Island Blog 156 Another Way Back Home

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I realised, whilst getting myself lost in the streets of Barcelona, that although most of us have two eyes, two ears, one nose and one mouth, no two of us look exactly the same.  Similar, yes, almost identical in twins, but never exactly the same.  Even the identical twins I know, numbering one brace of birds, are not exactly the same; eyes slightly further apart on one, mouth a bit wider on the other, one quiet and pensive, the other gregarious and full of chat.

People throng through these streets.  I stop in a patch of sunshine as they flow by me.  They seem to know where they’re going, these hundreds of different faces, just in this one square with 10 narrow cobbled streets running out from it like sunbeams in a child’s painting. Not only am I seeing different nationalities and colours, but within those very numbers there are more differences, and more.  Perhaps, I wonder to myself, as I puff for the enth time back into Government Square, they are all thinking it’s Groundhog Day and I am the one keeping it going, popping into view again and again as if I can’t get enough of Government HQ. Although they are a moving mass of human souls, I’m sure I recognise a few of them and they do stare a bit as I grow more and more de-hydrated and anxious.  How on earth I manage to keep returning to the same flipping square, when I choose a new street every time is a marvel, even to me, although in my defence, I would like to point out that every single one of them is lined with the same shops.  One Desigual, one Barcelona Football Shop, one Flower Shop and one Pharmacy.  I might be needing that one if I don’t find my way out of the maze.  I also have no money, no idea of the address I’m staying at, nor do I have my mobile phone.

I bet not another soul in this flipping Government Square (oh here it is again!) is as vulnerable on this deceptively calm sunny afternoon.  I decide to stop panicking and lean against a wall looking as nonchalant as I can manage. Even though my mouth is dry as sandpaper and my heart about to take off,  I manage to calm my breathing, refusing to pay attention to any thoughts of being lost in Spain for months and dying of thirst.   Nobody knows where I am, other than somewhere in Barcelona and, as it took us 30 minutes to reach the outskirts yesterday in a speedy motor, it’s a pretty big city.  It’s beautiful too, and filled with stunning architecture, churches with bells that toll every quarter and on the hour, quirky alleyways (!), window boxes ablaze with colour, bustling cafes and wine bars.  Gaudi is everywhere, or his influence is.  The Gran Familia is spectacular from the outside with swoops and swirls of stonework, angels and trumpets, holy words and what looked liked bowls of fruit at the very top.  The queue was long and it was raining that day so we didn’t go inside but sat, instead under a cafe umbrella drinking strong black coffee and sharing our opinions on the charge of 25 euros per person to walk through a sacred space, squashed, as you would be, in a seethe of people, and unable to see very much at all.

We are not only different on the outside, but on the inside too.  It’s a strange part of our DNA, this difference thingy, because, to be honest, if a little more consideration had gone into our wiring, we might all be great pals, and life would be a doddle.  And dreadfully dull, or so I imagine.  If we knew just what to do next around each other, we wouldn’t have to ask, research, enquire.  We wouldn’t have to dig deep inside ourselves for those folk we find ‘difficult’.  We would never need to change. It sounds like Pleasantville to me.

However there are times when I get thoroughly fed up with all this inner changing.  It’s all very well writing, and reading, books on the subject of inner betterment, but putting any of it into practice is hard work.  Sometimes minute by minute hard work and for years and years.  What I have learned is that, if I want to succeed in life I must put everyone else first.  I must be compassionate even when I feel like murder – especially then – and I must learn not to talk about myself as often as possible.

I could fold my mental arms and stay exactly as I am, but the damnable thing is that if I put into practice all of the above, learn to breathe more slowly and to count to ten instead of ripping someone’s head off, it is I who feel better about me!   I have achieved something, because I have overcome myself. I have found a new way. I don’t welcome change, not in the areas I don’t feel need it, but it is needed for there to be any peace. Biting my tongue is painful, but so much better in the long run.  Those unspoken words can leave my mouth in one slow outbreath.  Simples.

I was certain I was right in my choice of direction out of the square and yet I was insistently walking the same way over and over, hoping for a different outcome.  Once I stopped marching forth with all the conviction of a zealot, my mind set in concrete, and I slowed down, breathed away the panic and allowed in, if not welcomed, the possibility that I might be wrong in my choice of direction, I noticed a wooden walkway between two buildings that had been there all along.  It was the one I had walked beneath and admired some hours before. This was my way back home.

