Talking to myself?

nick north days 032

I was going back through some old writings and as is often the way, things written long ago come to my eyes as if penned by another hand and heart. Meaning leaps from the page, revelations lurk behind each word and understanding dawns as if for the first time. And yet, the words which bring these apparent gifts are my own.

How could I have written what I did not understand? Where did the words arise to capture such ephemeral wisps of thought? Ideas, teachings, wisdom I do not possess stare back at me from the page as if they have materialised from some other reality where the hand that wrote them had far greater depth than I. And yet, I know that hand was mine.

The words written years ago have become part of the yellowed paper. Thoughts were manifested within the letters scrawled across the page. They have not changed. Yet I might have written in invisible ink for all I understood as I wrote, so what has changed? Only the writer… the years, the continuous learning curve of life, the multitude of experiences, knowledge gained and illusions lost… all contribute to a changed perspective from which many things look different now from how they looked then.

Some revelations come simply from that transition between knowledge and understanding; from an abstract and intellectualised concept to a living knowing. Some ideas become clearer as we are distanced from them; we can be so close sometimes that we cannot see anything but the detail and the shift in perception afforded by the passage of time allows us to take a wider view. There are many things in those pages that I did not even know I knew, but on some level, at least, I must have done so or they would not now be staring back at me from the past. As a friend once put it, it is interesting when you become your own teacher.

Although, we always are. No matter what life gives us to work with, we can only shape what we can hold in awareness. Our perception is not pure, but is clouded by the accumulated layers of experience and reaction that have built up around us, so that anything that comes to us is seen only ‘through a glass darkly’. It can be a lifetime and the devil’s own job to chip away that accretion and change our perspective. First, we have to realise how securely we have immured ourselves and the walls built by our emotions can be a veritable bastion.

Occasionally, though, the mortar crumbles and a gleam of light blazes through, illuminating that which was before our eyes all the time and then we sit back in wonder at how we missed something so obvious that it shines. And yet, when the gem we have missed comes from our own pen, we have to wonder where it sprang from in the first place.

It was there all along. Perhaps there is a part of each of us that Knows… that doesn’t need to seek the answers, but which needs our conscious mind and heart to seek and ask the questions.

We can spend a lifetime in that seeking, only to find that the object of our quest was never lost. The words on the brittle pages are gifts, laid unknowingly aside in our inexperience, waiting, like a seed, to spring into life and bloom when we are ready. On some level of being, we already have both the questions and the answers. We just don’t realise that we do.

Voices from the past

There was a jaw-dropping moment when it finally hit home…

We knew the story… we had discussed it long before Stuart had started working with it. The ‘hero’ was a historical king who lived around five thousand years ago. About a thousand years later, tales of his doings, combining events both real and symbolic, were collected and written down. Given the way that history…and particularly folk history… works, the scribe probably included tales once told of even older characters, going back seven thousand years or more, and reassigned them to our Hero.  A few hundred years later, they were standardised under the title ‘He who Saw the Abyss’…

Facts, dates and historical data are all very well. They allow you to arrange events on the canvas of space and time. What they do not seem to do is to really put things in perspective. When the realisation hit, it was mind-blowing… we were actually working with stories from one of the earliest human civilisations. These were tales that were already old before the pyramids were built. Two, three, some of them maybe even four times as old as the stories in the New Testament. Many of them contain the obvious origins of biblical tales… precursors to stories we associate with the early books of the Old Testament. And we were not only working with those tales… we were finding them wholly relevant to the world today.

Take Dickens… You read his work and he brings to life the world as he knew it. You can picture Victorian England quite readily, just because of his words. Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters take you back another century or so. Shakespeare another couple of hundred years. Julius Caesar wrote of his world two thousand years ago. Plato taught four hundred years before that… And that still only takes you about half way back in time to the birth of the tales we are working with! That starts to put things in perspective a bit.

It is not just the almost unimaginable distance in time and culture between then and now that is so startling, it is the way the characters are drawn, playing out timeless moments of human interaction. So many thousands of years…and we have changed not at all. Arrogance, entitlement, compassion and misguided emotions all played out then exactly as they do today. We did not need to translate an ancient tale into terms the modern mind could understand, it was already there.

