Monday, November 29, 2004

A snow day... 

...but without the snow. There's little in the city to mark the turn of the seasons except for the temperature, but although it's turning chilly as autumn slides imperceptibly into winter, there's certainly no sign of snow.

No snow, but this has turned out to be a morning of unexpected holiday of a sort, in the style of a snow day. I find myself sitting in Starbucks, idly scribbling as I try to make my Grande Americano last as long as possible. I was convinced the meeting I was travelling to started at 9.30, but it seems I was two and a half hours early. A senior moment...

It's a wonderfully luxurious feeling though - two and a half hours unexpectedly mine, with no obligations, no commitments, no laptop with me so I can't even pretend to work. Two and a half hours to do anything that Reading city centre offers on a cold November morning and not feel guilty about it.

Starbucks isn't my favourite coffee, but they do have one significant advantage over most other coffee shops - plenty of space and a relaxed attitude towards long-term occupants of it. The question is, just how long is it reasonable to make one cup of coffee last? I do a rough mental calculation based on my hazy knowledge of rents per square foot of restaurant space and decide that even allowing them a healthy profit margin, the price I paid should entitle me to about half a day's rent of the few square feet that I occupy. Not sure that they'll see it that way though...

With nothing particular to occupy it, my attention wanders idly across whatever sensory input it happens upon. Normally Starbucks background musak is best ignored, but the instantly recognisable introductory chords of 'What a Wonderful World' grab my attention and for a few moments I'm lost in the magic; Louis Armstrong's gravelly rendition never fails to bring a smile to my face and a moment of peace to my heart. Thankfully it's followed, not by some ghastly Christmas jangle, but a jazz trio playing Greensleeves - wonderfully dense block chords, full of deep colour and layers of feeling. If I could play jazz, that's how I'd like to play.

The next tune though is back to mundane Christmas ghastliness. Ears turn off and auditory diversions give way to visual distractions: how many ways can muffins be eaten? And what can you tell about a person from this casual act? This one adopts a hierarchical approach: break it in half, then each half in half again, and then again into bite-size pieces. Planning, order and structure clearly play a role in her life, or so I idly muse. I sneak a glance across at the woman at the table next to me, ready to glance away again should she feel my eyes upon her muffin. Ha! A complete contrast: she picks pieces off the top until the mushroom-like outline reduces to a shapeless hump, reminiscent of a melting snowman. Obviously a take-it-as-it-comes type.

More customers come in; the place is getting busy. I finished my coffee a while ago and the morning feels a little less relaxed now - a self-induced pressure to move on and leave space for new customers starts to eat into my earlier calm.

Uh-oh. I've been here so long, now I'm the resident of longest standing. Or is that longest sitting? There's been a woman in the opposite corner sitting busily writing in a large black leather-bound folder with only her cup of coffee for company - a mirror image of me, I guess, except that she looks businesslike and I'm merely loafing. She was there when I came in, and as long as she stayed, I reckoned it was okay for me to stay. But she's leaving now. Time for me to go too, I reckon.

Still, the break was good while it lasted. And even snow melts eventually.

Friday, November 26, 2004

"My World, as I see it now" 

I may have mentioned a while back that as well as the normal day to day work that I bitch and whine about, I also do occasional career counselling within the organisation that I work for. We had a training day yesterday, for the half-dozen or so of us who do this alongside our day jobs, looking at some different “tools” to use to help clients, perhaps to gain a fresh perspective on themselves. One of these tools involves drawing; for example, take a large sheet of flipchart paper, some thick coloured marker pens, a quiet corner, throw away any notion of artistic merit, and take 15 minutes to draw - without using any words - "My world, as I see it now".

I'd scan mine in and show it here (in spite of my success in demonstrating the requirement to ignore artistic merit), but I don't have a flip-chart sized scanner, so words will have to do instead.

