Lenses

Orion Nebula

“Religion is a matter of diet. You must choose what suits your spiritual digestion, I suppose.”

Naomi Jacob, ‘Four Generations’.

Growing up, I loved the stories that Naomi Jacob wrote about the Gollantz family. I am not Jewish, though some of my forefathers were. Reading Jacob’s books gave me an insight into part of my own family’s culture and recent history. One passage has come to mind a lot lately. Emmanuel, the lead character, is struggling to come to terms with pain and loss. Hannah Rosenfeldt, an old friend, tells him that he must learn to say, ‘The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’. Emmanuel cannot bring himself to say the second part, as he cannot bless a God who allows tragedy to happen. I was way too young to fully understand the stories, but this particular dialogue stuck, as some things do. There was an awful lot in that short passage and it reminds of a similar conversation with my grandfather.
I asked him why… how could the loving Father of whom we were taught in Sunday School permit so many horrible things to happen? It is a question most of us have asked. My grandfather was not a religious man, though he had a belief in the sentience of a Divine Light. These days, many would say he was ‘spiritual, not religious’. Even that would not be the entire truth, for he had walked some dark paths and his convictions were hard won. ‘Religion is a matter of diet. You must choose what suits your spiritual digestion…’ . He had tasted and had chosen. I was allowed to grow up with the same freedom, with an incredible cross-section of knowledge and experience from which to draw the raw ingredients of my own diet.
It was my grandfather who gave me the first hint of understanding… that we are too close to events in this human life to be able to see what purpose may be served by them. But that there is purpose, he was sure of. That hint came when he gave me my first microscope.
Mouse cells
Mouse cells
Looking through the eyepiece I found a strange world opening before me… blood cells, plant cells, the scales of the human hair, an insect’s wing. Peering at this magical world through the lens was a wonderful experience for a child… yet I realised there was no way for me to identify what I was seeing unless I already knew all their patterns and learned to understand them. I could see they were cells, but I was looking far too closely to see what they were part of. I could see them, but had no idea what they made.
Then Grandad built a telescope. A big one, with a lens the size of a dinner plate that he ground himself on a pedestal in his study. I remember it well; the black squared surface of the plinth, the pots of jewellers rouge, the steady motion that polished the glass…and while he worked he told me stories of gods and giants, of the fae and the otherworlds and the stories of the stars. He told me of radio waves… he had been a wireless operator in the army… and built me a Wimshurst machine to teach me about electricity. He showed me, from both the scientific and spiritual perspectives, how it was possible for different forms of matter and energy to occupy the same space. I had a fantastic education and did not know then just how lucky I was!
Wimshurst machine
Wimshurst machine
 
When the telescope was finished the whole affair was huge. Somewhere there is a picture of me standing with it… a great metal structure that captured the heavens for me to see. When elevated, it was much taller than me. We projected the sun’s image onto card; it was too bright to look at directly… and that was a lesson in itself. Some things are beyond the compass of our senses. We see only the effect, not the source. I saw the landscape of the moon and watched the stars wheel across the heavens, learning that much of what we saw through the lens was a past millennia old. Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away… the light we could see was that old. It had taken that long to reach us, so we were looking at the past! Yet time just was… wasn’t it?
Tycho supernova
Tycho supernova
 
It was odd too how similar the view through the two lenses were… microscope and telescope. How could we know that the heavens themselves were not simply the cells of a greater being we were too small to see? Something whose pattern we were too small to understand?
Then there was a time of loss, and that phrase I had learned stayed with me… The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away… Blessed be the name of the Lord. By this time my spiritual diet no longer included the confining thought of the orthodox Christianity we were taught at Sunday School, but the certainty of the One, by whatever name It is known, remained unshaken and unshakeable.
I began to wonder if the lens through which I looked at events in my grief was too close? Or its purpose to big, too far away from my understanding? Was there some pattern that I was simply unable to see through the myopic vision of human eyes? Yet I do not believe that each step of our lives is foreordainedI believe in free will…in the gift of being able to choose our paths, gain understanding or make mistakes, learning from the experience of living. That makes a Divine Plan a little hard to reconcile at first glance. How can we have the freedom to choose and yet believe there is a Purpose to the events and circumstances of this life we live?
We need to step further back… away from our involvement with the heartaches of the mundane world and see from a different perspective. This conviction has grown over the decades as, from the hardest, the worst and most painful events of life I have seen much beauty unfold. From the loss or surrender of things to which I have clung, allowing them to define me by their habitual presence, I have found new directions, new doors opening before me. And I have watched this unfolding, this flowering of possibility, in others too.
Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula
We all face the heartaches and trials of life every day and we often do not understand the ‘why’. When we are facing that unscalable mountain that blocks our path, makes us change course and curse under our breath, how can we know it does not protect us from a lifeless desert or a valley of wild beasts? We can never know for sure, but we can learn how to plan a better route and to understand the landscape in which we find ourselves.
It is impossible to trace the beginning of a series of events with our ‘what ifs’…really trace them back to cause and effect. There is always another ‘what if’ even further from the moment. Nor can we see into a future unknown and know what will come of any given event. Events cascade, creating a domino effect of circumstance and possibility that disappears beyond the borders of our imagination into the unseen millennia to come.
Only a being vast enough to bring the lens to the right focus on time and space would be able to see the beginning and the end of the existence we know… and it would have to know our pattern, like that of the cells under the microscope, and understand what we are in order to see what we form as a whole.
Such a being we could only conceive of as god-like and as such infinite. Yet infinity means there are no boundaries, no borders… no alpha and omega, it would itself be both beginning and end, and yet endless. And if it is endless and All, then we and all we know must be of It. And perhaps It knows the Purpose in ways we cannot imagine.
Horsehead nebula
Horsehead nebula