The problems and scenarios they faced too, were not dissimilar to our own. Love and loss, anger and grief… and the wider issues of power and politics, ecology, the destruction of habitats and a obsession with the quest for eternal youth… they were all part of life thousands of years ago.

In some ways, it seems a tragedy that we have changed and learned so little. In others, it is reassuring, for the threads that bind past to present are unbroken and the learning curve continues. A few thousand years, after all, are but a very small part of the hundreds of thousands of years that our species has been around.

Hominins, our earliest ancestors, first made use of stone tools almost three and a half million years ago. Homo sapiens has only been around for some three hundred thousand years, and for most of that time we were busy evolving from our origins. ‘Civilisation’  took us a while… it is still a new venture for humankind, and we are  probably little more than pre-schoolers, compared to what we may one day become.  As long as we don’t break our ‘toys’ by squabbling over them, I see a good deal of hope in that.

As individuals, we learn best from experience. As societies, we learn from history… but the tendency is to see anything ‘prehistoric’ as irrelevant. Prehistory tends to refer to the period before written records were kept, and one of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform, came from the same time and place as the story of the king, Gilgamesh. There are so many similarities with the people in that story, and parts of it probably arose before the invention of writing… bridging the gap between history and prehistory. And we get to work with those stories for this year’s workshop… The moment that really hit home was a moment of utter awe.

‘Gilgamesh is among the greatest things that can ever happen to a person.’
– Rainer Maria Rilke.

The Silent Eye’s Spring workshop for 2019

Full details, cost and booking form are available by clicking HERE

… a thousand words?

Johannes Gumpp, painting his self-portrait

I was reading an article that tells how much a picture can attract our attention. The inclusion of a single image can increase the likelihood of someone stopping to read an article, sharing it or, indeed, making it go viral. It isn’t difficult to understand why… an image needs no words to convey a message. It has no language barrier…. And, in this day when we all read onscreen, skimming most of the content, according to all the research, rather than carefully reading each word, images appeal to our need for speed. Interesting enough on its own, but as usual, it got me thinking. In itself the words called up images in my own mind that sparked of a whole other train of thought.

In one of those random moments, I realised that if I were but an image of myself, I would hate to live in a photo frame, no more than a two-dimensional representation, bounded by straight edges and right angles of rigidity. I’d rather be a movie. Even that lacks the extraordinary depth of life. Yet it is through images that we learn about our world… visual representations registered by our own eyes, non-visual ‘images’ formed by our other senses, or even those scenes painted by imagination on the screen of the mind..

I take a lot of pictures… I am not alone in that. The digital age has made photography accessible to all. We take them for many reasons… perhaps to capture a magical memory, document a trip, or to share the wonder we feel in this beautiful world. Sometimes we film videos… sweeping panoramas, or the antics of a small dog, maybe… yet neither photograph nor film can ever truly catch the essence of a moment. They lack the depth, the dimensions brought to an instant by emotion. They do not catch the scent of a rose or the subliminal buzzing of life in a meadow. They cannot capture the taste of salt spray on your lips or the wind in your hair… or the warmth of a baby’s fingers clutching yours.

Professionals, and those gifted amateurs who have a real feel for photography, can capture something that conveys the idea of those feelings, often so sublimely that they evoke a deep response. A smile for the cute kitten whose fur looks so soft… a yearning for a much-loved place… the tenderness known only by the heart. They evoke, beautifully, poignantly, but they can only be an impression of experience.

Some of those images though can change the world. Few who recall the BBC images from Biafra in the 60s will ever forget them. They brought home to us, quite literally as we sat down to dinner with the TV in the corner, the plight of children starved to little more than skin and bone. It changed the way we thought. It changed the way we chose to believe in the world.

Adverts… Shots of movie stars that change fashions. The Earthrise picture taken from the moon… Mother Theresa, Churchill, Picasso… iconic figures and defining moments, both good and tragic, that delight, shock or move the world to action. Images of beauty and destruction have altered our view and our stance on ecology, far faster than a mere governmental report or two could do.

