Saturday, January 31, 2004


Is this what real faith is? Of any sort; religious or otherwise? Knowing that you knew something yesterday, knowing that you'll know it again tomorrow, but knowing that the knowledge has abandoned you - or you it - today? And yet continuing to believe.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Living in Truth 

This is brilliant stuff:

"Living in truth - directly doing in your immediate surroundings, what you think needs doing, saying what you think is true and needs saying , acting the way you think people should act - is a form of protest, Havel admits, against living in the lie, and so those who try to live in truth are indeed an opposition. But that is neither all they are or the main thing they are. Before living in truth is a protest, it is an affirmation."
From The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell

Quoted by Chris Corrigan in a remarkable piece, whose full significance I'm still digesting, found via Jon Husband.

The things I do for the sake of blogging… 

Last weekend you’d have found me traversing subterranean depths, squeezing through dark, dank, constricted spaces, facing the terrors of unknown beasties that dwell in places never trodden by man…

Well, perhaps not quite subterranean. Almost though; it certainly felt like it.

Problem: How to get a network cable from the study upstairs to the diagonally opposite corner of the house, downstairs, without having cable tacked to every doorframe and skirting board in every room along the way. It took some thought, but eventually a theoretical solution was found.

I remember reading on Stormwind’s Personal Tangents a while back about Laws of Nature - of the Murphy’s law variety – that one might like to have named after oneself. I think mine might be “Theoretical possibility does not equate to practicality.” Nothing is ever as easy as it looks.

Chasing the electrons through that cable from upstairs router to downstairs PC takes you on a magical mystery tour of all the hidden nooks, crannies and passages of our old-ish and much extended house. Through ducts boxing in waste pipes, passing through walls by way of a disused airbrick, through pipes for ventilation – and the aforementioned underfloor space.

There’s just enough vertical clearance between concrete ground cover and the suspended timber floor to crawl caterpillar-like under the floorboards, entering the space by way of a few short removable sections of board hidden in a cupboard; just enough clearance to squeeze my diminutive frame through the gap and with appropriate contortions enter that black hole.

So it was that I found myself clad in overalls, baseball cap to keep the cobwebs (and their occupants) out of my hair, headtorch lighting the way, worming my way around brick support pillars, hoping not to meet any big, black, hairy, fast-running arachnids. I’m not an arachnophobe exactly, but they and I aren’t best friends either. Especially when met at close quarters in confined spaces. Fortunately the only live one I found was small, brown, may have been mildly hairy – I didn’t look too closely – and was peacefully going about her business, at a dignified pace, in the opposite direction to me. I let her be, and she granted me the same privilege.

Borrows’ law was inevitably invoked. I never said it would be easy. Three trips down and up again it took; six times squeezing through that hole and disentangling feet from the mass of cabling and pipework that also congregates in that corner. Forwards and back again on toes, tummy and elbows. But all’s well that ends well, and eventually cable was run, mess cleared, cupboards refilled, furniture put back in place – and ancient PC now connected downstairs, so I can have blogs for breakfast.

The things I do for the sake of blogging…

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

A bit of fun... 

If you have a few minutes to spare, take a look at Mindframes.

I hope Denny wont mind me calling this fun. I'm always a little wary of taking any sort of personal profiling too seriously - they can be a useful tool to stimulate thought, to open up new possibilities, to improve self-confidence, so long as you don't allow yourself to be ruled by them, especially if you start thinking "I can't do X because I'm not that kind of person". Do a sanity check to see how the results match up with other ways of self-assessment. That said, I have to admit I found my results in very close alignment with my own view of self.

According to the test, Insight - the mindframe of imagination - is my lead mindframe, followed by Sensitivity, the mindframe of awareness.

Interestingly, for someone with a degree in physics and a job title that includes the word engineer, it seems I seldom use logic. Do you suppose I took a wrong turn somewhere? (Said with a smile...)

Breaking the silence 

...subtitled: Blogging - Luxury or Life Support?

[Sorry - this is rather long. You've been spared my ramblings for a while - so now you get a week's worth in one go]

The concept of "making sense of things" only makes sense itself when you know what frame of reference you're working in. What makes sense logically may be suicide emotionally, what you know to be right in your heart may be completely unsupportable in rational terms . There is no absolute yardstick by which to judge sense.

The human psyche - especially my own - seems beyond me. Very little of what has passed through the deeper parts of my mind in the last few days makes much sense in any frame of reference. Things were going fine - busy, but busy with good, worthwhile things - then without warning the walls started closing in and before I realised it I'd entered a dark tunnel; no end in sight.

I've had nothing to say here for several days; trapped in my tunnel, lost in the darkness, all I could find were ghosts of ideas, shadows, nothing with any substance I could grasp; and in any case I'd lost my supply of words.

I think I know now what kicked it off - time pressure. I've been treating blogging and writing as a luxury; something to be fitted in as and when, only after all the other daily activities have been completed. Very soon that relegates writing to a slot around midnight, when these ageing grey cells are sorely in need of rest. So blogging takes a break And every day of break makes it easier to take another day; harder to pick up the pencil again. And then something really bizarre happens - this is what makes no sense at all. Haven't I been saying lately how much I enjoy writing? How at last I've discovered something I'm drawn to do for so many reasons? Well, at this point in the tunnel I seem to enter into a contest with myself, to see how long I can keep off it for. Can't write, wont write. So there. It almost has the feel of a kind of self-inflicted punishment, although for what misdemeanour remains a mystery. Weird. And just as weird is that all of this is going on deep within. Outwardly, nothing at all would have seemed amiss - life carried on as normal with me playing my usual part in it - except that is for the part I've been saying is so important to me. I'd been denying something that sits at my very core.