I can do the same around a routine, or the way I like something done.  It can be a no-big-deal sort of thing and yet it escalates into exactly that when I hold on too tight. After all, I’ve done it this way for years.  Why should I change it?

But….  if I let go,(just saying it lowers my shoulders and unclaws my fingers) I allow in the possibility that there might be another way.

Another way back home.

Island Blog 155 Should or Must

 

Should Must

 

I read an online paper called Brainpickings.  I recommend it highly.  Someone miles away spends all her time researching and presenting thoughts on pretty much everything.  What I most like is her choice of material and the way she delves deep into the inner workings of her subject, supporting it with other writers’ observations, scientific fact and personal comment.  Her funding for all this work comes solely from voluntary contributions.  She obviously feels she ‘must’ do this for her life to be as fulfilled as she wants it to be.  I doubt there’s a ‘should’ in sight.

How many times a day do we say, or hear another say, ‘Oh I should be doing such and such….’ or I ‘ought to get back and get this job done’?  In our very words we are saying how terribly much we would rather not do those jobs at all.  Any sentence with an ‘ought’ or a ‘should’ inside it needs challenging. It means we are not doing what feels right to us and yet we fail so often to question our own sense of integrity at this point, mindlessly performing tasks like circus animals, for the benefit of others.

I am not saying that we do only that which we want to do.  How riddickerluss would that be?  A great number of us would spend all day in bed, or on a beach, or watching Friends Series 256 from start to finish. No dinners would ever be prepared and the housework would go to pot.  Dogs wouldn’t be walked, nor windows cleaned, nor gardens gardened, if on that particular day we didn’t want to do any of it. Nobody would commute to work and the world of commerce would die on its feet.

I am also not saying that we should swing the full 90 away from ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ because daily work is good, regular ordinary tasks essential to our lives, our businesses, our jobs.  The key is to walk away from the should, just a little and check out the view.  If I didn’t do this thing, this mindless thing that I hate doing, and no longer want to do to please this person or that, what would I do instead?  It wouldn’t be nothing, no, it would be something, so what something feels right to me?  What, in fact Must I do, for my own sense of what is right?  Now that, my dears, is the right question.  Must is when the task ahead, not necessarily an exciting one, becomes exactly the right thing to be done, in order to move on; to reach the goal, the fulfillment, the sense of achievement.  I must do this and so I will.

Simples.

In my experience, inner questioning is essential.  It’s the beginning of Mindfulness.

Did you know that 99% of all the work that leads to winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the painting that sells for millions, or the grown child who says Thank you Mum for teaching me all the right things in life, is done alone and unnoticed?  The glory world we live in now, the glamour of it, the annorexia of its body and spirit, the fast-track dash to ultimate success, is one of illusions.  Watch less tv, read no newspapers for a month and then see how you feel about life around you.  It is a remarkable fact that what we do/watch/listen to/surround ourselves with, on a daily basis, can turn us from ourselves, can tell us ‘this is what the world says, so it must be true’ and can corrupt our glorious human nature.

I say read more Brainpickings, read more books that lift our spirits, either novels or non-fiction.  Read ‘Feral’, read ‘The Road Less Travelled’, read anything, but read.  We writers have some good things to pass on.

This now from Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my heroines, a woman way ahead of her time, independent, strong, beautiful and wise.”  When you adopt the standards and values of someone else….you surrender your own integrity……(and) become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Following her is Elle Luna from her book The Crossroads of Should and Must.   Read them both, and then walk off into silence and reflect. And then, question every move you make.

“When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.

Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires – unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.

Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own – and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive”

‘Must’ be the difference between being alive……

and merely living.

Island Blog 125 Wind in the rigging

 

 

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When we sail, the rigging is something we attend to at each shift of the wind.  The sails may be full-blown, wide and tall, blocking the sun and catching bellies-full of breeze to take us all the way from A to Z.  Sometimes, the wind luffs or fizzles out, causing the canvas to flap noisily, unsure of what to do next.  A good sailor will see it coming and adjust the rigging accordingly, winching in the sails, tightening them, or going about, which is the time I always duck, never sure when that big ass boom is going to take my head off.  We always had to sail close to the wind.  That point where we could jibe and lose a mast (slight exaggeration) or, at the very least, lose someone overboard.

Me.