Images can unite us. Princess Diana, Kennedy, 9/11… when the world stood still and watched… People and governments have been galvanised to respond to tragedy worldwide. Images change things.

In the same way, our governments have always used imagery to change public opinion, a legal technique of mass manipulation…propaganda or censorship, often imposed ‘for our own protection’. I think of the images of the bombing of Hiroshima. My mother had an old film projector and footage of the Enola Gay and the mushroom cloud. I remember watching it when I was young and being told of the destruction. Yet, for a quarter of a century the full picture was hidden and we were only permitted to see the material devastation, not the human horror of atomic warfare. Why? Because it was too horrific… and besides, they were still making atomic weapons… Such footage could change our minds. Yet the Allied governments felt able to show newsreel footage of the atrocities perpetrated by our enemies in that same war. The history we were shown was the truth, perhaps… but not the whole truth. But images ensured we felt the way we ‘should’.

At the other end of the scale there are the less warlike pursuits. Meditation techniques, like those we use in the Silent Eye, that draw images in the mind, bringing an understanding that is experiential, even though it is lived only in the mind. The symbolism of our varied faiths sustains us on a personal level.. from the dove to the star; the statue of Buddha, the pentagram or an icon of the Madonna… Not in themselves objects of worship, but images of something too great to constrain in physical form, but which we can understand when imagination speaks to the heart. Such things use imagery to bring peace to the individual…and yet can be misappropriated to inflame a nation to war.

Artists of all kinds… writers, photographers and filmmakers, poets, sculptors and musicians…all create images, just as you and I do, all day and every day, within our minds. Such images are born of observation and imagination. That word itself says it all. We have the power to shape reality for those who find our work or are touched by our vision of the world. There is a responsibility that goes with that. Whatever world we shape speaks to the imagination of others. We may seek only to record. Or to entertain and amuse. Perhaps we teach, question or educe. It doesn’t matter. Whatever we create carries something from the deepest levels of our own being out into the world. We cannot take responsibility for what the minds of others do with our work… once it has been set free, our creation responds only to those who look, read or listen. The responsibility we have lies in our own intent and from which part of ourselves we create… and why.

Solstice of the Moon: Unfamiliar territory

It is raining again and about to get worse. You are in a suburban green space between neat-gardened houses, the last place you would expect to find an ancient treasure… and you are confronted with something both so alien and so hauntingly familiar, that it stops you in your tracks. A carved stone, covered in symbols, strange incisions and fantastic creatures. You have absolutely no idea what it may mean… no frame of reference… no starting point for comprehension. Yet somehow, it is not only familiar from all those pictures in books, but it feels as if you really should know how to read it.

The stone is one of the many Pictish symbol stones that dot the landscape. It is far from the best example, being both broken and weathered.  The Brandsbutt Stone was found in pieces, used as part of the construction of a farm dyke and wall. Close by are two large stones, thought to be from a stone circle that stood there until it was levelled a couple of hundred years ago, before we began to value our ancient heritage and after it had lost the respect and awe it had once inspired. It is worth noting that even today there are ancient monuments that are being destroyed through lack of care, inept officialdom and the worship of the great god Mammon.

The Brandsbutt Stone may once have been part of that ancient complex, though that is far from certain. While the now-missing stone circle would have dated back four to six thousand years, the carvings date back a mere fifteen to twelve hundred years. The Picts, the ‘painted people’, inhabited this area in the Late Iron Age through to the early medieval period and, although they themselves left no written record of their lives, they did leave many carved stones from which we can learn a good deal about them. Not all of them are as enigmatic as this one; some have scenes of battles, some tell stories, and some marry the symbols of an older time with those of the new religion of Celtic Christianity.

We had come across a few Pictish stones on our last foray into Scotland, most notably the carvings and the Cross at Brechin with its ‘indeterminate figures’, its eight-legged horse and unfortunate explanations…  There too, the marriage of old and new was still apparent, even though the stone is thought to be only a thousand years old.

The human figures are easier to understand, even though we may argue over the interpretation of the stories they represent. The Symbol Stones, though, are another matter. To even begin to have a hope of understanding them, we must leave the familiar thought processes of a literate society behind and go back to our earliest ancestral forms of written communication.

