The space under the stairs…

Image: Pixabay

I am not at all certain what it was that sparked the memory, but I had a very clear picture in my mind today of a magical place that has not existed for the past half a century. I could call it my childhood home, though we probably only lived there for about five years, until I was ten. I have a good visual memory and remember even my very first nursery, but this was the house where isolated vignettes of memory became a continuous story… and nowhere was more fascinating to a small child than the space under the stairs.

As you entered the house, the staircase rose to your left, the kitchen door was on the right, and the hallway led straight ahead to the living room. In the dark, triangular space beneath the stairs was a small table upon which sat my mother’s Imperial typewriter… a great black affair with a temperamental red and black ribbon and keys picked out in ivory. It was heavy, already ancient and each key made a satisfying ‘clunk’ when depressed. I spent hours typing on that thing, though I had to use the red inked part of the ribbon, as my mother needed the black for her writing. I must have typed ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ more times than I had hot dinners, disentangling the arms with their raised letters when my fingers worked quicker than they could.

On the back wall was a bookcase that held my mother’s manuscripts, a set of encyclopaedias and a carved wooden bear she had been given in Switzerland for her twenty-first birthday. The tallest wall held another bookcase, guarded by an alligator. Quite why she had this product of the taxidermist’s art in her possession, I never really knew. I did ask, but there appeared to be no reasonable answer. Although I was never entirely happy about stuffing animals and birds, having seen too many of them under their glass domes in my great grandmother’s red velvet sitting room, I did quite like this alligator. He smiled, and, when a guardian of knowledge smiles on you, all is right with the world.

Behind the alligator, there were books, of every description. From fact to fiction, on every conceivable subject… and, in spite of my tender years, I was free to read them all. Victorian moral tales rubbed shoulders with Madam Blavatsky and Spike Milligan. T. Lobsang Rampa shared a shelf with an autographed copy of Longfellow. I curled up with Bullfinch’s Mythology and Edward Lear and was as likely to read myself to sleep with Wilde, Bronte or Wheatley as I was to pick up Enid Blyton or C. S. Lewis. It was, had I but known it at the time, an amazing education. And not just for the books I was able to read.

My mother’s philosophy was simple… if I read something I was too young to understand, it would do me no harm and might encourage me to learn. For words I did not know, there was a dictionary. For things of which I knew nothing, there were the encyclopaedias. For concepts I did not understand, I could ask. And, as long as I could frame the question, there would always be an answer.

The answers might be phrased in a way a child could understand, they were often illustrated by analogies, but they were never ‘dumbed down’ or dismissive. Nor were the answers always cut and dried. While one plus one might equal two, discussions on more obscure subjects, like the nature of the soul, the thorny question of whether we only have ‘three score years and ten’ to learn all a human soul might need to learn and whether or not reincarnation was a reality, were always left open-ended. We explored the ideas, discussed the options and examined a variety of beliefs but the conversation would still end with the same thought… “Only you can find your answer.”

How could that be? If something is true or false, I thought, surely it is always true or false? It took a while to realise that simply being true is not Truth and that although there must be Truth somewhere in the vastness of Creation, we are probably not be big enough to see much of it. Our perspective is that of a grain of sand looking at the enormity of the Universe… and our vision is limited.

Slowly, I learned to ask the question… not just of others, though I learned much from listening to their opinions, thoughts and beliefs, but of something both within and without myself. There is always an answer… though sometimes I am still too ‘young’ to understand it and it only becomes clearer as time and growth open the gates of understanding. Over the years, I found many possible answers, but every so often one comes along that feels ‘right’ in an inexplicable way. It does not necessarily mean that it is true, but it has a rightness about it that answers the need of the moment. Some are discarded as new facets of life open, others become part of who you are and evolve as you grow.

The lessons we learn as children are not always good. We learn behaviours, prejudices, fears and opinions that will shape or scar us for life. What we take on board is not always what we are taught… it can, just as easily, be a reaction against what we are taught, by life, books or people. But sometimes, we are given gifts we do not appreciate until we have lived enough to understand them better.

The alligator is long gone, his stitched seams undone, his sawdust spilled. The carved bear went missing in transit, the typewriter fell silent and the Longfellow was lost in a move. Many of those same books sit on my bookshelves today but, fifty years after we packed the space under the stairs into boxes, I still carry its magic with me.

