. Both inwardly and outwardly… my inner self and the life around me, for I feel the two to be inextricably linked. Life, of course, involves me in a very personal way, the ultimate intimacy. It demands that I take account of, and responsibility for, thought, word and deed… it demands my awareness and my active participation in my own conscience, my own being. And this awareness is not separate from the rest of my life, but permeates every part of it. It provides the matrix by which I can live with my eyes open, allowing me to begin to glimpse the pattern.

Yet I was reminded recently that there is more to the phrase than the two words so often quoted. It is said that in learning to know oneself one can begin, however dimly, to see God. Whatever Name we choose to give to the Divine, there is that small spark of Light, a memory of our origins, and perhaps a foreshadowing of our destination, burning brightly like a jewel in the soul. Perhaps we have to look beyond not only the masks society sees us wearing, but also beyond the complex contradictions of the human personality we assume, to see that spark of Light within.

Not only is there a need to understand the impulses and characteristics that move us through the world daily, wearing a familiar face, but there is, I think, a need to look deeper towards the inner mysteries of who we are. By turning inwards in silence, which may at first glance, seem a self-centred thing to do, perhaps we are actually opening ourselves to a reality wider, vaster, deeper than we may see elsewhere, and by looking within we open ourselves to the whole wonderful vista of manifestation?

Why not?

Have you ever taken one of the innumerable personality tests that are out there these days? I took a fair number of them as part of some research when we were  setting up the School. Results vary so much from provider to provider and from day to day, I came out differently almost every time. Talking things over with those who know me better than I know myself, it appeared that they would each place me in a different area. I would have categorised myself differently again, but their observations encouraged me to have a good look and re-examine a few things. ‘Know thyself’ takes on a whole new layer of meaning when you actually start looking.

Over the years, like many of us, I have been obliged to submit to the psychometric testing now required for many jobs. The results can be illuminating in ways perhaps not immediately obvious.

I remember going to the first one at a time when my self-confidence was minimal and my self-belief even less.  I never did have much of either; I had been raised in the shadow of one of those sparkling people and felt dull beside the glitter and inadvertently allowed that contrast to undermine my confidence as I grew. An unusual adolescence, a disastrous marriage and having my face rearranged by a drunk driver didn’t help my self confidence much either. So the young woman who began to grow into life always felt second rate. Almost, but never quite, good enough. No matter how conscientious I was, how hard I worked, or how much I tried, I never expected to amount to much. I saw myself as second best. A shy, retiring mouse of a woman. And because I saw myself that way, I allowed others to see me that way too.

Life took a new direction when I packed my bags and went to work in Paris. Years passed and the blinkers wobbled a bit. I recognised the flaws in my own growing as I learned to instil confidence into my sons. I didn’t care what they did with their lives as long as they were happy, healthy, whole human beings. I wanted them to believe in themselves and know that I did too. Raising them while dealing with my late partner’s cancer I found I had a lot more confidence than I had known. It was odd really, as I had always believed that every one of us is valuable, unique and necessary to the world. Always known that we carry within us a spark of the Divine Life… and what can be greater than that? Yet somehow that knowledge didn’t filter through into my vision of myself.

When my partner was dying we discussed what I would do when he had gone, knowing I would have to earn a decent living to keep the boys. I learned to drive, a big step after the severity of the accident years before. Then I addressed another problem. I had dropped out of maths at school, and that was one qualification I lacked and would need. Others I had. I signed up for night school, in the hope of getting something  that said I wasn’t an idiot where maths was concerned; I had accepted the assessment that I was no good at that either.

In three months I completed a two year course and came out with a Distinction. No one was more surprised than I and my self-assessment began to change. Maybe I wasn’t as worthless as I had thought. It made me wonder what else I could do if I tried.

Looking back, I began to see that the mouse had not lacked courage to roar and had faced some pretty awful stuff and dealt with it. I had taken risks and leaps of faith, lived a Bohemian life for a while, done many things a little house-mouse would not normally do… yet I still had no faith in myself? So maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t who I had thought I was. Maybe I could do stuff.

I applied for a high profile job I felt completely unqualified for, in spite of the bits of paper. I was surprised to be called to a series of interviews and finally arrived, terrified, for a day of psychometric testing in London. There was a room full of professional looking people exuding confidence. And me. Feeling like a fish out of water and thinking I shouldn’t have come.

This was a full eight-hour day of intensive testing across the spectrum. Half were dismissed mid-morning, more at lunchtime. By the end of the day, only three of us remained. I was called in for the results. I didn’t get the job… but I got something better in my eyes. I had scored joint-top but the other person had relevant experience. I had tested at doctoral level, I who had left school at 16. They went through the test results in depth, one by one, and my journey home was taken in shock.

I do not think any test can tell you all about a person, but this one certainly opened my eyes. I was obliged to re-examine who I thought I was and who I had allowed myself to become; it wasn’t a pretty sight. Much of it was habit, a kind of laziness that had clung to the comfortable rut of familiar mediocrity because it was known and safe. And perhaps prevented me from having expectations of myself that frightened me. It made me think about other areas of self-belief and confidence and question my courage and character in a whole new way. But it wasn’t just me. It made me question the origins of the self-image we hold, how much of it we simply accept as we are fed it by others, who may see us better than we do ourselves, but who sometimes see only what suits them or what they themselves need to see. How much of it is the fear of being ourselves and being rejected, of taking a risk that might make us stand out from the crowd and lose the safe anonymity of our accustomed normality.

We are all such odd mixes of strength and weakness. We are not pale imitations of what we could be, nor do we have to try to be anyone else; we are who we are. We do not need to be a mirror reflecting the world back at itself because that is what the world expects to see. We can be our own mirror. We are unique, all of us and capable of reaching our ‘own peculiar star’. Instead of asking ‘who me?’ when an opportunity arises, maybe we should just be saying, ‘why not?’

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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