There's a roughly scribbled house, on it's own with no others nearby. It feels as though it represents stability, something that doesn't easily move. The positive side of that is good - it's somewhere to go, to feel secure, but it also represents a bit of stuck-ness, a bit of inertia. A winding road goes past the door, leading off into distant mountains (all my pictures have mountains - they are my spiritual home, I think, or something like that...). Outside the house are three matchstick figures; my children. Almost opposite the house, the road forks and one branch - the branch they will soon most likely take - leads off in a different direction, off the edge of this drawing. They'll have their own drawings before very much longer. Outside the house stands a picnic table, and on the table are two glasses filled with drink, ready to share with travellers who pass by on the road of life. Past the house runs a line of telegraph poles, with a wire leading off to the house; where the wires leave the page, little sketches of people sitting at computers illustrate the connection with so many people around the world through blogging. And in the distance, beyond mountains and the plain which lies next to them, stretches the sea, with a small boat heading over the horizon - another world beyond this one.

The standard of drawing wouldn’t have shamed a six year old, yet I felt pleased with the result, achieved without a great deal of conscious thought – it just seemed to fall out of my head. The finished picture looked coherent, as though it has been designed as a complete whole, yet as I started with the house and added the other elements one by one, I had no idea what was going to come next; whether there would be any thread to be weaved through it or whether it would be just a collection of isolated images.

Instinctively, it felt true. I nearly said it felt right, but right is a word of judgement. It felt full of meaning both in what was there and in what wasn’t - looking at the complete drawing, I could see layers of meaning behind the few hasty strokes of marker pen. It’s remarkable how this kind of process can bypass the verbal centres of the brain in order to carry meaning from the part of us that thinks non-verbally to the conscious parts that have grown used (and perhaps become restricted) to working within the linear processing constraints of words.

Some of the symbols will be obvious to anyone, and some of the inferences that I can draw will be hidden from most. But get this: I drew this at work, in a work-related context, yet it wasn't until I'd finished and seen other people's drawings that I realised there was nothing at all on mine that represented or was connected with the work that I do. Except, perhaps, for that picnic table - maybe I'll get some clients calling there for some career counselling, although it's not just for them - anyone is welcome there. Apart from that, work doesn't appear to have a significant place in my world as I see it now. (The way things are going in our organisation, that might turn out to be prophetic).

Oh, and blogs and the people who write them seem to play quite an important part.


(Why not give it a go and see what your world looks like?)

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

It's really frustrating, but... 

...it's looking as though blogging will have to become predominantly a weekend activity. Maybe the odd minute here and there to skim-read a few, but not a lot else outside of weekends.

Just when I had a few ideas too. Maybe they'll keep fresh until Saturday.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The audition 

It's been a week characterised by continual tension, the week’s events linked by a thematic thread that never goes slack. Not a dramatic, nerve-snapping tension, but a continuous undercurrent of taught-ness, slowly rising, falling, rising again, but never diminishing sufficiently for it's effect to be ignored, even for a moment. I can tell the week has taken it's toll - I'll be needing new glasses before very long, and when my eyes get tired they give up the struggle of compensating for the imperfect correction of the spectacle lenses; squint as I might, tilting my head this way and that to view the world through different portions of the varifocal lenses, the world takes on a vaguely remote indistinctness.

But if I felt the apprehension so keenly, and all I had to do at its height was sit and wait, I wonder how my daughter L. felt? For her, this has been a long, slow, unremitting build to this point. First the flurry of activity nearly three months ago to complete the conservatoire applications, marking the point of stepping onto the conveyor that would take her inexorably to this moment. Then the weeks of intensive flute practice - three hours a day typically - every day feeling the corrosive force of that niggling "Am I good enough?" question eating away at confidence and self-belief. "What if I don't get in? Is it worth it?" Facing those questions, feeling the unavoidable uncertainty, but putting them on one side, unanswered, and carrying on nonetheless. High days; low days; just getting on with it days.