Fragile strength

butterfly 41

Unfettered beauty

Riding the storms of Chaos

Fragile as a heart

There are few things as strong…or as fragile…as a butterfly. Their delicate wings can withstand both wind and rain, yet the touch of a finger can damage them beyond repair. Their physical strength starts early when, as caterpillars, they munch their way through leaves ten times their size before moving on to the next, decimating the plants upon which their parent laid their eggs.

They have another strength though, not visible to the irate gardener or passionate lepidopterist… they have the strength to yield to the inevitability of their own dissolution. Retiring to their homespun cocoon, metamorphosis occurs; they are dissolved into the component parts of their own being before their final emergence as beauty incarnate.

butterfly2

It makes you wonder about the strength of the impulsion of Nature…and whether the caterpillar is aware of its future. How much awareness does a caterpillar have? Enough to fear its transformation… or just a blind obedience to the urgency of instinct? Either way, the process is inescapable. They cannot hold on to their juvenile form… only let go and allow Nature to do her work and the inevitable transformation to occur.

We face the same fate as we live and grow… that too is an inescapable process. We can cling on to youth or to the past, to our illusions or to people, desperately trying to maintain the life and comfort-zone with which we are familiar and that conforms to our image of self… or we can let them go. Not everything that we release will fly away; sometimes they remain and in that there is great beauty, for what we then have we do not need to hold, for it is a gift freely given, not the product of restraint and a grasping hand.

butterfly

The saddest thing of all must be the butterfly collector. His strength, he imagines, lies in his knowledge and expertise… and in the completeness of his collection. In truth, he is more fragile than the flying petals he seeks to acquire; he imagines himself master, yet can only appreciate what he has squeezed the life from before skewering it with a pin, preserving its perfection by robbing it of life.

There are many who seek to ‘collect’ people, knowledge or a perceived truth in the same way. Seeing beauty flutter by, they seek to capture it in their nets, pinning it down so that it cannot escape them, yet all they are left with, to display to the world in their pride, is an empty and lifeless shell.

butterfly 3

When beauty chooses to land in our lives, it is a privilege. It is not something to try to capture, not something we should attempt to pin down. It is a gift, to be savoured, with gratitude and wonder, for a breathless moment and then let go, to fly free. Beauty, whatever its form, is as strong as the life we allow it… and as fragile as our fear. It will not always stay…it will not always leave… but our recognition of its inner life and freedom may help us find our own wings.

SE Ilkley 2015 saturday (93)

Twisted history…

I enjoy research. For a writer, this is obviously a good thing. I love following an obscure reference to its source or delving into the past in search of what, for want of a better word, could be called ‘the truth’, even though, historically at least, there is no such thing.

It can seem a bit obsessive. Halfway through a film or documentary, I will stop to look up a historical reference. Films are the worst. Documentaries portray at least one person’s vision of the truth… evidence-based or speculative, they are interpretations and opinions of an accepted fact. Films, though, take huge liberties with the facts and that worries me. As long as the viewer remembers that these are stories, made to entertain as much, if not more, than they are made to inform, then the inaccuracies do not matter. When, however, the ‘Hollywoodised’  version of the facts becomes the only one to which people pay attention, then our vision of history becomes seriously skewed.

Take Braveheart, for example. Mel Gibson’s 1995 film brought the story of William Wallace to the attention of the world. It was hugely successful and remains a firm favourite with many people. We watch the film, engage with its characters and story and are left with a feeling that we have gained some knowledge and insight into the period and its people.

Not so, say the lists of ‘most historically inaccurate films’. Nowhere near so, say those who have studied Wallace, his life, and the history of Scotland. Mel Gibson himself admitted that to be true, but defended his directorial choices because they made for more compelling cinema, regardless of their lack of accuracy. Ironically, the film rasied the profile of Wallace and Scottish history in general as well as increasing tourism, so perhaps its very inaccuracy served a purpose.

We all know that the movie industry takes as many liberties with history as it does with scripts based upon classic works of fiction. It does not devalue the cinematic art form, but it really ought to make us question what we absorb and unconsciously accept as historical fact, or an accurate rendition of literature.

Yet how often are we interested enough to go off and study the sources with any depth just because we have enjoyed a film? I get curious. Where did they get that idea from, is it based on fact or a piece of pure cinema? How come one portrayal of a historical character can be so very different from another?