How can you write before there is standardised written language or when regional dialects differ? Or when no-one knows how to write…or read? The only way is to draw a picture. That works for a while. A snake is a snake. Then it gets more complicated and two things happen. The pictures may become simplified, almost symbolic… like the curving snake of a ‘S’. Early forms of writing began as pictograms. But how do you draw a river, sliding silver through a valley? Or the passage of time? How do you communicate abstract concepts… like ‘wisdom’, ‘renewal’ or ‘immortality’? You might look at the curve of a river and see a snake. You might find the flow of water reminds you of the passage of time. If the tales of your people attribute wisdom, renewal or immortality to the serpent, you might just draw a snake…

If, on the other hand, you were a leader renowned for your cunning or wisdom, or if your lands were bounded by a river, you might take the serpent as your emblem and carve it on your boundary stones. Perhaps the ‘painted people’ wore their clan symbols painted or tattooed on their skin too? It is for this reason, I believe, that the incomprehensible symbols seem to hover with vague familiarity on the edge of understanding. The pictorial language of symbols speaks across both space and time in a way we can almost grasp, even if we no longer hold the keys to its unlocking.

There are some symbols, though, that are yet to be deciphered; symbols quite specific to a culture long gone. The Brandsbutt Stone bears an incised ‘crescent and V-rod’  and the ‘serpent and Z-rod’ symbol. Are the spear and the arrow, as Helen suggested, male and female weapons? The crescent of the moon and the obvious symbolism of the serpent, as well the relative appropriateness of the weapons’ ease of use, might bear that out. Do they refer to the male and female lines of a heritage or clan? Are the angles reminiscent of those used in the construction of the stone circles, millennia before? And why are the weapons apparently broken? It is an ancient practice to ritually break that which is offered to the gods, as we had explored at the Druid Lake on the isle of Anglesey. The breaks in these carved, symbolic weapons, if breaks they are, appear to be both deliberate and supported in some way. What significance might that be hinting at?

Thankfully, we do have a transliteration of the final symbol on the stone. The vertical line crossed with many horizontal lines is not an untidy decoration, but an inscription in Ogham, which we had last seen at Nevern. This early medieval alphabet is almost always used to inscribe just a personal name. The groups of dashes are placed in specific positions and at distinct angles, across a straight line…usually the vertical corner of a stone. Here, as the corner of the stone would have been too uneven to be suitable, the vertical line was simply inscribed.  It can be read as IRATADDOARENS, which has been linked with Eddarrnonn, which may refer to St. Ethernanus, a Columban saint, and founder or a number of churches on the east coast Scotland.

Intrigued and thoroughly drenched one more, we regained the shelter of our vehicles and set off behind Running Elk for our next location. Following his lead, I wondered about the odd hand signals coming from his car, often in direct contradiction to his indicator lights. The ‘up’ was confusing. It took a moment to work out that he was pointing to various other sites of interest along the way… ones we would not have time to visit, like Balquhain recumbent circle, also known as the Chapel of Garioch, on the slopes below Mither Tap; a circle which has lunar alignments.

The circle is no longer complete and is missing several stones, but what remain are large and impressive, even from the road. The ten tonne recumbent stone is twelve feet wide and over five and a half feet tall, I read later. It is a white granite that seems to have been carried to the site from some distance. Once again, the stones are polychrome. The eastern flanker, six and a half feet wide, is of grey basalt, while the western flanker, over seven feet wide, is of red quartzite with white quartz inclusions.  The outlier is the one I would most like to have met, though… a ten foot tall pillar of pink-seamed white quartz, which, even from a distance, appears to have an interesting face…  Me, I’d have happily foregone lunch to get a closer look… but I would not have wanted to miss our next stop…

Feeding the imagination

“We were not Gods, but were of God, the strands of our existence
not yet teased apart by Becoming, our function not yet defined.”

So much for a Saturday evening… the night of the week most folk sit relaxing by the hearth or meet with friends. Me? I was taking dictation from a Goddess…or that was what it felt like as I wrote.