Then as the first of the auditions draw closer, the pace accelerates, the tension rises, yet events conspire to build it still further. This first audition is in Wales – an early morning start at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, so we’re staying overnight with an old friend of mine who lives several miles further on. It takes us seven hours to do what should be a four-hour journey, the additional three hours being in near-stationary traffic. A diesel tanker overturned the previous day and the motorway is reduced to a crawl for eight miles, as three lanes of fast-moving traffic funnel down to a single lane crawl to pass the roadworks where the motorway has to be entirely resurfaced. I should have checked the travel news… We have time, but the delay and the uncertainty feed that nervous tension. Then a late arrival at my friend's house, leaving me a mere three hours to do six years worth of catching up. L. goes to bed but we stay up, until the urge to talk is eventually overpowered by the urge to sleep. But still talk wont give in, and we continue up the stairs and in hushed whispers on the landing.

And in the morning, another motorway accident and another crawl through grey drizzle and slow traffic to the audition, detouring through unfamiliar streets, a road atlas resting on my knees. All the while, the gnawing background feeling of I-think-we're-going-to-make-it-in-time-but-I-can't-be-sure-until-we-get-there. Outward calm hides an inner anxiety held almost unbearably just below simmering point. But thankfully we arrive in perfect time - early enough not to be rushed, but not so early for her to suffer waiting-room-syndrome.

So I sit, waiting. Nearly an hour, as the audition follows straight on from the warm-up session. Any small part I have played is over for now. I fret a little; I know that preparation and practice is only part of the story – self-belief counts for so much too. Have I said and done enough to help her? Or have I inadvertently transferred some of my own lack of self-belief onto her?

Then the first hurdle, the audition itself, is over. Returning, she gives a smile – it couldn’t have been a complete disaster then. I can sense that the tension has passed its peak now; little by little, just as it grew, so it relaxes.

Auditions and interviews proceed throughout the day; gradually the atmosphere relaxes – strangers chat, first in twos and threes, then in groups which wax and wane as student hopefuls come and go. Voices that had been speaking in whispers sound across the room - experiences shared, stories retold, laughter heard. The room’s appearance takes on a decidedly informal character as bags, coats and instruments lie strewn across chairs, in corners, on the floor, and the neat arrangement of chairs gives way to sprawling groups or haphazard isolation.

And finally, after the interview and the aural tests, it’s all over – for now, at any rate. Two more auditions at other conservatoires to come, but the worst – the complete unknown – has now passed. It was bearable; the other students didn’t seem to find it any easier – and that factor alone is enough to give her confidence a sizeable boost.

The following day, perhaps in reaction to that tension, is a day of minor disasters for me, inducing their own edginess - a wrong set of keys picked up, necessitating a flying visit back home to collect the right ones, the incident’s aggravation compounded by a lost train ticket, resulting in a late appointment, which itself is not helped by a double-booked interview room and consequent last-minute rearrangement...

But thankfully the week is over and the sources of tension have mostly dissipated, leaving an empty lethargy in their wake. The world outside is quiet and almost still; a fine near-freezing mist falls softly from a leaden sky - there's little temptation to be outside right now. Would that I could do what the cat lying next to me is doing - curl up in a ball and go to sleep...

Tuesday, November 16, 2004


If you like wilderness and landscapes, go visit this guy's portfolio. It's breathtaking.

Saturday, November 13, 2004


I don't know where I'm going with this blog, or whether it matters where it goes, or whether it matters whether I know or not. I'm conscious it has become disjointed; random pieces here and there with little coherence other than an underlying sub-plot about my experiences in counselling. Those experiences are obviously personal and I suspect mean little to anyone else.

I noticed something peculiar about my sitemeter statistics: in the half year following the start of this blog, the number of visits grew rapidly, reaching a peak in January of this year that has never been surpassed, not by a long way. Up until that point I was still engaged by the sheer novelty of blogging; it certainly never occurred to me for one moment that I could write, or wanted to write, other than to try and communicate those fleeting thoughts throughout the day that bring variety and interest and occasional insight. But around January this year I had the crazy notion of "being a writer". Not that I thought I was particularly good at it, but it seemed to fulfil something I'd been missing, seemed to fill a gap, provide purpose. It felt a good fit with who I thought I was - or with who I could be.