Some people will know the experience of having a watcher - a part of themselves that seems to sit a little apart, dispassionately observing and sometimes commenting on what they do. People sometimes use this metaphor to describe how they respond in times of emergency; a calm voice directing their actions, taking charge at times when normal inner resources seem to have deserted them. Thankfully my watcher had the sense to take my hand and guide me to reach out, clumsily - and my hand was taken and held by a very dear friend, securely and compassionately, gently guiding and supporting whilst I fumbled around sorting out how to stop sabotaging myself.

And as quickly and unexpectedly as I entered the tunnel, I shot out into daylight and warmth and sunshine again.

Help comes from many sources, but rarely does it come uninvited. Initiating action of some sort seems necessary, even if that action is only a willingness to be open to recognise and receive the help that already exists. In my tunnel, I had isolated myself from much of the connection with the world at large which is so often the source of inspiration. In the past, visual noticing has often been the key to unlock some revelation that was waiting there for me, if I could but see it. Yesterday instead it was aural noticing. London is so full of sounds that most of the time consciousness lets them pass by. But cycling to work yesterday, with many unhappy thoughts circling round my mind, for no particular reason the sound of a bus drawing up behind me forced its way into awareness. And in that moment, a reconnection was made with the wider world. I started listening, and my world expanded exponentially. Even the roar of traffic contains huge variety - pitch rising and falling; shrill mopeds, grumbling lorries, an aggressive sports car; then in quieter moments waiting at traffic lights two children shouting happily at each other; even birdsong manages to break through from the trees around Regent's Park.

I'm more and more convinced that there is no common ground whatsoever between the person I need to be to do my job effectively, and the person I want to be, the person I am most naturally, the person I am when I write. I know this is a dangerous line of thought, but it seems to be an either/or thing. Dangerous, because it will either lead to cessation of writing or a dramatic change in just about every other area of life, with significant repercussions for family. Now, I know with the rational part of my mind that either/or is a very restrictive way of thinking, there are always alternatives; third, fourth, fifth ways. I just can't see them at the moment. But following the either/or thought-path will assuredly take me back to where I entered the tunnel. Which is why I've decided to go and see a counsellor to talk all this through. This is one pattern I'm determined to transcend.

I've commented before on the serendipitous, almost miraculous, way in which the right messages seem to get to the right people through blogging. I had some powerful reminders from Denny yesterday at Book of Life.
Appropriate too that I should find Denny's site through Euan who first introduced me to blogging. Like Denny's reflection on his decision that he only knew later would turn out to be momentous, I wonder if I would ever have discovered writing without being drawn in by Euan's enthusiasm for blogging?

These words struck home:
"The key is to respect the importance of your decision. Don’t do something you don’t have a good feeling about. If you begin a course of action without being sure of yourself, you won’t be able to do the hard things needed to get to the end. Listen to your mind and heart. If your decision makes sense, you’ll know it. Then you can take action with the boldness and confidence you need for success."

And this quote, from Ross Perot, via Frame-a-Quote at Denny's commercial site:
"Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success, they give up at the last minute of the fame, one foot from a winning touchdown."

And finally, one that Anita at Chantlady first introduced me to but bears repeating every day:
"A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it."

I've chosen; now I have to figure out how to follow.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Falling into place 

Some say their schooldays were the happiest days of their lives. Free of cares, no responsibilities to drag them down, all needs taken care of, freedom that has never been matched since (although not recognised as such at the time!), security – surely a recipe for happiness. I had a very fortunate childhood – I had all those things, yet behind my schooldays lurked a dark shadow, something that the brightest sunshine was never wholly able to dispel.

I had a speech impediment – a stammer. I’ve no idea how it came about; I can remember not having it at about five, and having it in a very big way at seven, but I have no recollection at all of the transition. I think there may have been some trauma that is locked inaccessibly away in some heavily barred recess of my mind, but I can’t be sure. Anyhow, the source isn’t relevant.

Sometimes it was so bad I was physically unable to talk – unable to form words; the only sound that came from my mouth was a rapid staccato er…er…er…er… Then maybe a few words would get spat out, only to be halted violently at the next impossible sound, vocal chords locked in spasm.

Junior school was tough, but secondary school was hell at times. There were occasional playground taunts, but nothing I couldn’t cope with by the simple expedient of turning my back and walking away. It wasn’t the anarchy of the playground that gripped me most; it was the formality of the classroom prison. Worst of all was the “creeping death”, when the teacher would go around the class person by person, asking each a question. My turn would get closer and closer; a juggernaut rolling ponderously but inexorably closer, ready to crush me; a malicious spotlight creeping nearer and nearer with evil intent to expose me, chained in its path. As the moment drew near, the nervous tension became unbearable, which of course only tightened the constricted muscles further and guaranteed complete incapability of coherent speech. But what joy, should the class end before my turn came!

Those were the worst days. Thankfully, they weren’t all as bad as that. I had a few close friends, a loving family, plenty of interests – I wasn’t unhappy, I just experienced those moments of extreme apprehension, awkwardness, discomfort and panic.

And isolation. That was the killer. I was always quiet in social groups. Not completely silent, but quiet. So I never developed the social back-chat skills of childhood. Speech was always a pre-meditated, almost formal, affair – never free and easy chatter. In group conversations such as in late teens at the pub, by the time I’d summoned up the courage to butt in with my thoughts, the conversation would have long since moved on and my piece was irrelevant, belonging to a point five minutes in the past. So I stayed silent.