I will probably start with Wiki, just as a jumping off point, then wander off in goodness knows how many directions.  I always look for several different sources so that I have something on which to form an opinion.  And I often get sidetracked, chasing down associated people or ideas, knowing all the while that there is no way I will ever know the truth… at best, all I can hope for is an accepted version of the truth, a consensus based on the interpretation of collated evidence.

Obviously, history itself is true… what happened, happened… but the records that have been left to us are not objective. They are all, of necessity, subjective interpretations of that truth and are therefore inevitably subject to error, manipulation, or simply fall victim to the writer’s perspective and emotions.

Personal perspective colours everything we see, do, and record in memory. It takes very little to grasp how even the simplest of things can be so coloured.

“I stayed in my pyjamas and wrote until lunchtime…” That could be seen as a statement of fact. Except, I don’t own pyjamas, but it sounded better than ‘dressing gown’. And I was dressed way before I had lunch…which, admittedly, was nearer tea-time… And I didn’t just write… I read, made and drank coffee, fed and played with the dog, fed the fish…and all the other little things that creep in when we are ‘supposed’ to be writing. But how would it look to others?

“She didn’t even get dressed till lunchtime!”
“I wish I could sit around doing nothing…”
She can’t have much of a life/must be really depressed if she doesn’t even bother getting dressed…”
“Wow, I wish I was a writer…”
“It’s alright for some. Bet she doesn’t have to work…”
“She must be lazy/ill/weird…” (Okay, they can have that last one…)

Emotional response always and immediately overlays what we experience, crafting its own version of the truth of a situation. Even our own. I think I stayed in the dressing gown till lunchtime because, for once, I could. I normally work a seven-day week and start early. I have done so for years, barring the occasional weekend and holidays… and there were a good many years when I didn’t even get those. Today, I didn’t have to go out early. I had a choice. The housework was done and the dressing gown is warm and cosy on a cold morning.

But is that the truth, or just an excuse? Not even I can be sure of that… we are all adept at finding justification for our own actions, if we ever bother to question them. Most of the time we go through our days without stopping to question such basic actions or the true reasons behind our decisions.

Many spiritual schools and religious bodies advocate a daily ‘examination of conscience’ where the events of the day, your own actions and reactions, are played out in imagination before sleep. This can be a really useful exercise, yet time alone will only allow us to replay a fraction of the day…those moments that stand out from the rest and have roused an emotional response for some reason.

Much of what we do throughout the course of a day is habitual. We are programmed to adopt patterns of behaviour. It frees us processing space in the brain and conserves energy… and probably makes us more efficient as we are not constantly starting from scratch with every action.

That is all well and good when you are getting in a car to drive to work or loading the washing machine…that kind of patterned efficiency is a good thing and could be called expertise. If we accept the habitual patterns that become imprinted upon the way we think and feel with as little examination, we perpetuate them too. We are all aware that habits are easily formed and will shape our way of seeing the world. This can be a good thing… though more seems to be written about its negative effects than its possibilities. Consciously seeking the good in life, rather than the bad, being open to compassion, empathy and generosity of spirit… they would not be bad habits to acquire.

Written in stone

Nine Stones Close
Nine Stones Close

There has been a bit of a preoccupation around here lately with stone. Between the recent and forthcoming workshops we will have visited a fair number of stone circles, standing stones and burial chambers and it might be tempting to think we are simply indulging our curiosity or even wafting around the stones of the past, in denial of the fact that evolution has taken humanity thousands of years away from the time and spiritual climate in which these stones were erected.

There is a temptation also to look at these stones and call them primitive constructions, or crude symbols, yet the planetary and seasonal alignments present at many of these sites, let alone the scale and sheer number of them across the landscape, suggests we need to reassess that misconception. While arguments smoulder about their purpose and significance, their beauty, mystery and the power of standing in their presence is undeniable.

Castlerigg
Castlerigg

We look upon these enigmatic stones from a position of greater knowledge of the world and indeed, the universe than at any other time in human history, yet we still look at the precision and beauty with which they were built with awe… and wonder if, for all our knowledge, we may have lost something. Did the Old Ones understand the world in a way we have forgotten? There are so many questions that will remain unanswered and any answers we are given will be accepted or denied according to our own predisposition.

Yet there are still things we can learn from looking at these monuments to our own distant past. Not all of those lessons need to be about the stones themselves, even if we simply observe through modern eyes, the stones can act as catalysts for our own progress towards understanding.