The funny thing was, from that point on, sitemeter readings plummeted. Of course, that wasn't the only change around that time - I also began going to counselling in February, and the focus of my thoughts and writing shifted to an even more introspective view. Come to think of it, those two changes - writerly declarations and starting counselling - weren't unrelated, in fact one followed directly from the other. The whole reason for going to counselling was to try and resolve the conflict that I felt, feeling like two different people - one who does a job of work and one who writes - who were unable to coexist, leaving me feeling like a Jekyll and Hyde character. To do my job effectively, the person who writes stuff had to be suppressed since if I gave that person full reign, my job felt so irrelevant and worthless that my output dropped alarmingly (yet the worthlessness of the job was perhaps proved by the fact that no-one noticed that I was doing so little productive work).

But I'm a conscientious soul; I couldn't carry on feeling guilt about my lack of commitment to work, so over a period of months, and without any clearly planned intent that way, I seem to have drifted back towards a greater commitment to work - and a consequent withdrawal from writing; even from thinking the kind of thoughts that lead to writing. I believed for a while that I wasn't writing because I didn't have time, but I found that even when I did have time, I had nothing to say. The writer's voice had almost been silenced.

So, I don't know where this blog is going. After nine months in counselling, although many issues I wasn't even aware of previously have surfaced, been examined, and if not resolved then at least partially understood and accepted - yet this swapping heads issue seems no further forward.

Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree?

Exploring the inner landscape 

I wasn’t sure whether to post this or not. It’s long, and rather personal – not that I mind sharing it, but although it has meaning for me, it may not have much meaning to anyone else. Nevertheless, it might give some insight into the process of guided visualisation. And if you get bored, you can always just look at the pictures…

I’m sitting in the chair opposite M., my counsellor. It’s early evening, already dark outside, and the room is softly lit by a single lamp on a low table to the side. We’d agreed last week to follow this visualisation, and since it might last some time it’s best to move into it without too much delay. Opening pleasantries exchanged, I sit back in the chair, upright but relaxed, feet squarely on the floor, hands in my lap, eyes gently closed. I take a few slow deep breaths, breathing from the abdomen.

“Picture a landscape”

A jumble of competing images appears in my mind: a scene from Richard Bach’s “Running from Safety”, an imagined landscape where Bach met his child-self, a gently sloping grassy valley-side, smooth, endless, perfectly green grass, unreal; a scene from last night’s TV docu-drama of a hypothetical mission to the planets – a red Martian version of the Grand Canyon on an immense scale; my alpine meadow “safe place”. Too many overlapping images tumbling across my field of view like a handful of photos tossed in the air. [Curious that these were all imaginary landscapes – but then the direction was to imagine…] Then another imaginary landscape comes to mind – the mountain stream source that appeared in an earlier visualisation. That feels better – I’ll go with that one.

I stand in a grassy hollow, high amongst mountains, ringed on three sides by snow-capped peaks. This is where the meltwaters gather and form the start of streams. The ground is very wet and boggy; thick tufts of straggly long straw-coloured grass interspersed with dark peat-bottomed water-filled hollows ready to give a soaking to a carelessly-placed foot. The aptly named Great Moss in upper Eskdale I think formed the inspiration for this place, although the scene in my mind has a more alpine feel to it.

“You see a dwelling, a home.”

I saw a tent – the same one that I saw in reality in Eskdale seven years ago. But it’s temporary - not a dwelling, not a home. It came to mind purely as a visual association with the scene; it feels wrong in this time and place. But something else feels wrong too; this place isn’t where you’d find a dwelling. I’m confused. I try to “create” one in my mind, but it seems artificial to do so here. I alter my landscape a little, picturing a place rather like a spot a little further down Eskdale, near where the old pack-horse bridge crosses the youthful river Esk.

People could live there. The dwelling I see is a hybrid – a log cabin built using the ruins of an old stone cottage as foundations. It was a dwelling once, for sure – but now?

“You go up to it and knock on the door. Who is the person, creature or being who comes?”