Things are very different now. With speech therapy and the increase in confidence that comes from growing up, I largely grew out of it. In early years at work, the telephone was an instrument of torture – I would devise all manner of subterfuges to avoid using it – but now it is a real friend. I love talking with people (although social chit-chat is still not my strong point) and although the stammer occasionally surfaces to trip me up – especially if I’m tired or nervous – mostly people are totally unaware of it.

Why am I telling you all this?

One of the magical things I see as the years go by is how previously inexplicable parts of life seem to find meaning and fall into place, as though they belonged to some plan. All it takes sometimes is a change of perspective.

Through that stammer, I’ve learned to listen. Knowing that I’m not going to get to say my piece, not being so intent on putting forward my own point of view, I have by default learned more easily to hear what others say. Not always, but perhaps more than is typical.

I’ve been able to observe, to forget self and just to absorb what I see, hear, touch, feel.

I’ve learned too how to create a space between ideas and words. Sometimes it can be good to bounce words back and forth as they spontaneously appear in consciousness, but at other times it’s good to allow ideas to germinate freely and grow without being forced into the straightjacket of spoken words.

Have you spotted the connection yet?

Only in the last couple of weeks has the value of that uncomfortable past dawned on me. How those characteristics of listening, observing, contemplating, match so perfectly the needs of a writer. What yesterday seemed a curse today seems a blessing.

And if those characteristics give writing a powerful forehand stroke, in a beautiful display of symmetry, with a deft sweep of its backhand, writing dismisses the residual risk that, on their own, they might give rise to a disconnectedness.

Funny how things fall into place…

Wednesday, January 21, 2004


I’m thinking of running away and joining the circus – how d’you think I’d look in tight trousers and a sequinned jacket? (Don’t answer that…) I’ve been polishing up an old skill, you see – plate spinning.

You know the routine; the artiste takes a long, whippy rod and a plate with a lip to it. Sets the plate spinning on the top of the rod, gives it few deft flicks with the wrist to get the speed up, then places the other end of the rod in a stand, leaving the plate spinning on top. Then he takes another rod and plate and does the same… and another… and another… now maybe he needs to go back to the first to give it a boost… He carries on like this until maybe a dozen plates are spinning atop their forest of rods.

Now the fun really starts. Eyes darting from plate to plate, looking out for that tell-tale wobble that one is about to drop. Dashing from rod to rod keeping them all moving, to cheers from the audience, acknowledging his great prowess.

It feels good at first. Exciting new activities, rushing from task to task, keeping things going, busy-busy-busy. In control, needed; useful even.

Beware; it’s a trap. Some of those plates are more important than others, but once they’re all spinning you daren’t leave any. The only way you’ll reduce the numbers is to let some come crashing down, so once they’re going they have to stay going. Unless you want a crash that is. So you keep just enough input on each to keep them ticking over.

And there’s another catch. To start with, there was a good reason why each of those plates was set spinning, a purpose to be achieved, but after a while the purpose becomes simply to keep them spinning; the original aim forgotten, activity becomes an endless cycle without meaning. What was once driven by vision becomes driven by routine.

What’s more, to keep them all spinning needs attention everywhere- and nowhere, for to track all of them denies attention to any of them.

Okay, I think I caught it in time. I was suffering the early symptoms of CPSD – Compulsive Plate Spinning Disorder. Thankfully it hadn’t got too bad. But I could see the symptoms – rushing from blog to blog, skimming many reading none – and no time to leave a worthwhile comment; juggling activities in so many spheres without proper attention to any – just a prop here and a patch there; worst of all, not listening because there’s always something else that needs doing.

So today I spent a very relaxing lunch time deliberately just reading blogs, including several new ones, and posting a few comments. Here’s three gems:

I should have welcomed ntexas99 at Brain Crayons a while back, who has taken the plunge from commenting to blogging – some lovely stories and I rather suspect many more to come.

This post from Trey at Only Connect really got me thinking about how I unconsciously assess people according to quite irrelevant criteria. I’m not going to tell you what my Beer on Deck question is; I might upset someone, but having discovered it, I’m at least going to try and avoid applying it. And if you want to have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to follow the link.

Finally, I was utterly gobsmacked by this one from The Happy Tutor. That guy Thinks.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Sandwiches and Smiles 

In some of the side-streets of London’s West End almost every other shop is a sandwich bar. The competition must be intense – how do you attract customers to come to yours rather than the one next door?

At least one enterprising firm has come up with a novel approach – you don’t have to go to them, they come to you. Bicycle sandwich delivery – push-bikes towing trailers loaded with crates of baguettes, sandwiches, snacks, soft drinks, and their speciality – flasks of home-made soup.

Being a delivery cyclist is no cushy number. Out in all weathers, negotiating manic London traffic on an articulated, long-wheelbase, over-loaded, under-powered, Heath-Robinson bicycle-trailer combo. Stop at an office block, unload a crate, shoulder an enormous holdall then up and down the lifts, onto each floor calling out “Sandwiches!… Today’s soup is lentil and bacon (or whatever)”. And of course, like as not, someone on the top floor wants something you’ve left in a crate back on the bike so it’s back down and up again… Then pedal off to the next… and the next…

Some staff find it so tough they don’t last the first week. But those that survive that baptism of fire tend to stick at it. There’s a young French girl who has been doing our deliveries here for a few months now. She’s quite small – almost petite – yet lugs these loads around London every day, standing up on the pedals of her bike so that her lightweight frame can generate enough force.

And every day, she always has a cheerful smile, always a warm greeting as though you are a long-lost personal friend, same happy chatter, always ready to exchange a few words as she kneels on the floor surrounded by her wares. In all these months, I’ve never once seen her down; never has that smile faded.