Simple space

january hol 2016 018You know how it is… you have an idea, then try and find a way to put it into practice. What at first seems obvious suddenly throws up all kinds of complications and what had appeared so simple becomes a real headache. You wish you’d never thought of it, but it is too late to change your mind and go back… but going forwards feels as if you will be wading through treacle for the foreseeable future. You start worrying or fretting and that sets up a vicious circle that clouds vision even further.

We had been feeling a little like that with some of the details planned for the upcoming workshop in April. It all worked beautifully on paper, but between the vision and creating a concrete form for those details lay a gulf the imagination struggled to cross.

So, you step back and take another look. Instead of thinking literally and in linear fashion, your mind kind of squints out of the corner of its eye, takes a tangential view and realises the complexity was not in the idea but your concept of how to make it happen. Instead of the literal, the symbolic seems to work much better… convey the idea in a far cleaner manner…. and is simplicity itself to bring into being.

That shift in perspective starts a whole chain of action, a domino effect where moving just one piece seems to align the rest; the complex chain of events that would have, could have been, has the space to settle to where it should be and everything falls into place.

We have found this so often when working on the ideas for the workshops. What seems to be a spectacular idea proves to be a nightmare…until you take the ‘spectacle’ out and move towards the simplicity of a symbolic portrayal.  The spectacle would, in fact, be detrimental… those observing see only the ‘show’, and seeing an idea so graphically portrayed, find it dictates understanding… whereas a symbolic depiction leaves space for both understanding and imagination. Those looking on may learn more from the ’empty’ spaces of symbolism than one could ever teach through a didactic and literal imposition of ideas.

The odd thing is, that once you start down that particular path, forgoing the visual feast of spectacle in favour of simplicity, other things too begin to fall into their proper places and decisions that have been put off because none have felt quite ‘right’, seem to present themselves, their potential problems already solved… or else solutions seem to manifest from nowhere.

All it takes is a slight change of perspective… and in keeping it simple you find that you are allowing space for the possible to happen.

No time at all

P1160237

What colour is the sky?

I watched the sun go down tonight from the roadside. For once, the camera had not come with me… I was just driving to the shop and didn’t pick it up. Even so, I cursed myself for leaving the camera as I saw the huge, golden orb shot with crimson reflected in the rear view mirror. Too late to turn and go back, the sun would have gone by then… but maybe, just maybe, I would be home in time…

No. Halfway home it was evident I wouldn’t make it, so, camera or not, I pulled over to watch the setting glory of a summer’s day.

It took only a couple of minutes for the last of the blue to fade through a rainbow of colour to a molten sky, aflame against the silhouetted trees. Almost as if the sky was clothed in the colours of the School…I couldn’t help but smile.

It was the speed of those final moments, though, that struck me. In the space of just a few heartbeats dusk became sunset and night swallowed the earth. The change came with incredible swiftness and was complete.

It made me think how fast our little planet is spinning, unnoticed by we who live and breathe her air. Hurtling through space around the sun at around 70,000 miles an hour, rotating on its own axis at around a thousand miles an hour at the equator… and we are so habituated to that movement we never notice. Yet, we get motion sickness in a vehicle….

Our eyes and brains process light that hits a speed of 670 million mph…and we don’t bat an eyelid at that constant miracle. Our field of vision seems infinite… even I, short-sighted as I am, think nothing of glancing up to say hello to Orion,  capturing in my gaze light which left the nebula nearly 1350 years  and nine trillion miles ago to meet my eyes tonight. Some of the stars I see no longer even exist!