Who comes? No-one. This place has been deserted for a long time. The glassless windows open the inside to the weather; it’s dark and empty; no-one has been here for many years.

Even whilst I’m fully immersed in the image, the watcher in me sees where this visualisation is “supposed” to go, [this isn’t hypnosis, but it may have something in common – but in this case, the watcher could intervene, if he so chose] so I smile ruefully at the symbolic implication of this abandoned dwelling. I’m not at home.

M. repeats the question - what person, creature or being answers my knock? – but by this time the picture has taken on a life of its own; the story is moving forward and her voice is some way off. I’ve already moved inside; the door was ajar. It’s surprisingly clean; there’s a smooth wooden floor which appears, rather surprisingly, to be newly swept, but the room – I think there’s only one, but I can’t see it all – is completely empty of any furniture. The only creatures here are the mice and spiders who have made it their home; maybe birds too who have flown in through the unglazed windows and made their nests here. I don’t sense any message from them – these are just ordinary creatures, they’re not the talking animals of fantasy.

“Who might have lived there?”

A picture comes to me of a hermit – a Gandalf-like figure in a long grey robe and with long grey wiry hair, striding amongst the rocks, cloak blown behind him in the wind.

Maybe he spent much time away from this place on his travels.

Maybe he’s still around.

I stand in the room looking out of the window. The view is stupendous: mountains, streams, green wilderness, high mountain paths. I would be at home here.

Turning, I find the hermit in the room with me.

“How do you feel, having him there?”

His presence is almost tangible; I’m drawn into the aura that surrounds him. I feel known, understood, accepted. He is unfathomably wise; he knows me better than I know myself. There is understanding and deep compassion in his eyes, although no words have yet been spoken. I feel secure, serene, at peace.

“How does it feel to be known, to be accepted?”

Tears well up in response – I know only too well how much I seek those feelings; for a few moments I am fully at ease, at rest, safe.

“Who is this person?”

It crosses my mind for a moment that it could be me, but it doesn’t feel like me. This person is too wise, too all-knowing, too compassionate – I feel very much as a young hobbit might, standing before Gandalf! An unwelcome idea enters my mind – suppose this person represents God? I become tense, those feelings of peace evaporating. I’m afraid, afraid in case this God-person has a message for me, a purpose for me to fulfil. Afraid that he will ask me to do something that is beyond me, be someone I don’t feel ready to be. What might that be? I don’t really know. But I’m afraid of being given a task, a role, of losing my autonomy, of having to conform to another’s plan. I’m quiet for some time, struggling with this idea, not knowing how to explain it. The troubled feelings must show in my face. I say something about my fear of this being God, and how I was getting diverted by the trappings and assumptions of conventional Christianity.

“Let them go, those trappings, let them float away… carried away by a pink balloon”.

That does the trick perfectly. I can see it so clearly – the deliberately incongruous pink balloon, and the fears no longer within me but outside now, being carried into the distance. A rustle of movement comes from beside me- “Thank God for that- now we can get on” says the Gandalf-figure, with a half-smile.

My attention returns to the room, and the picture has changed. Some furniture has appeared: a heavy wooden table with a deeply grained oak top, weathered silver-grey with age - something you might expect to find in a medieval castle. It is evening now, almost fully dark, and on the table are two lighted candles in heavy ornate silver candlesticks. They create a warm orange glow in the centre of the room, whilst the corners recede into the shadows; the only space that seems to exist for the moment is that which lies within reach of their slowly flickering light. I can’t see any chairs and am slightly puzzled by that - we seem more relaxed than one would be when standing, yet I don’t sense that we are seated either. [Afterthought: perhaps as spirit beings, not embodied at all, standing and sitting have little meaning here…]

“Do you want to ask him a question?”

Even before M. asked, I know the answer. No, I don’t. I have no burning questions, I’m still more than a little afraid of questions – or of their answers. The figure turns to me, looking straight into my eyes, holding them in an unblinking timeless examination. His eyes show a deep strength, fuelled from a fire within, knowledge that seems boundless, yet show also immense compassion. “You’re tired; we’ve done enough for now – you must rest”. It feels as though there’s a bed somewhere to lay down and sleep. There will be more work to do when I awake again.