People like her are jewels that sparkle in the dry dust of mediocrity. This may be the corniest phrase in the book, but she spreads a little sunshine on the gloomiest of days. I almost expect to see a trail of fairy-dust sparkling behind her as she pedals off.

This post is in celebration of that smile. So what if it maybe sells more sandwiches? That makes it a win-win situation then. The company stays in profit, she stays in a job, I get lunch and the world is a brighter place. What more could anyone want?

Sunday, January 18, 2004

On Life 

I've been wondering about posting this piece; it's hardly typical blog material (but then, what is?) It's about my father's death four years ago at the age of 88 and my reaction to it. I can't say why I'm posting it; the thought that I might do so occurred to me and I couldn't seem to shake it. There are many reasons why it seemed not to be a good idea, yet still I felt compelled to do so. Whether it's for me or for you I can't say; four years ago is long enough that I've long since adjusted to my new world order, long ago worked out anything remaining from that time.

With that preamble, you may decide to skip this post. I wont mind - well, I wont know will I? But let me just say this. The subject matter may be a death, but the theme is life. Oh, one more thing, if you do choose to read on. This is a description of an experience that took place in the context of a life lived according to Christian beliefs, but it isn't intended as a religious piece - at least, not in the sense of having an intended religious purpose.

This was originally longer, but I cut the first page or so as it added little other than padding. So I need to set the scene for you.

On the day prior to the events described here, my father had collapsed at his home early in the morning. My parents lived quite close to me so I had gone straight there; he was conscious when I arrived but lying on the floor unable to move. I followed the ambulance to the hospital with my mother, and stayed there for most of the day. By the evening, there was no change to his condition - he was conscious, able to sit up, but after all the tests the doctors had carried out needed sleep. We left, uncertain what tomorrow would bring. My mother stayed overnight with my sister, a little further away.

Early the next day, I had a phone call from the hospital. The voice carrying both gentleness and urgency:
"Mr Borrows? I think it would be a good time to get the family together here."
Living nearest, I was the first to get there. It's a short drive, no more than 15 minutes on the empty roads of a quiet Sunday morning. Most of my consciousness was switched into standby, the question of what I would soon face hanging there, unanswered and unanswerable. All thoughts and emotions held in stasis, suspended in freeze-frame. Deliberate focus on the detailed mechanics of driving; it was something to occupy my mind.

It hit me when I got out of the car. All the way there, the question had been in the future; the close future, but the future nonetheless. Not yet; not quite yet. Now it was moving closer, this moment so long dreaded; moving too fast. Stepping out of the car was like coming out of the doors of a movie theatre at the end of the show. Up until then I could have hidden behind the unreality of a player in a story; now the lights were up, this was the real world, and I was alone in it. Cliche it may be, but the hundred yards walk from the car park to the hospital entrance was the hardest hundred yards I've ever walked. Propelled forwards by the overwhelming need to know; terrified of moving forward because of the fear of what I'd find, and to be brutally honest, the fear of the unknown of how I would react. I'd never seen death close up. It may sound self-centred, but in a mind that had for the moment relinquished any attempt at controlling itself, the unknown of what that event would do to me felt more frightening than the thought of event itself.

Through the doors, and the immediacy gripped me further, but that helped to squeeze out some of the fear. There were people here; a small sense of normality returned; the world contained more than me and my fear. And the driver of that fear became less; a hospital has routines and a sense of order; there was some kind of process under way and all I had to do was to play my part in it - if I could handle the script.

I knew what I feared the most; I was afraid of watching him die, afraid of my own grief, afraid of the strangeness of it all. We're a close family, but the closeness has always been unspoken. Strong emotions were things that may have been felt but were rarely shown. It was as though they were considered undesirable, something to be avoided if at all possible, almost as if there was something improper or indecent about them. Certainly strong emotions were not something to be expressed.

It was quiet in the hospital. Peaceful even; quite unlike the usual bustle. A few nurses were moving around, but there was no feeling of urgency, just a quiet routine Sunday morning. Maybe the moment wouldn't come after all? Not just yet?

Nervously, reluctantly: "Hello, I'm Andy Borrows."
Her eyes carried the message before her lips started to move:
"I'm so sorry... Your father passed away a few minutes ago".
Spoken gently, compassionately; her voice matched her eyes.
"He'd had quite a troubled night."
The unspoken meaning: It was a relief for him to go.
"Okay... Thank you."
Thank you? But what else was there to say?
Eyes fill with tears.
"Are you all right? Would you like to sit down?"
"I'll be okay."
"You can sit with him if you like."
I hadn't expected that. It was an offer, something to do; the suggestion took away the need to think what I should do or say next.
"Yes, please."
"Would you like a cup of tea?"
I don't drink tea. "Yes, that would be nice."
Something else to do, something to occupy my mind; the thought of cradling a warm cup in my hands felt comforting.

I was shown to a small side ward, just four beds, three empty and curtains around the fourth. Morning sunshine filled the room giving it an incongruous but welcome feeling of warmth and brightness; a radio played quietly in the background. Not enough to intrude, but enough to keep the silence at bay. No more fear now; no more unknowns just yet. The rest of the family would be here soon, but reality had contracted down to the present moment only; my view of the future didn't extend more than a few seconds ahead. Now became very immediate; now filled my consciousness; what might come to be in five minutes time was far, far distant, as was what had been five minutes before. Now was all that existed. Now contained enough to fill the mind completely leaving no space for past or future.