Yet I have trouble getting to grips with things when I speak friends from ‘the future’ in timezones across the world….

Odd, isn’t it?

We live our lives against the backdrop of an enormity of time, yet it often seems that all we know can change in a heartbeat. A single moment, a scintilla of time, and life can be transformed, becoming unrecognisable, both for better or for worse. It can be a small thing that changes a mood, moving a day from sadness to joy, or it can be the bigger events that upheave a lifetime.

Just like the movement of the earth, we often don’t even notice how these changes begin. Or even at all. Sometimes we think we can trace them back to a particular and pivotal event, if we look… but it is hard, if not impossible, to untangle the skein of a lifetime, and the further you try and trace an event’s beginning back to its roots, the more apparent it becomes that you cannot do so, for each event is dependent in some way upon the ones that preceded it and brought you to that point in time.

We cannot alter past events and the future is unscripted… which leaves us with now, this moment, this scintilla of time, in which to change our worlds. And we do so. All the time. And don’t even notice.

I deliberately took time to watch that sunset. It is something that happens every day, something that has happened over my head 20,778 times since I was born and which I seldom consciously take time to watch. I have to ask myself how many of those days of my life I have missed, simply by taking them for granted and not drinking in each moment in full awareness of the possibilities they hold, not living with a passion.

Tonight the sky was a rainbow veil that turned to a sea of molten gold. I never want to take that for granted again.

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

Letting in the light

foggy 030

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Rumi

Near the fence there are some huge chunks of wood… slices salvaged from the old horse chestnut tree that used to hold my home and garden within its embrace. I loved that tree and watched the seasons change in its leaves; watched the squirrels play and the birds nest there… even writing about it. I felt the life in it, felt its character and history and so I was heartbroken when it had to be taken down.

Leaf mining moths had infested the bole and the sick tree was inspected and found to be rotting away from the inside. It was dying and was no longer deemed safe to hang its limbs over my home. When the massacre by chainsaw was complete we brought three pieces of wood back into the garden to make a little seat.

The seat was dismantled by scaffolders a little while ago and I have yet to reassemble it, but the girth of the branches and the three foot long slice of trunk remain close to the door. I noticed the beauty of the frosted mosses and fungi growing on them when I took the camera out this morning. The frost was heavy and the world wrapped in fog; everything white and the sky invisible until the sun broke through. The camera was a vain attempt to capture the mood and the beauty of the ice crystals that dusted the tousled remains of autumn.

wood with fungus

There had been little sun in the garden, of course, when the tree was there. The ground had been hard and dry and it was difficult to get anything to grow beneath the spreading branches. Between the sticky sheaths of the new bud covering absolutely everything, to the petals that fell like snow… followed by the bombardment of spiny conkers and tons of leaves, the tree had definitely made its presence felt. Not always in a positive manner, looking back. In fact, when the roots began to disrupt the ground we were facing the possibility of major structural problems.

None of that mattered though, not to me. I simply loved the thing and wept when its demise left a great empty hole in my skyline…

fungus on tree

… through which I now watch the stars and the dawn, for of course, the light streamed in. Rain softened the earth and my garden blossomed, bursting with exuberant colour that drew butterflies, birds and bees and all manner of small creatures. From the salvaged wood, new life sprang and insects made their home in the bark. In the corner of the garden… and in several places in the wood down the lane where I transplanted them… new horse chestnuts are growing from the conkers that fell and buried their roots in the earth. The life of the tree continues.

The foundations of my home are now safe too.

wood and stone

I still miss those first signs of spring in its buds. As summer draws near I miss the masses of blossom that carried me back to the boulevards of Paris. I miss the shade of its canopy and the stark black and white of its winter nakedness. I have conveniently forgotten, it seems, all the negatives and can look back solely on the joys.

frosted leaves and moss

This tree was always a metaphor for life and today it continues to serve thus. We often cling to things that are familiar and which may indeed hold elements of beauty or affection for us, yet which we know, deep down, are potentially or actually harmful. We hold them dear in their familiarity, because they are known, because they form part of the very structure of the life within which we have defined ourselves. Their roots may go so deep that we fear their loss and the ensuing changes to our personal landscape. Even when we can clearly see the potential benefits of their removal from the garden of our lives.

Making that hole in the skyline can be a big step, yet it is only by clearing away the dead wood that we can let the light in, and with it the elements of new growth that may germinate and flower, even in the scraps that remain. What we choose to cut out of our lives in such a way may have held good as well as bad; the good is never lost, but is the seed that will bear fruit… and it is already part of us.