That may only take a few minutes to read, but I’m guessing it lasted about 45 minutes. It was a very intense experience. M. looked as moved as I felt. “I feel very privileged to have shared that experience with you” she said. I was still in something of a daze, shaking my head at the power of it all. Even without making explicit interpretations, intuitively it felt right, it hung together, I sensed meaning.

M. sees this Gandalf-figure as me. He’s wise; she says I’m wise, but I’m ambivalent about that. I can guess what she means – that I have wisdom within me (as do all of us if only we can tap into it) – and in some ways I do actually sense that, yet I fail to see that wisdom acted out in my life. If wisdom is an inner resource, it manages to stay very much on the inside (or I manage to keep it there) and doesn’t often escape.

The way the mind works – those hidden parts of mind that aren’t constrained by the limitations of conventional rationality and thought-patterns – is amazing. It can only work with the materials it’s got – those images are all taken from real experience – yet it weaves them together to create new meaning, communicating across that gap between conscious mind and the inner self that exists beyond consciousness and self-awareness.

This wasn’t actually the way the visualisation was “supposed” to go. The structure is intended to give access to different aspects of self – different “people” who inhabit different rooms in this dwelling. But it didn’t matter that my imagination took it on a different path; I heard the message I needed to hear – I think - although now it is already fading and the present threatens to push it into the background. That’s why I’ve written it out in such length – to give me something tangible to hold onto.

I held that image of the darkened room, the table, the candles, him and me. It felt like an image I could, and would, return to again, perhaps many times. An inner resource that could give strength and confidence.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Don't believe everything you read here... 

Well, I suppose it was all true at some point. But I feel uncomfortable about leaving gloomy Eeyore-like thoughts out there, especially when things have moved on. Hmmm, no, that's not fair on Eeyore - at least his gloom has style...

Trouble is, perception - mine - can change almost instantaneously, but it takes time for the impact of that change to filter through onto the page. Even without the time constraints of daily life, I need time to get my head (and heart, and soul...) around some things before I post much about them here.

So in the meantime, here's something hopefully a little more positive to look at:

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Ooooh, look at the pretty lights.... 

Call me a kill-joy if you like, but the sooner the sale of fireworks to the general public is banned, the better. I fail to see why I should have to endure endless window-rattling World-War-Three explosions for the mindless amusement of some brain-dead idiots. The attraction of the prettier fireworks I can just about understand (although I could very happily live without them), but just what is the point of making the loudest bang you can, again and again and again and again and again? The mentality of a particularly nasty schoolboy, the kind who pulls the legs off crane flys just for fun, let loose in the body of an adult with too much money to burn.

And noise nuisance aside, just what is the rationale of selling explosives over the counter to every Tom, Dick and Harry? Every year, dozens, probably hundreds of kids, I don't know the statistics, end up in hospital, some maimed for life. One simple step would prevent all of that.

Sorry, rant (almost) over. I detest fireworks. If the bangs set my nerves on edge, heaven only knows what they do to the nerves of all the animals subjected to this barrage of noise.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


...the plot.

It feels as though I should rename this blog "Older but no wiser".

Thoughts and words are too fragmented for anything any much more coherent than that at the moment.

It seems every time I get close to... to what? Closer to answers to the questions that took me into counselling? Closer to being me, being whole? Closer to my own soul? Whatever it is, every time I get closer to it, something shuts down; inner doors close, shutters go up on the windows; outwardly normality continues, but inwardly there's a retreat, and a gulf opens up between inner and outer personas with consciousness left to manage the outside whilst soul becomes locked away somewhere hidden inside.

That's about the best I can do to explain. There's something deep in there that frightens me. Something I don't want to meet and acknowledge, because it's power could upset the comfort of routine existence; could turn my picture of who I think I am upside down. I'm not talking skeletons in cupboards; they are merely old deeds. This is more fundamental than that. It's like being afraid of being born.