I had done plenty of research, burying myself under a small mountain of respectable tomes to remind me of the details of the great story I was working with as I wrote The Osiriad. The names on the spines… Budge, Spence and Frazer, Iamblichus and Herodotus… suggested that ancient Egypt had something to do with the whole process, as would the printed papyri that littered the table. I had been feeding my imagination on tales of Egypt for years.

“There was a time we did not walk the earth.
A time when our nascent essence flowed, undifferentiated, in the Source of Being.”

But research isn’t everything. There are scholarly accounts in abundance out there with an academic weight I could never match. Nor did I intend to try. I hoped to speak to the emotions and imagination instead, so it was enough to get a broad overview of the subject. Having immersed myself in the  scholarly works, I set them aside to write, hoping to weave the disjointed myths of Egypt into a single story. Which is where it began to feel as if I was taking dictation… and I wrote non-stop until the book was done.

“We wore flesh like a garment, clothing our immanence…”

It is a curious process when, with the first keystrokes, the tenor of language changes and takes on a flavour all of its own. Even stranger when the character who is speaking in the narrative comes to life under your fingers and starts to ‘dictate’ aand you find yourself typing concepts you were not consciously aware of before writing them down. I think I speak for many who write with this. It is a well-known phenomenon that our heroes and heroines begin to act independently in the imagination and the writer becomes little more than an observer and reporter of events over which, it almost feels, they have no control.

I found as I wrote that tale that I was tapping into areas of understanding that had lain unexplored in mind and memory, shrouded in the cobwebs of neglect. There is far more stored away in our minds than we notice. We tap into it through practices like meditation and the creative process. The two, I think, are more closely aligned than we generally realise. Many who paint  slip into another state of mind, very similar to that experienced in meditation. Many who write will go back and find things they barely remember having written, things beyond their usual scope that they hardly recognise as their own. Things that surprise them with their depth or intensity.

Imagination is such a powerful thing. It is at the root of so many aspects of our lives yet we often dismiss it or fail to notice it. We even train our children away from its magic by telling them not to daydream or imagine things, pulling them back to reality. Yet every design, every concept, begins the process of its manifestation within the imagination of its creator. Every object we use began with a ‘what if’, every story was once just the germ of an idea.

It is imagination that fuels our emotions. What would we fear without that mental picture that haunts us? Would we strive to attain a goal without the image of success imprinted upon our mind? Yet it is a two-way process, for imagination feeds on memory and emotion too and they paint a vivid picture for it to work with. Think of the possibilities for change we could have by consciously harnessing these natural gifts we all have in abundance. It is this power of the imagination that is drawn upon by all the methods of positive thinking, and though many of the concepts they present may be flawed by the desire for profit and worldly success, the basic premise, that we can shape our own vision of reality through imagination, is sound.

Mystery Schools, including the Silent Eye, have always taught the power of the controlled imagination. Very often, though, in my experience, the power of the heart is neglected by the student, overlooked in their concentration on study, with the result that the focus becomes purely intellectual and loses the true meaning of such a path, which is to take understanding out into the life of the world and live it. It is by engaging the emotions in full awareness, in conjunction with the imagination, that the inner vision opens to allow exploration of the hidden corners of the mind and the realisations that come in this way can be truly astounding.

A Landscape of Images II

ORC (8)

A picture falls from between the leaves of the book. She looks at the photograph and smiles involuntarily, taken, just for a moment, back to that day. They look so happy. That necklace… the colour of her eyes, he’d said when he gave it to her…

It had been a beautiful morning, mild for the time of year but with enough of a chill in the air to make the climb pleasant. He had never taken her there before, though she had seen the hill from a distance and he had told her why it held such a special place in his heart. She understood that. There were places that held her heart too.

They had walked up the wooded slopes hand in hand and he had shared memories of a childhood long gone, painting vivid images with his words, telling his boyhood fantasies built around a landscape of dreams.

They had sat on a wall at the top of the hill, looking across the wide valley, laughing. Happy. The photograph taken at arm’s length… two faces alight with love and joy.

