Soul – calibre

Utopia of the blessed from Soul Calibur
Utopia of the blessed from Soul Calibur

“It’s like, imagine all the atoms in your hand… billions of them… they all have to move together to make it do this.” He wriggled his hand. “They don’t know why they are doing it …”

My mind turned back the clock a couple of decades to a room full of boys; young teenagers who, for some reason best known to themselves, had switched off the videogames and were debating the nature of existence. At that time, my home was always full of teenagers and that was fine by me. I seldom knew how many I would be feeding come mealtimes and the baking I did most days generally disappeared before it had a chance to cool. On this particular day, having reached the limit of their speculations, I had been called in as ‘expert opinion’. Apparently, my sons’ friends all knew I was ‘weird’.

They had been wondering about atoms that day too and debating if each one was a world or a galaxy, or even a universe… and if so, was there life on them… far too small for us to ever know… and if there was, was it sentient… and being so small, was a second of our time a whole galactic evolution to them? And was it therefore possible that our own universe was no more than perhaps a single atom in the bacteria upon the face of God?

And they thought I was weird?

And perhaps, chimed in one of them, if thought is electrical in nature, and therefore moves atoms and stuff around, were we just a thought in the mind of a being so vast that to us it would be a god?

So, did we even exist?

Or was God simply dreaming us?

And if we were a thought or a dream, yet were capable of consciousness, leading independent lives, and seeing civilisations come and go… what were the implications for our own dreams and thoughts? How much life was potentially in them?

And if there was life in them… were we as gods to our dreams?

And if our universe was no more than bacteria, what happened if, say, God blew his nose and we were separated from our host…? They were teenage boys after all… I was just waiting for one of them to use it as an excuse for not washing the bacteria off their own skins…

And what happened to stuff anyway? Where did the atoms go when something was destroyed…. And was anything ever really destroyed anyway?

And if we were part of some vast being, did what we do matter? Was it part of the life and learning of something we call god? I remember being inordinately proud of the lot of them. They had chosen to stop killing each other on Soul Calibur in order to look instead at the calibre of the soul.

I resisted the urge to simply answer ’42’ and gingerly cleared a space amid the detritus and sat down, promising myself that while they were at school the next day, I would potentially destroy a few universes with disinfectant … This was clearly going to take a while. So was the cleaning…

We covered a lot of ground that day.

Not for the first, nor the last, time, I sent up a silent thank you for my own less-than-orthodox upbringing that had covered so much and encouraged such questioning as I sat down to a debate I will not forget; one of surprising depth from minds so young and backgrounds so diverse.

They had all been open to exploring their view of reality, and of the world… a view imposed by their cultural and social backgrounds. These were minds open to new ideas, and I found that both exciting and encouraging, remembering that it would be these boys who fathered yet another generation of children one day and, hopefully, would raise them in this spirit of openness. If so, I was sitting in a room filled with hope.

Changing tides

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He 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 is now non-existent, lost to chemotherapy…a temporary state, I can hope. It had once been dyed red , 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 in my fifties 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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Questions of ‘relativity’…

File:Albert Einstein as a child.jpg
Einstein as a child

“… so I thought I’d ask ‘Google’.”

“Which is why you phoned me?”

“Precisely. You know everything and you’re quicker than the internet.”

Oh gawd…”

“What do you know about relativity?”

“ Erm… E=mc2?”

“Yeah, that.”

“What exactly do you want to know…?”

***

The conversation is typical of those my son and I have been having half a dozen times a day lately. The phone will ring and we will talk for an hour or so at a time. The subjects he has called to discuss, or that have come up over his morning cuppa, have been as diverse as astrophysics, optics, Chaos theory and quantum mechanics. And that’s without psychology, cats, comparative spirituality and the correct way to make tea.

Quite why he thinks that someone who left school at sixteen should be omniscient, I do not know, though it tickles me that my son should apparently, and mistakenly, think it is so. I recall a time, not so very long ago, when, in common with most youngsters, he believed I knew nothing about anything (apart from baking and helping with school homework).  Parents don’t, do they? Not in the eyes of teenagers. Parents are behind the times, out of touch and so old they are almost obsolete.

Very young children, on the other hand, think their grown-ups know everything. They trust what they are told, having no reason to question their ‘source of all wisdom’… until they reach an age when they do begin to question. Changes in the developing brain set teenagers to exploring. They need to find their own identity, their own ideas and ideals.  They compare what they know to what they perceive… which may not always be an accurate vision of the world… and build their ideals accordingly.