The nurse pulled the curtains aside slightly. Two chairs by the bed, waiting. Everything looked so neat and tidy - organised, under control, prepared. Sheets turned neatly back, blankets smoothed, my father's frail body barely noticeable underneath them. Arms by his sides, his head rested on the pillow, eyes closed, mouth slightly open. That last seemed a little shocking at first, although I felt I didn't know why it should. If he had been mouthing his last words, I knew they would have been a prayer.

I sat.
"I'll put your tea here."
"Thank you."
"Would you like just to sit with him for a while?"
"Yes, until the others come."

I can't say just how much I value those moments. Much passed through my mind - the thoughts and feelings and tears came and stayed and passed as they wished; time and sequence had little meaning at that point. Existence for a while became just a flow of present consciousness. Times past replayed themselves; underlying was a theme of questioning, of searching - were there any regrets? Any things I might have said but didn't, any things I had said but wished I hadn't? As this all washed over and through me I knew there had been no barriers between us; no regrets. He had always held strong Christian beliefs and stayed totally true to them every single hour of every single day; a completely authentic life. My own world view may have been less strict, less orthodox, but in what mattered, we were in accord.

I could look on his face more easily now. The body that had once been his was clearly an empty shell now; although his face showed no sign of any final struggle - except perhaps for that slightly disturbing open mouth - now that his spirit had departed his body, the emptiness of that shell was obvious and complete. We use the word lifeless loosely sometimes, but it's stark meaning here was in no doubt. Sleep is teeming with life by comparison. This face had once held life, but life had now left it, leaving behind nothing but a wax effigy.

But it was only a few minutes since life, his life, had departed. His Christian beliefs were an absolute certainty for him; he would have seen his impending death as a crossing over into a new and better existence . He would have felt pain at the separation from his family, which he knew to be temporary only, but joy - yes, true joy - at the prospect of what lay ahead.

Thoughts such as these played themselves in my mind; I just sat and watched and listened to them. An idea surfaced, coming from a part of my mind that must have been watching all this from the sidelines: if time has any meaning at all in the afterlife, then right now his spirit is meeting it's Maker, as I sit here in this room. For him, that represented the final pinnacle of life, the moment that every other moment of his life had been working expectantly towards. Fulfilment as complete as it is possible to be.

As I sat there, awash in these thoughts of our past together, in notions of the future as he would have understood it, in awareness of the present moment, I had a powerful sense of what I can only describe as an echo of his spirit there in the room. He had been there not very long before; he had now departed - I knew that - but it was as though something of him still lingered, like a perfume still present in the air after the wearer has left. Or, incongruously, I thought of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, whose grin stays behind hanging in the air after its body has faded away.

Up until that moment I had believed in the idea of life after death as an axiom - true, but unproven and unprovable. But at that point it seemed as though I had experienced this truth first hand; here in front of me was a lifeless shell, yet I felt the presence of his life.

I sat a little longer, at peace now. In a little while other family members arrived and I left the room to meet them. Brief words, tearful embraces, more cups of tea. The early morning's spell was broken; activity around was now more purposeful.

Those few moments are precious to me. An opportunity to say goodbye, gently to close the last chapter of that book. And I had the briefest glimpse - a faint reflection, no more - of something beyond the purely physical. In his death, my father's final gift to me was an experience of the absolute certainty that our lives go on after our bodies have ceased to function. The story continues.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Purely Chat 

No deep thoughts tonight; I'm just revelling in the luxury of brand new broadband.

Spinning round the blogs has never been easier. Its going to be SOOOO nice reading freely without the constant dial-up drop-out.




I love the way whole pictures can appear suddenly in consciousness, apparently from nowhere, showing how the subconscious mind has been busy beavering away at something, often by making links or taking a perspective that bypasses consciousness.

Yesterday, this picture sprang, fully-formed, into my mind.

Imagine the Earth viewed from space; so close that it fills the frame. Imagine too that we’re looking at the night side and that the sky everywhere is clear – no clouds – so any light on the ground is visible. Black space, dark continents in darker oceans, and pinpricks of light representing humanity. Now stretch imagination and forget for the moment the minor detail that in reality you can only see half the globe; in imagination let the whole planet spread out before you.

Then turn out all the lights except your own, plus those representing the blogs you frequent and those of the bloggers who frequent your site.

Pinpricks of light around the globe, invisibly joined, but joined nonetheless. Connections made - a mutual support network.

Inspiring; empowering; exciting; encouraging; exploring; reassuring; comforting;supporting.

Thanks to Steve for the inspiration.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Windmills part 2 

I saw a wonderful sight this afternoon. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people walk past it every day and I’ll bet none of them give it a second glance, and wouldn’t see anything wonderful in it if they did. Wonder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

I had a meeting across London and took the tube to get there. I had nothing particular on my mind so I was simply allowing the world to go by, idly gazing at whatever came into my field of view. To be honest, there’s not a lot else you can do standing up on a jerky, rattley London Underground train. I was travelling on the Circle line, which is one of the oldest lines, built by cut-and-cover methods, I think, rather than tunnelling. The stations on this stretch are mostly brick built, often with attractive arched structures. They are fine examples of railway architecture, well worth preserving, so the black grime of the years which at one time had almost obliterated the original yellow ochre of the brickwork had been cleaned away returning the bricks almost to their original colour. Being shallow, these stations have no escalators, just stairways to access the platforms.

What passed into my field of view as the train slowed to a stop at Bayswater Station was a simple brick structure supporting one of these stairways. Looking closely it was obviously new but had been built to match the style of the old station, blending almost perfectly, except for one thing; one key feature that grabbed my attention.