Long ago, now. Lost. A memory as fragile and precious as the petals of the rose pressed between the pages… there had been a bouquet once… She had been happy once. For a little while. Still she smiles, though the tears come. They always come. It is just a photograph…

november hawk orc 039

We tell stories all the time. Whether we are recounting our day round the table with our families, or speaking of times long past or even dreams yet to come. We use them to share information about things, people, places that matter to us; to convey, perhaps the emotions we have felt and the events we have experienced… to frame them so that we can share more than words, so that we can evoke a resonant emotional response from our listeners and bring them beyond mere knowledge of facts to a place of understanding.

The accumulation of knowledge is akin to owning an encyclopaedia. It is a database for reference, for the collating of information. We turn to this database constantly in order to move through the world, navigating its difficulties and hurdles, making our decisions based on facts and figures learned and stored against future need. Yet it is pretty tasteless fare.

Do we actually learn anything at all, other than the facts themselves, from this accumulation of knowledge alone, no matter how much we may specialise in any given area? I don’t think we do.

We only learn from it when the imagination and the emotions become involved in the process, because it is these that bring knowledge to life and transmute it into understanding.

Even with the most basic of examples we can see how that works… Your mother told you not to touch because it would burn. You know it is ‘hot’. Yet you place a finger in the flame. It is hot, it burns, you will not deliberately choose to do it twice. Knowledge told you to avoid the flame and you made a choice based on experience. Yet it is only because you have now felt the heat of the fire, remember how it felt and almost without thinking imagine it happening again, calling up that mental picture, that you will not only avoid the flames yourself but make every attempt to protect those in your care from having to experience it for themselves. It is an understanding born of experience.

Here too, the mental image painted on that inner screen tells a story that communicates more than mere facts. Even if we never consider the hows and whys of our storytelling, it is a device we instinctively turn to in order to share understanding.

Medieval churches were painted with images of saints and martyrs, both as inspiration and as warning to a congregation that could not read and did not understand the Latin of the Mass. Images of the love of Christ as Good Shepherd, of the sacrifice on the Cross… of the maw of Hell that awaited sinners and the beauties of Eden that were there for the attainment of the good… Few words were needed in a world where images were rare and the church so rich in them. Add in to this equation the parables and the stories of the saints… stories that engaged emotion and spoke to the people at a level they could understand through their own experience and one can see how the Christian fathers found the way into the hearts and hopes of the common folk.

In the same way the propaganda machines of governments use imagery to insidiously control the masses, whether as obvious as some of the darker passages of human history or the drip-fed propaganda of the media today, each with their own political allegiances and agenda.

Stories and images…especially when combined…have a profound effect on the mind and emotions. If a stranger asked you for money you would undoubtedly say no. If that same stranger tells you how children…just like your own… are suffering from poverty or famine, shows you images… tells you names… you are very likely to have your hand in your wallet without being asked.

Appendix III, The Osiriad

Who says you can’t?

“Wanted: Experienced male window-dresser. 20+, full clean driving licence. Must be prepared to travel.”

Back in the days when one could advertise for precisely the staff member you wanted without the risk of appearing politically incorrect, that was the advert that caught my eye. To be fair, at just 16, with examination results still months away and no possibility of staying in education, I was looking at anything and everything, applying for jobs as varied as dental nurse and milkmaid. In spite of the expectations a Grammar School education might have raised, the family couldn’t afford for me to stay on at school. I needed a job. Any job. Even then, I was aware that probabilities were a numbers game; the more I applied for, the more chance I had of getting at least as far as an interview.

By this time, I had only a couple of months left at school… and so did everyone else leaving that year. I needed to get in early. Even so, “I can’t apply for that…what a pity.” “Why not?” Asked my mother. “You won’t get it, but you can always apply.” I wrote the letter, in spite of the fact I was an inexperienced female, far too young, who had never travelled and who would be ineligible for a driving licence for another two years. It couldn’t hurt. The letter was posted, along with the daily sheaf of others and promptly forgotten about. Until they called me in for interview.

I can even remember the brown, birds-eye tweed suit that I wore… nicely tailored but smelling of wet dog whenever it rained. I took a seat in the reception area with half a dozen professional and arty young men and felt ridiculous. They exchanged experiences, talking about their training and previous positions. I’d worked in a butcher’s after school since I was twelve. I shouldn’t have come.

