Being Human

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Cave of the Hands: artwork created up to thirteen thousand years ago. Image: Mariano CCAS3.0

Shadows dance in the firelight. A hand, warm upon cold stone, where many other hands have rested. The breath of the shaman, blowing ochre, staining the wall at this moment of passage. Rite of recognition within the tribe. Kinship and continuity indelibly inscribed upon the body of earth

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The restaurant is quiet now, many of the tables are empty.  Sunset gilds the weathered stone of the window frames and casts ghosts of a beautiful day across the table, igniting the ruby heart of the half empty glasses. The woman tapping away at the little keyboard glances at her companion. There is an expression of deep concentration, emotions flitting across the unguarded face… She smiles. He is lost in the story, seeing it played out on the screen of imagination, reading from the heart, feeling the joy and grief of the characters. The book in his hands is a dream made concrete, the ephemeral made real. Her dream, his reality. From the back cover her own face smiles back.

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An old story plays out in images on the flickering screen, acted to perfection by movie stars, long dead perhaps, but here, forever, captured in an unending moment. The story may have no basis in reality… or perhaps it does…but the grief of she who weeps for her son is that of every mother’s tears. Alone in the dark, tears course unstoppable…rivulets of pain and compassion… from cheek, to throat, to breast… back to the heart that watches, a mother’s heart who knows that grief. The acted emotion evoking a response, a mirror, in the reality that observes the fantasy.

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Faded photographs, a tapestry of images… instants in time captured by the lens and brought back to life by the sight of the heart. Memories carry presence from the now to the then as eyes read the story of the past. The emotions are not then, but now.

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Paint rushes across canvas, swirling and curling like dust-devils in the heat of summer. You can feel it beating down on the unprotected head. Energy flows in every line and curve…passion made visible, calling to something deep within your being

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The music begins and you are lost in images born of sound and emotion, carried upon wings of imagination shared across centuries, heart to heart with unspoken words….

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School dinners. It is not the same smell… but so close you are instantly transported back to childhood, feeling once more all the small details of that moment, recalling the taste of a favourite sweet, perhaps, or the comfort of a touch. For a scintilla of conscious time you are a child again.

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You will have noticed a bit of a theme going on here… images, brought to consciousness through the senses and evoking emotions that are not images or memories in themselves, but, here and present now. Many spiritual paths over the ages have advocated a leaving behind of the things of the flesh, divorcing ourselves from the senses and focussing our attention firmly upon the higher and ethereal realms of spirit. I cannot, nor I think, can anyone say with any certitude, except that of personal conviction, whether this is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about things.  There are and have been mystics of all faiths and paths that have embraced this concept with their whole being and who have come to a personal enlightenment. There are others who have embraced the world and all it offers and who have also reached that level of spiritual beauty.

For me, personally, and for the Silent Eye, we have chosen the latter path…or perhaps it is closer to the truth to say it has embraced us. The idea of turning away from the world, for me, implies a separation from the Divine, by whatever name we choose to call It. The world in which we live, the bodies we inhabit, the creatures, great and small, with which we share this planet… our home… to me are all expressions of the One.

Even as a child the idea that we should turn from ourselves… away from how we were made, the tools we were given with which to experience the world… seemed odd. Though I was raised in a rather unusual family with wide ranging religious and spiritual beliefs, I live in a nominally Christian country, went to Sunday School and learned from the Bible. It says, quite clearly, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Genesis 1:27. KJV.  In fact, in the same phrase, the point is hammered home  thrice.

Now, the Sunday School child, with the child’s simplistic viewpoint, could not quite grasp how, on the one hand, we were being taught that God was omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent… yet had obviously got it all wrong, because we had to be ashamed of our bodies and their functions, deny human emotions and senses and try to become perfect. Surely, I thought, if God had created us in His image… like a mirror… we were already perfect in His eyes?

Ah, said the Sunday School teacher, smiling beatifically… but there was the Fall… the expulsion from Eden…sin….

Hmm… thought the child, rapidly learning to keep quiet… but didn’t God create the Tree, the Apple and the Serpent too? Maybe He knew what He was doing? Maybe, they too were part of His plan, His perfection?

Decades passed, symbolism and abstract thought were engaged upon and explored, beliefs changing and evolving as life added to the store of knowledge and understanding…yet this idea always stuck, unshakeably, in my mind.

Maybe, just maybe, the things of this earth were meant to be experienced and learned from? And perhaps the senses we use to move blindly and often blandly through life were the gateway to a deeper understanding? And when I realised that it is through the senses that we touch the deepest emotions that began to make sense.