Coming into harbour, my skipper would never lower the sails and motor in like every other sane person, trotting into a parking place with minimum whoosh and flip, avoiding the wide sweep required to avoid turning the smaller boats to matchwood in a heartbeat.  He didn’t mind squashing the bounce-back variety of white plastic so-called yachts, all squeezed from a giant toothpast tube onto a production line and given fast names to bely their ordinariness.  It’s not me who is the yacht snob here.  I’m just repeating what I heard from my own wooden J-Class sloop-loving skipper, he who sailed oceans beneath real canvas, hand-sewn and made just for one boat at a time, bespoke.  He who loves the creak of timber as the mast strains to stay where it was riveted with huge brass thingies that nobody could ever remove once driven into place.  Hulls laid, larch on oak or teak and varnished to a shine most winters by us with freezing fingers and miles to go before sleep.

In life we are all sailors and we all sail alone, although we can travel together through the wildest of oceans, if we so choose.  Ultimately, the set of our sails, the tension in our rigging, the way we listen to the wind’s voice, and bend to her will, working with her changes of mood, her tantrums and tempers, will decide, not whether or not we arrive at Z in the end, but how well we notice the rest of the alphabet on the way.

I speak, not of the wind that blows around the corners of our homes or bends the strong backs of our ancient trees making them squeak and groan, or call out in agony as their ribs crack and break, but of the winds of life, of time.  These winds rise and fall in every life at some time, and if we are not ready for change, we will get hit by the boom as it swings across our boat, and we may even fall overboard now and then.  All the time, each one of us is dealing with something we find we have not prepared for.  Miniature disasters come into every life, just like a little rain will fall, and if we are really ready, we will find a solution comes more quickly, for we are human and creatively agile.  We just have to tap into that inner gift and develop it into a strength.  We may not know this new set of ropes, but if we are fully engaged with taking responsibility for our own self in any situation, we will find a way to sail again, only better.

I remember learning once, that, in order to play an instrument well, we must learn the discipline of it first, before getting clever with counterpoint or spontaneous harmonies.  For me, that instrument is my voice.  If I want to ‘play’ as I sing, I must know my limits, the boundaries of the song, how my voice will sound singing it.  If I leap enthusiastically into a gritty blues number, I will sound like Snow White trying to be Eartha Kitt and just know that the audience is saying ‘Oh dear….’

But all this is a metaphor for life experience.  We are human, not ‘only’ human, as some would have us believe, and there is power and a magic to being a member of such a wonderfully well-rigged race.

Island Blog 124 – Chiaroscuro

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It’s not a sausage.  It’s a delicious word, nonetheless, and it is the meeting point between light and dark.  Of course, there is always a meeting point between light and dark, day and night joined together until the sun burns out, the light and dark, or shade, in a painting.  Used in the world of opera, it describes two voices, one soprano, one deep, might be contralto, might be tenor or bass, joined to create a thrilling balance for our ears to hear.

So, this lovely ‘meeting of opposites’ has a pretty name and if you say it with an Italian accent, plus the hand gestures, you can quite lift your day.  Chiaro, means ‘clear and bright’, and Oscuro, dark and obscure.  Five musical syllables, and the ‘Ch’ is pronounced as ‘K’.

This meeting of contrasts is everywhere in our world, and, without one, we fail to see or appreciate the other.  When it rains a flood for weeks on end, and the water moves indoors, it must be a very dark time.  Outside, in the village hall, on the sodden streets, in a corner shop, there will be smiles of light, offers of sympathy, support and hope.  I don’t have to see it for myself to know I speak the truth.  Whenever life feels dark, somebody or something casts light in our path and, with that light, we find we can go on a bit further.  At another time, darkness brings a welcome relief.  It’s the balance than matters.  We want both in equal portions to find a happy rhythm.  But let’s just consider the chiaroscuro of life, the meeting point, and an entity in itself.

As we look we find ourselves, for we are both light and dark.  All of us.  Our relationships, too, for they are also a meeting of light and dark.

Well, you can forget the dark, someone might say.  Who wants dark in a relationship?

Have you ever met somebody quite unbelievably light?  For this person, everything is ‘wonderful’  I have met such people and I didn’t believe they were real at all, for it is against our human nature to be all light and no dark.  Of course, the dark bits can be hidden for years, but they will show themselves in behaviour choices, skin condition, ailments and disease.  We are fashioned in balance, and our journey through this life is one of learning and more learning.  We develop a creative agility in order to survive and this means we must recognise the dark and the light and make them both welcome at our table.  I know I have wished for all light and no dark, but, even as I wish it, I know I am a fool, for how could I ever really feel another’s pain and grief, if I had never felt my own?