It was too perfect. Every brick had been placed with absolute precision, perfectly aligned with its neighbours. Every mortar joint was precisely the same width, and the mortar smoothed off to precisely the same angle. The overall effect was mirror-flat.

It didn’t need to be. It was better than the original; near-perfect would have been good enough. But it had clearly been built by a craftsman, someone who cared about his own workmanship. I say he; I’ve never yet seen a female bricklayer, so I reckon it’s a pretty safe bet that this was built by a fellah. Even though no-one would ever know that he was responsible for it, even though it mattered to no-one else whether the odd brick here or there was out of alignment, he knew; it mattered to him. He used his skills to create a small piece of perfection; craftsmanship purely for its own sake, because he could, because he wanted to; because to do anything less would be to deny his craft; because it felt good to do work he was proud of, no matter whether anyone gave him recognition; because there was a part of him that drove himself to do his very best, and his very best was very good indeed. So that wall supporting the stairway stood in its own right; functional yet in its craftsmanship, a thing of beauty.

On another day I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I would have passed it by with all the other travellers, too intent on matters elsewhere to notice. But today, as you might have guessed by now if you read yesterday’s post, it assumed a particular significance; it had a message for me. Craftsmanship is good for its own sake. That bricklayer created with bricks, I create with words, both do so for the sheer joy of creating. There doesn’t have to be any other reason.

That wasn’t the only thing I learned – or was reminded of – either. The very fact that such a powerful message can be carried by a simple brick wall in a London Underground station that happened to pass by my eyes, is in itself another all too easily forgotten message. Meaning is out there; there are lessons for the taking if only I allow my senses to receive them.

I ought to get out more.

And thank you brickie, wherever you are.

PS I’ll stop whining about writer’s angst now ;-)

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Windmills of my mind... 

I lied. I didn’t know at the time that I lied, but I lied all the same. There’s another reason, a seemingly darker reason, why nothing has appeared on here lately.

There’s been a song playing in the back of mind this last week; I couldn’t quite make out the words though. Not until today that is. It goes like this:

What if everything on here, every goddam word in every post, even – or especially – this one, is just a form of attention seeking? Look at me, look at the clever way I play with words; the beautiful structures, the masterful language, the deep insights.

In fact, what if every blog on the planet is just that?

Silly song, nonsense song, but it’s one of those infuriating tunes that plays itself over and over and over in your head and wont go away. A constant background; you don’t even know you’re humming it, but it’s there playing behind everything and pushing out every other tune.

Would it matter? If, once in a while I, or anyone, comes up with something that amuses or inspires or provokes thought or elicits laughter or even tears; even if its source was attention seeking in some form, if it has that positive effect, does it matter what the source was?

The first answer I came up with went like this: it only matters if I pretend it’s not true. We’re all human; a craving for attention is a fundamental part of what it means to be human, a part that stays with us from the moment we’re born to the moment we die; it might be manifested in a needy, selfish, grabbing way or in a higher seeking for connection; for a meeting of minds; for acceptance. But the need, at its core is the same. And so it’s not wrong; it’s part of being human.

Suppose I run with that idea. It is attention seeking, but that’s OK.

But now I’ve got another dilemma. If I post this, you’ll know, and I’ll know you know, and you’ll know that I know you know, and that will be all right because we can all carry on pretending, but knowing that we all know really. Yet if I post it, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m devaluing others’ blogs, and their comments here, and that’s not what I mean at all

On the other hand, if I accept it but keep this thought to myself, it’s going to keep on nagging at me. It’ll be a dark secret tucked away in a cupboard. I’ll know it’s really attention seeking, but we pretend otherwise; we don’t talk about that. It’s one of those questions polite people don’t mention in open forum. It’s like discussing bodily functions at a genteel dinner party.

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

So answer number one got rejected.

Answer number two feels better.

Blogging isn’t primarily about attention seeking – not here anyway, and not anywhere in this corner of the blogosphere. There are blogs like that, but not in our neighbourhood. What we - I - enjoy more than anything else is communication, the pure joy of connection with fellow human beings, sharing ideas, being inspired.

It just happens that the most effective communication, the most effective sharing often – but by no mean always – is helped along by skilful use of language. So it can look a little like attention seeking, and maybe even sometimes become so if we’re tired or lonely or just having a bad day.

But we’re only human. It wouldn’t be so bad really, would it?

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

In case you were wondering... 

...the main reason there's nothing new on here has to do with the fact that days still only have 24 hours each, and things are getting squeezed.

Time management never was my strong point...

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Arthur or Martha? 

A previous work colleague of mine used to have a quirky turn of phrase to describe those situations when you don’t know which way is up; those days when all reference points are lost and you feel tossed helplessly on a sea of uncertainty, no safe anchor, no direction or control. He used to say “You don’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha, do you!” Gender issues aside, that phrase describes perfectly how I’ve been feeling this last week. I had no idea of the disorientating, sometimes even debilitating result that a seemingly trivial change of outlook could have.

It’s been creeping up on me for a while, but I’ve been fighting it. I’ve had or tried many different roles over the years, both in work – scientist, engineer, project manager, operations manager, business support - and in life outside work – climber, counsellor, photographer (that might have been closest fit if I’d explored that path further), musician – but never felt fully comfortable in any of them. Never quite a perfect fit; always an element of the square peg in a round hole; a part of me that didn’t match up properly to the role. Always the feeling that there was something else I ought to be doing. So as a climber, I lack the boldness to take the risks necessary to reach higher technical grades of climbing (or you could turn that round and say I have too vivid an imagination and can see all too clearly the possible results of taking those risks); as a manager, I see too clearly the absurdities of organisational life yet lack the strength and charisma to rise above them and also face values mismatch – so much of what matters organisationally, so often seems irrelevant to me; so much time is spent with much deep gravitas chasing our own tails.