I remember a very interesting talk given by Steve some years ago, based on the work of Maurice Nicoll, in which he looked at some elements of the Gospels from a symbolic, rather than a literal viewpoint. He suggested that certain words refer not to physical objects, but to more abstract concepts. Three of the words he looked at were wine, water and stone. I can’t recall the exact terms he used, but roughly, wine symbolised spiritual truth, water living truth and stone the rigidity of dogma. Within the context of the Gospels stories, those terms work to shed an extra level of illumination on the parables. Such apparently coded symbols may have been common knowledge in an earlier era, much as the symbolism of the medieval wall paintings that look so strange to our eyes yet conveyed a clear message, in their day, even to the unlettered peasantry. Like any code of symbols, though, just because it works within one era and arena, it does not necessarily follow that the same meaning would be applied across all others.

Gardoms
Gardoms

Of the three words that Steve examined, his symbolic definition of stone is closest to our general use of the term. We speak of things being ‘written in stone’… like the Ten Commandments that were inscribed on the tablets… and therefore both unchanging and unchangeable. It is for this reason that it is so apt for describing the decline of living truth into mere dogma. Yet, I wonder if even the common definition of ‘written in stone’ should be set in stone?

Rock is part of the very fabric of our planet. You could say that it was formed from cosmic energies operating in earth. The elements that existed before the formation of rocks were gradually solidified to form the basis of our lands. Man recognises stone as a symbol of solidity and permanency; even today, we use it for our monuments because of its longevity and durability. In a more abstract sense, because of these same qualities, it represents truth and it is true that the truth as we see it, when it is set in stone and not allowed to grow can indeed become dogmatic.

When our ancestors built their monuments they began by using wood, a material in plentiful supply and relatively easy to work. Traces of vast monuments, such as Woodhenge and Seahenge, still remain. Yet timber circles were not enough. Our ancestors too chose to build their monuments… and in Britain that means the circles, the monoliths, cairns and chambers… in stone. The organisation and work involved with the simple tools we are told they had available at the time is staggering. You cannot imagine that they would have cut, shaped and carried up to eighty stones weighing up to four tons each, over the 150 miles from Wales to Stonehenge, for instance, unless they saw some great virtue in doing so.

long-meg
Long Meg

It can have been no arbitrary decision. Perhaps it was something to do with the Prescelli hills where the stones were formed, perhaps something to do with the qualities of the stone itself. We may never know. Either way, it was an incredible undertaking. The precision of the stones at Stonehenge, both their crafting and their placement, is well documented and many books have been written exploring the astronomical alignments built into the circle. It can only have been conceived with some kind of sacred purpose in mind, especially considering the labour it took, the manpower and the time, in order to raise the monument and the vast, sacred landscape in which it stands. Stonehenge may be the best known and visually the most impressive, yet there are over a thousand stone circles in Britain.

You can imagine the Old Ones lifting the stone with reverence from the earth, shaping it both to their needs and to its place in the landscape. You can see them placing it with care to exemplify and illustrate a living truth which made sense of their world, raising their beliefs to be written in the permanent language of stone.

stonehenge
Stonehenge

Yet stone is continually open to change. It is constantly being eroded and reshaped by the weather, even by the touch of human hands. It is destroyed by progress, cleared away, moved, re-used to suit the needs of later generations.  Its meaning, both as a symbol and as an exemplar of our ancestors’ beliefs, may be lost. Yet, the original  message… the essence of what was ‘written in stone’… although invisible to later eyes, still remains encapsulated in the living stone they raised.

We will continue to build our monuments in stone to the truth that we see and their meaning too will one day be lost in the mists of time. Unlike our ancestors, we record our world… with new technologies that will also become obsolete. Five thousand years from now, there may be some knowledge left of the meaning and purpose of what remains of what we now build, but the true import, the understanding of the emotional, social, religious and political context, will have been lost. Stone is not a permanency, it just has a longer, slower life than we mere humans. It is in a constant state of change, just like the truth it symbolises. Even dogma will have its day and either self-destruct or slowly fade, replaced in the heart of Man with a new paradigm. But behind the truth and the reality we know and profess, there is a greater Truth, eternal and immutable. We may not be able to see it, but somewhere beyond our differences and arguments, beyond our ever-changing beliefs, doubts and systems, we know it is there. It is in this greater Truth that understanding grows and sometimes we may be able to catch a glimpse of it, written in the very stones of this little planet we call home.

avebury
Avebury