I was the last to be shown to the office of the owner of the business. I’d done my research as best I could in those pre-internet days. He and his brother had started on the market stalls a couple of decades before and now owned several chains of menswear stores across the north and drove a Rolls Royce apiece. I felt very small and out of place as he faced me across the big desk and folded his hands. He looked at me in silence for a while. Me, the little brown mouse who wouldn’t say boo to the proverbial goose… I shrank inside, wishing fervently that I hadn’t been this stupid.

He read the advert out loud, pausing to look at me with raised brows with every requirement I failed to meet. Which was all of them. He smoothed the sheet of paper and pinned me with his eyes. “What have you got to say for yourself? Why should I hire you?”

I will never know where it came from or why… neither confidence nor arrogance were any part of the timid creature in tweed. To call me a mouse was unfair… mice have a certain amount of audacity.

I held out my hand… “Give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you.”

I spent the rest of the interview answering a barrage of questions and piling up sketch after sketch of fashion designs. He looked at the last one as I placed it on the pile. “I can’t offer you the job, I’m afraid.” It was no surprise really. Only getting an interview at all had been a surprise. I stood to leave. “But I’ll create one for you…”

I sat back down, open mouthed, as he outlined his plans. Then left the building on winged feet. I would work with the teams, train fully and travel alone to deal with the window crises in each shop as they arose. And for the next few years he worked my socks off… I ended up training the new window dressers as they came in… had a lot of fun and became a darned good window dresser.

So why the sudden memories? Well, I picked up a book of poetry from the shelf and read Keats for a while. John Keats is one of the best loved English poets and was a leading figure in the second generation of the Romantic movement. Almost everyone will recognise his work, even if they do not know its source, and Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci has a particular resonance at present as we work on the April workshop.

Keats

So where’s the connection between one of the great poets and a schoolgirl luckier than she could imagine? Well, Keats was doing something he ‘shouldn’t’ too.

Born to the family of an ostler turned innkeeper and trained to become a surgeon, Keats’ passion lay in poetry. He should have been a doctor. He was, by all accounts, good at it. And anyway, he was way too young at that point to have anything to say that was worth reading. Great writers need to live before they can write… experiencing the world and its emotions, growing from childhood to adulthood and beyond. While all writers seem to start scribbling when young, there is a general acceptance that it is only in later life that the great œuvres will flow from their pen. It is a common dictum that one should not seriously write when ‘too young’… writers should have lived something to say.

Keats, acquiring his apothecary’s licence, quit medicine to write. Lacking a paying career, he struggled financially all his life, unaware, it seems, of the legacies left to him that would have eased his situation. In 1816 Leigh Hunt agreed to publish one of his poems in a magazine. Other works followed, securing Keats’ place in literary history. He died in 1821. Aged just 25. Far too young to be a ‘real’ poet… or so young writers are now told. About the same age as Wilfred Owen, in fact. Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing at 21.

So who says you ‘can’t’?

We live in a world of ‘ought to’, where expectations are piled upon us, if not by those closest to us, then by our society itself which sets the tram lines we conform to with little thought most of the time. The expectations of others, though, are not what holds us back. We choose to meet those expectations… or to try our best…or not, as the case may be.

We expect a certain normality of ourselves, often without realising that ‘normality’ is unique to each one of us. In effect, we accept the confines of barriers that no-one has actually imposed upon us, simply because we are aware of what we think we ‘ought’ to do and be. What truly holds us back are the constricting and limiting expectations that we draw around ourselves. We decide what we cannot do… yet it is only when we overstep those lines we have drawn in the sand that we find out what we can do.

For me, landing that job taught me more than just how to dress a window. It taught me to have confidence in my own instincts, to stand up for the things I thought were right, to defend a principle and most importantly, to believe I could do more than I believed and be things I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have often wondered if the academic route I ‘should’ have taken would have taught me half as much.

Next time you feel you can’t do something, don’t ask yourself, ‘why not’… just ask yourself, ‘who says?’ The answer is probably very close to hand…