Yet if anyone asked me what, in an ideal world would I like to do – no holds barred, no income worries – I could never come up with an answer that was entirely satisfactory. For a while I thought it might be management training, especially the outdoor-oriented type – or counselling, but although they were attractive, my skillset and make-up didn’t really match that well. But over the Christmas break, away from work, with time to relax and think and simply to be – and with the encouragement of some feedback from readers here - the penny finally dropped, and I gave in and accepted what seems to have been obvious to a number of people, although I was blind to it myself.

I am, in some core of my being, a writer. There, I’ve said it. Not necessarily a good one yet – it’s purely a descriptive term with no implications either way of quality, but the word acknowledges a drive, a dream, an intention, a need. A calling, even.

Nothing too dramatic in that, is there?

That shift of outlook took me through a rapid and intense re-run of this cycle. On Monday, the increased self-respect that came from my new-found purpose meant that I felt I should take work rather more seriously. That didn’t just mean no blogging in work hours, it meant being someone else. What do I need in order to write? More than anything else, I need awareness – of what’s going on around, and of my responses to it. And what do I need to suppress in order to do my job effectively? Awareness of all the idiocy around me and my responses to it. You see the problem? That kind of attitude can’t be switched over at will. Sitting for any length of time in one role kills the ability to sit in the other. And there’s a further twist. Realising all of this, looking for a third way, filling my head with this Big Question, creates a filter so dense that I can’t see through it, whichever way I look, leaving me unable to connect with the world beyond, driving out still further the ability to see and respond and so placing a seemingly impenetrable barrier to writing. Not just not having the time; actually losing the ability. And that’s scary.

On Tuesday and Wednesday I thought I’d lost it. Total incapacity to have a worthwhile thought or string a few words together. Two very black days; from the lofty pinnacle where the clouds drew apart and revealed a glorious possibility, I tumbled, disoriented and bruised, into a deep pit from which I could see no way out. Melodramatic? Outwardly, everything appeared perfectly normal. Inwardly, I was in utter turmoil. So Thursday’s post was a deliberate attempt at a break-out. Write anything; doesn’t matter what, just write. Thankfully, the outside world presented me with something I couldn’t ignore –torrential rain! The sheer physical presence – sight, sound, touch – was enough to batter its way through the hard shell of my self-imposed isolation. So, with an element of “what’s the point?” reluctance I began to follow a process –look, what do you see; listen, what do you hear; pull out a notebook; write it down…

There is a point to all this.

By the end of the Christmas break, I had discovered a calling. But on its own that wasn’t enough. This week I felt the pain that comes from having finally found such a calling, yet believing myself incapable of following it. Anita at Chantlady pointed me in the direction of a book by Gregg Levoy; reading the review on Amazon I came across this line:

'people won't pursue their callings until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so.'

I have both halves of that equation now. That doesn’t mean I’m overnight going to turn into a best-selling author. I’ll be just as capable of posting crap tomorrow as I was yesterday. Chances are, I’ll never publish anything. But I know what I have to do.

As a postscript, there a number of readers here who through their encouragement and support have helped me get this far. You know who you are; I thank you.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Another day... 

Rain. Heavy, solid and very, very wet. And wind; lashings of both of them. “Driving conditions treacherous” say the traffic reports; a good day to take the train instead of the bike. The walk to the station is a battle of wits; umbrella angled against the wind until a sneaky gust slips through a gap between buildings and catches me unawares. Then the wind finds a new trick; comes from behind so that with umbrella tilted backwards, the forces of wind and rain combine to create a torrent that tumbles from the brolly’s edge, perfectly angled to catch the back of my legs.

Seeping through wet coats, dripping off wet umbrellas, running down wet bags; the water makes its inevitable way earthwards, collecting in puddles on the carriage floor. Outside, the wind chases clouds across a graphite sky, street lights have halos of slanting rain, car headlights illuminate rain dancing on glistening roads; elsewhere lighted windows serve only to emphasise the bleakness. Then carriage windows steam up enclosing our little world.

The next station, and doors open; our world expands for a moment, taking in the semi-circle of sights and sounds that extends a little way from the opening - a cascade from an overflowing station canopy gutter, wind ripples a grey puddle, feet running to make the dash from the shelter of the station canopy to the doors of the train. Now a new cohort of freshly-wettened commuters brings reinforcements to the water which is threatening to spread it’s influence over every square inch of the carriage and its contents. Then the doors close again, shutting out the immediacy of the weather and sealing us once more in our cloud-on-wheels.

Another day begins.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

It may be a little quiet on here for a while...  

Conscientious soul that I am, I feel a strange need to undertake some purposeful activity in return for the funds that miraculously appear in my bank account each month. So I need to put on the shoes and wear the mask of the guy who used to sit here. For a while. The mask is uncomfortable to get on, and although it itches a little it’s not too bad so long as I don’t scratch the itch. Which is another way of saying no blogging during work hours.

But to balance that, I finally got around to signing up for ADSL; once the line test confirms all OK I’ll order the ADSL router and complete the home network installation, which means internet available 24/7 on 3 PCs and no more competing for PC or phone line. So easier blogging from home.

We’ll see how it goes…

Monday, January 05, 2004

Who WAS that guy? 

Hell, this is HARD! What is this place? What are all these files? Who was that guy that used to sit here behind this desk?