Finding that their parents are human and fallible is a shock to the system. Parents are inevitably seen as passé in their outlook, speech, dress and musical tastes, belonging as they do, to a previous (and thus embarrassing) generation. They obviously know nothing of the world their children know… and as the child begins to forge its own path, he strides out alone. It is only with the onset of their own hard-earned maturity that he begins to wonder if his elders might not have known a thing or two after all and the dynamics of their relationship changes once again.

Like it or not, we’ve all been children, teenagers and gone through the whole growing up process. Not only did we, in our own way, experience those various stages of change, we also became adults, and our relationship with early parental authority changed too. We still carry it with us, though, as the superego…the internal ‘authority figure’ that is a composite creation to which we are all subject. It is an inner voice that holds the moral compass and which tells us all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’…beside which we are still as children and against which we still rebel.

The odd thing was that answering my son’s queries on subjects about which I know nothing, I realised that I was wrong… I knew stuff. The huge gaps in knowledge were, as the conversation progressed, filled in by experience, common sense, and a fragmentary understanding gleaned from years of curiosity.

I was reminded that there is another part of the self that knows little but understands much… another inner voice, that answers when it is asked. It answers from a place where factual knowledge holds no sway, beyond understanding… a place of wisdom. Like children, we often prefer to make our own mistakes, rather than asking for help… or we don’t listen…  and like children, when we do ask, and learn to listen, that quiet voice can guide us home.

The bike sheds of heaven

Plato's_Academy_mosaic_from_Pompeii

It wasn’t always the bike sheds. Sometimes it was the tennis pavilion. Or, in winter, the air vent near the boiler room. We fondly imagined that the teachers had no idea, of course, that it was here that we congregated to gossip, apply illicit lipstick, smoke forbidden cigarettes or meet one of the boys from the neighbouring school. It was here that romance lurked in the shadows…or occasionally in the bushes… where the abhorred cherry-red beret, otherwise worn at the regulation angle, was discarded and where the horrid white socks were exchanged for more womanly hosiery before we left the premises.

Whilst the majority of the girls still studiously spent their time on more acceptable pursuits in the library or debating society, we were the rebels… the bad girls of the Grammar School… the ones who would be regularly hauled in front of the terrifying deputy headmistress for our perfidy…

Except, we weren’t of course. We were just prototype women on the verge of adulthood, stretching our wings within a cage of rules and regulations. We were doing what countless generations of teenagers have done before… what, perhaps, even the dragon of a deputy head had also done in her day… We were learning about life. Making mistakes, learning how to deal with them… but we were learning through experience, the best teacher of them all.

I never thought of myself a rebel. I was just lucky to be part of that particular group. It had a vibrancy and a life that was lacking within the prim corridors of the school, where uniforms encouraged uniformity. We were expected to leave those hallowed halls fluent in Latin, Domestic Science and socially acceptable mediocrity. It was an era where, in spite of the burned bras of the previous generation, the majority of women were still expected to simply marry and raise children after a few years of suitable employment. And, of course, the heads of the school were of an older generation still.

I had moved to the school less than two years before, when my parents had moved home, leaving the progressively modern school I had attended with its excessively modern syllabus and had been forced to rethink all my exam options… “We don’t do art here, dear… How about Latin instead?” More than that, the stringency of the social expectations the place raised irked me. I couldn’t wait to leave and get out into the world. The headmistress was horrified when I chose to leave and become a window dresser at the earliest opportunity. She would have been even more appalled had she known the team I travelled with were all male!

I still didn’t see myself as any kind of rebel and ended up following a fairly normal and domesticated path. It didn’t last long. It is only in retrospect that I see that the Bohemian decades, painted in shades of Paris and music, became rather more unusual. Then, I embraced the normality of my days without a second thought.

Yet a glance over my shoulder at the path I have followed shows it to be peopled with rebels, misfits and the extraordinary people I have been privileged to meet; ordinary people living their own unique journey, extraordinary minds and talents… people whose stories could fill book after book with unusual tales and viewpoints. People who are, in spite of how the world may see them, anything but ordinary….and who are and have been my friends.

While my body, to all outward appearances, walked the long-accepted path of womankind, my mind, in the company of those friends, was led to explore strange avenues, discovering in both the gutter and the stars a joyous and exciting beauty in life itself. In many ways, it is not I who have shaped myself … it is the trail of sparkling thought left by others for me to explore.

These are the rebels… many whose lives conform to utter respectability and some who choose to conform to no societal standard… ‘ordinary’ people from all walks of life… yet their minds and hearts have found the freedom to fly. These are the people who embrace life and experience and live it to the full and in doing so touch a wider existence than the neat lawns of suburbia. These are the ones I hope to meet one day, congregating behind the bike sheds of heaven.