There is a difference between being a slave to the senses and using them… the same difference perhaps between using opiates for medical purposes and for the recreational escapism that ends in addiction. The one offers release from pain, the other dependency.

There is no guarantee that the reality any of us sees is the same as that seen through another’s eyes. We all see the sky is blue… but how can we tell if what I see as the colour I call blue is the same as the colour you see? We agree, by consensus, that it is blue.. and can replicate our own version of blue in other things… but who is to say my ‘blue’ is not actually your ‘green’… just called by the same name? Our perception of the world is unique and personal, but we have a consensual language with which to share experience.

Perhaps the only area where we can touch each other’s reality at a deep level of true understanding… where we can communicate heart to heart, wordlessly and in all simplicity… is through the emotions… and our emotions are accessed through the senses. Think about that; without the physical senses we could not feel… indeed, most of the language of emotion describes sensation… we feel, are touched, we hurt….

There is another phrase from the Bible that also stuck, “…a sword shall pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Luke  2:35

Emotions are universal, timeless and understood by all. Once experienced they are part of us and we recognise them in ourselves and in others. Empathy, not sympathy. Compassion answers grief, eyes meet in joy, tenderness meets need… a wordless understanding that transcends all other forms of communication. Who among us that has experienced the heart-piercing sword of loss cannot feel it in another? The thoughts of many hearts, indeed, become clear when we allow ourselves to listen to our own.

Maybe just being human can bring us closer to each other than we realise…across time and space, across all political and geographical divides, leaving an imprint of emotion that others can understand, miles and millennia apart.

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.

A contract with wonder

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The glamorous sky seems an incongruous backdrop for mundane chimneypots and washing lines. Veiled by the pallid grey of low cloud or with a symphony of shades, the sun rises over the fields, painting the morning with impossible colour, every single day. Sometimes I can watch…sometimes I am occupied elsewhere… sometimes there is nothing to see beyond a gradual lightening of the sky, yet every morning, the same miracle unfolds, whether I can see it or not.

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The young rabbit really doesn’t seem to mind our presence, but carries on with the serious business of lunch as we watch. There is no hurry in its movements, no panic…no fear. As if it knows we mean no harm, are no threat, but are simply delighting in the privilege of a shared moment. Rabbits are always around… a common enough resident of the countryside, though they usually scatter at the approach of man.

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It is a perfect spring day. From inside the five hundred year old pub, sheltered from the underlying chill, it looks like midsummer. People sit on the tiny village green enjoying the sun. It is Midsomer though, not midsummer… the Lions at Bledlow, once two adjoining pubs, the Red Lion and the Blue Lion, is well known to fans of Midsomer Murders as the fictional  ‘Queen’s Arms’, while the village church has played the part of ‘Badger’s Drift church’ in the series. I have frequently seen the crews filming around here; the area is beautiful and full of historic hamlets, perfect for creating a magical illusion for the small screen.

We know most of the hamlets… know their churches and village greens, their old crosses and the folklore that meanders through their hedgerows like wild honeysuckle. We have spent a lot of time exploring the region and learning about it, our sense of wonder open wide for the gifts we have found by the wayside. From the unfurling of spring petals to the continuous unfolding of human history that is written in the stones of follies, castles and churches or the burial mounds of the ancients that mark the horizon, we are surrounded by an everyday magic that delights.

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The world is a place of wonder to a child, seen up close and through eyes alight with the joy of discovery. They are aware of every leaf and feather…every experience is new and full of potential. As adults, we tend to lose that capacity for wonder for the most part. The cares that hang heavy on our responsible shoulders can drag our eyes away from the wider vista of possibility to focus so closely on the task in hand that the magic of the world around us escapes our attention.

It doesn’t take much, though, to reanimate the heart of wonder. Just a simple walk in the woods and fields, a moment lying on the grass watching the play of light on a beetle’s wing the iridescence of a starling’s plumage…  or to stand on a hilltop and see the counterpane of fields far below. Getting out into the natural world seems to recharge our ability to see, feel and marvel at the beauties and little miracles around us, but the charge is easily depleted again when we return to the everyday world of work and need. It doesn’t take much, though, to renew the contract with wonder that we are given as children and bring that feeling home with us, keeping the eyes awake to the everyday magic of the world in which we live.

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Patterns in the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andromeda Galaxy. Image: NASA

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

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

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

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

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

animation by brian0918™
Part of a DNA double helix