I remember him, vaguely. Nice guy (;-) pleasant enough, but didn’t say much. Just sat there for hours in front of his PC. Or staring out the window; I never was quite sure which. Always seemed a bit detached, like he was some place else. Speak to him and you got the impression it was a bit of a struggle for him to let go of whatever it was that was in his mind, and attend to you. Not that he didn’t listen, mind. He was always willing to answer a question or give advice when it was asked for. Mind you, he did sometimes act a bit aloof, like he wasn’t really part of this. Never took anything that seriously. I think he liked the people well enough; just didn’t take much interest in the technical side of things. Odd, for an engineer. Funny thing was, quiet that he was, he seemed to know an awful lot of people; not here but across the organisation, in all sorts of different corners...

Anyhow, now I’m supposed to come in and pick up all these pieces. At least he left a tidy desk… Hell; how’s a writer supposed to make sense of all this techie mumbo jumbo? They don’t even write in English. Goodness only knows what it’s all about. Damn, thought this would be an easy week. Better get down to it, I guess…

Sheesh! How did that guy stay sane? It’s all just meaningless electronic-paper-pushing - that, and playing politics. This is no place for a writer; I gotta get outa here…


Saturday, January 03, 2004

A memory from 23 years ago... 

This one's for the Ecotone bi-weekly topic of Cemetaries and Place

I have an old photo in front of me; the date on the back is June 1981. It’s not a particularly good quality photo, rather the reverse in fact, that’s why it has sat for the intervening 23 years in a box of miscellaneous prints. They’re not good enough to do anything with, yet have some attachment that binds them to me still and prevents me throwing them away.

The photo is taken from the top of a hill, not high but steep, on the island of Bressay, just off the East coast of Shetland, to the North of Scotland where the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea meet the Atlantic Ocean. The hill looks out over the straight that separates Bressay from the “mainland” of Shetland; the sea is grey, a jagged white line marks the breakers at the foot of low cliffs on the far shore, surmounted by pastures that on a clear day would be lush green, but on that day, as on so many, a thin grey mist lies over everything giving the view a sombre, monochrome appearance.

At the foot of the hill, at the seaward edge of a relatively level patch of green between the rough slopes of the hill and the low cliffs bordering the sea, is a small graveyard. Just a stone perimeter, the ruins of a small stone chapel and maybe two dozen headstones.

It’s a wild spot; anything less than a thirty mile-an-hour wind here is considered calm. A few people still live on the island, mostly gaining their livelihood from the tourist trade. There’s a small harbour where the ferry from Lerwick docks, one hotel and several cottages, mostly on the coastal fringes. But there’s little to indicate the community to which the graveyard was once attached. It stands almost alone on the inhospitable clifftop, looking out to sea, just a couple of ruined cottages marking the spot where once a little community existed.

I doubt that their life was much more than an existence. I’d guess most of their livelihood came from the sea; the land surely could not have supported many crops, only provided peat for the fires in those simple homes. Most of the food cooked over those fires would have come from the sea, and I imagine that is why the graveyard is located in that spot. Shetland may be politically part of Scotland, but the ancestry of its people traces directly back to the Vikings. The sea would have been in their blood; they may have made their homes on the land but it would have been on the sea where they made their living; the sea that was the source of tales told round the smoky peat fires on cold winter nights; and so it was natural that they would be buried at this border of land and sea where their souls might still gaze out over the waters where they had lived so much of their lives.

Now the graveyard is all that is left. The land has little value for anything else; no-one lives near this spot, few come here, just the occasional tourist. The stones may yet stand for many hundreds of years, lashed by horizontal rain and salt spray, undisturbed except for the crying of the gulls that ride the wild winds and waves.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Honest labour 

I’m an engineer. It says so on my cv so it must be true.

That might explain how it was that I came to spend New Years Day in a cold garage, engaged in such exciting pursuits as: chasing ball-bearings round an old Chinese take-away dish filled with white spirit; figuring out which nylon washer goes where in an assemblage of bits that eventually reassemble into a dual-pivot brake calliper; fighting the spring on a rear derailleur; playing cat-and-mouse games getting steering head bearings adjusted just so; cleaning wheel rims spoke-by-spoke with a toothbrush.

Since I’m insane enough to do daily battle with London traffic on a bicycle, every once in a while it needs a complete strip-down service, pretty much to the last ball-bearing, and it’s become a tradition that I do this in the lazy days of the Christmas/New Year break. So in the best traditions of hands-on engineers, I now have grease under my fingernails and deeply engrained in the cracks and whorls of my fingers; but I also have a shiny rejuvenated bike, ready to sally forth once more into the fray.

Pray that my engineering is better than my poetry…

Each day another stone 

Each day another stone;
Each day another block
Takes its place,
Joins the structure,
Extending the design,
Building moment by moment,
To this one goal;
This unique place,
This focus,
This Now.
Summit of the pyramid.

Its design could not ever have led
You to any other place;
And each day a new summit
Each day
The pyramid builds,
And you with it.

The design has brought you
To the only place you could be,
To the one place you must be.

To what purpose?

A new arrival,
And a new departure, for now
The pyramid inverts.
All futures
Begin here

Meanwhile, here you stand;
Forever at the crossroads,
Forever at the fulfilment of all that has gone before;
Forever at the genesis of all that is to come.

Choose; well or otherwise.
All paths become your destiny.

Song of the Blogosphere? 

Thanks to a comment left by Lorianne, I just discovered these wonderful lines, taken from Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road:

"...From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women
You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me..."

Although written many years ago in the context of earthbound travels, they seem also to apply uncannily well to journeys through the Blogosphere.