I have heard folk banging on about the shoulds and shouldn’ts of benefits, taxes, governmental rulings, as if everything ‘should’ be dished up on an endless supply of pretty plates.  I know that some are struggling, many are struggling, with real problems in their lives, with limitations and deprivations I can only ever imagine, but hand-outs seem to be expected across far too wide a swathe of humanity.  If we sit at home, watching complete nonsense on the tv and building on whatever is currently causing angst, and never step into the light of day, of course all we are going to see is darkness. If we feed Black Dog, Black Dog will grow big and strong.

I remember my old granny telling me that when I felt sorry for myself for longer than ten minutes, I needed to cheer someone else up, with a phone call, a visit, a text message, and never mentioning one word about my own self-pity.  My mum always says she is ‘absolutely fine’ when anyone asks her how she is.  And, do you know what……..  both those women have it nailed, because in both cases, their refusal to wallow, their very act of lifting the collective moment, initiates a dramatic change deep inside.  I can leave a house, having arrived with both my legs heavy as old porage, my chin scraping the ground and all my aches and pains playing a noisy percussion throughout my body, as light as air and thinking no longer about Me, me, me.  Something extraordinary has happened quite silently inside me, something that tells me I am the chiaroscuro of the afternoon, for, in me, the light met the dark and became a thing of balance and beauty.

Next time you look at a wonderful painting, or listen to a piece of music, or a song, remember that, although there is both high and low, dark and light, lift and fall, tears and joy, that this is what, this is who we are too – a glorious blend of opposites.

And then step out and share it.

Island Blog 104 – The Unfinished Line

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Painting a new canvas, I think about lines.  I was taught at art school to let the eye finish the line, meaning that I, as the painter, should leave it half done, indicating by it’s direction and the flow of the piece where the eye might like to take it.  It’s essential to the composition, the alternative leading to a dizzy spell because our eyes will always seek a resolution.  We want to land somewhere and go ‘ah!’ and if we can’t do that, we won’t like the painting at all.  We will be confused and all over the shop, deducing that the painter was too – that he/she just dithered brushes over the canvas without direction.

Writing employs the same rule of thumb, indicating to the reader where the lines are and allowing them to bring the line to it’s resting place, but not telling them exactly where that place is.  If I am too bossy and organising in my story, I leave nothing to your imagination.  I don’t allow you to relate, through your own life experiences, opinions, ideas to this character or that one,  because they are too stereotyped, too plastic, too finite.  You will be yawning by Chapter 3 and probably won’t read the whole book, unless you are one of those people who can’t bear to waste 8.99.  I can easily bear that.  If I find myself yawning by Chapter 3, it’s off to the doctor’s surgery with it, or the local charity shop, which very possibly isn’t very kind of me.

In life I find the same rule applies.  If I am a woman who has a need for a rigid set of lines around her life, I lose out, because, although no-one will tell me I am stuck in my self-absorption, I nonetheless am.  If what I say has to be how it is, then I am not allowing anyone else to complete the line, and, beyond human politeness, I will be skirted around in wide circles because I got boring by Chapter 3.

The good news is that opportunities to be dynamically fascinating and compelling come around over and over again as we begin a new venture, such as having a baby or maybe we leave the family home, or we notice we are turning into a lizard.  I am only a lizard when my hairdresser pops the black cape around my neck a bit tight and I have to wrench it off and remonstrate with her – a remonstration that always makes her chuckle.  Otherwise, the lizard bit goes mostly unnoticed as I avoid at all costs, a magnifying mirror.  Seeing too closely anything in my life can have me pulling on my old anorak and moping along the long and whining road until I realise that nobody is following me anymore and I am quite alone.

Time for some new lines to be drawn, lines for a new adventure, indicating direction, begun but not finished.

So, off I go, this time as a guest speaker at Wigtown’s Book Festival, next Saturday lunchtime.  I have no idea what to expect, no idea how Island Wife will be received, and all I am taking is myself and my reasonably ok skirt and sassy boots, my eyes for looking out and my ears for taking in.  I don’t need to control anything beyond myself and, in that place of freedom, of letting go, I find my sense of humour, alive and well and waiting for me by the side of the road.

I may meet delays, I may get lost, I may forget to pack something vital.  It might rain or snow.  Wigtown might be wiped out by aliens on Friday afternoon, or the hotel we are staying in may have lost our booking confirmation.  But this part-time lizard isn’t going to worry about any of that.  She is just going to draw a few lines.

For someone else to finish.