Older, but no wiser
Andy Borrows' musings on life and all its confusion, contradictions, richness and opportunities
Sunday, August 28, 2005
However, there was one drawer within it to which I had access: this was where all the puzzles and games were kept. These were very different from modern games – plastics had not yet become ubiquitous, and electronics hadn’t moved out of the radiogram; the majority were made from nothing more than card and paper. There were a great number word games of one sort or another, card games, old favourites such as Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, and an early edition of Monopoly. But all these needed at least two to play, and since my brother and sister were several years older than me I often had to make my own amusement. However there were two small boxes in this games drawer to which I returned time and again. They each contained a set of rather strange black-and-white photos: “Everyday Objects Photographed from Unusual Angles” the boxes declared. I don’t know what the rules were, how the game was played; I probably couldn’t even read when I first discovered them, I only remember being fascinated by these peculiar pictures with their blurred, abstract shapes. I’d take each card and go round the house trying to find objects that matched. Eventually of course I learned what they all were, but that didn’t diminish the fascination; instead it was almost enhanced by being able mentally to juxtopose both the normal and the bizarre perspectives.
One summer, years later when I was a student, I found myself with time on my hands and thought I’d have a go at producing my own set of such photos. Mostly macros, the difficulty in recognising the objects is actually increased by enlarging them to many times life-size, so I printed these at 10 x 8 inches using my home-made enlarger. I passed them round visitors for a while but then the novelty wore off; they were put away in an envelope and forgotten.
Clearing out a cupboard, I stumbled on that envelope earlier today. I thought it’d be fun to post some of those images here – see how many you recognise and drop me a comment; some are easy, some less so. No prizes, I’m afraid.
The camera, for anyone interested, was that student workhorse, the Russian-made Zenith E, using the standard lens with extension tubes or bellows as appropriate.
(Answers are here)
Saturday, August 27, 2005
Was this discovered by in-depth knowledge of PC architecture and sophisticated test equipment?
No, merely application of that age-old means of medical diagnosis which exploits the bilateral symmetry of the mammalian form: compare the good side with the bad and see what’s different. Okay, computers don’t have bilateral symmetry, but they do have two almost similar IDE channels. It was a simple matter of swapping components and connections one at a time to localize the fault.
So, yup, I’m feeling smug. The world seems a much friendlier place; not out to get me after all. I don’t think I’ll give up the day job and go into PC repair just yet though. Heaven knows what hourly rate I’d have to charge, given the time it took to work this one out.
Now it’s a gloomy wet Friday afternoon at the end of summer and there’s not a customer in sight. But then this guy crosses the threshold. How can I put this delicately? Incongruous isn’t the word; if appearance is anything to go by, he fits in here about as well as a bone china tea-set round a campfire. Smart-but-supremely-conventional casual, with just a touch of the rustic – shades of beige and khaki, topped with a lightweight waterproof jacket and with the ubiquitous small rucksack slung over one shoulder; he looks as though he’d be more at home with a fishing rod in his hands than with a bass guitar slung round his neck. Hardly a Sting; he’s probably got a teenage son who can just about manage the opening riff of Smoke on the Water. He looks so ripe for a wind-up, but you’d better be polite. After all, a sale is a sale.
I hadn’t intended to show up looking like a refugee from The Archers. Although I’d been planning to buy a new bass combo for some time, I only realised at the last minute that on that particular day I’d most likely be near the right place - the only shop in London that stocks the model I wanted to look at – and at the right time - when there were as few people as possible around to hear my feeble efforts at playing. So I didn’t have time to prepare.
In my imagination, I would have practised some suitably impressive licks with which to wow them. “I know it’s only basic” I’d say, as my fingers flew over the fretboard, “but I’ve only been playing a couple of years” (displaying casual disregard for the literal meaning of “a couple”) and there’d be eyebrows raised in grudging approval at what this beginner could do.
And whilst I might not have gone so far as to don ragged jeans and beer-soaked tee-shirt, I’d have made at least some attempt to look less like the proverbial sore thumb. But instead I wander in looking like an apprentice old fart and fumble quietly away at a few bars of Jesus Christ Superstar (the current show for which I’m practising; not exactly the stuff of rock legends), then sheepishly ask the guy in the shop to demo what the beast is really capable of.
But I don’t care. I bought it, and it’s awesome. Relatively tiny, as bass combos go (although judging by the weight, the insides must be lined with lead) it even has a unique feature to ensure it will serve me well into my old-fart-hood: it’s fitted with wheels and a retractable handle, to save the strain on lower back muscles that are increasingly susceptible to injury. But the real selling point of course is the sound: I never knew my bass could sound so good.
Maybe I’ll even learn to play it properly some day. After all, if you sound like a real musician, what you look like hardly matters.
Friday, August 26, 2005
To cut a long (and it was very, very, tediously long, I assure you) story short, what I now have is a PC that doesn’t know it has a hard drive in. So I can’t even boot from floppy.
The last thing it told me on that evil blue screen was something like “starting physical memory dump…”
Anyone out there know how to make it recover from its amnesia and remember that it has in fact still got its hard drive there?
Thursday, August 25, 2005
I drove home - so as to reach my camera - as fast as I dared, but not fast enough, and in the wrong direction, away from the centre of the stage.
This was just a remnant; a scrap of faded fabric torn from the hem of the gown of what might well have been the most stunningly attired evening sky I've ever seen. Layer upon layer of intricately embroidered peach and rose set against a field of startling turquoise.
Why do I even attempt to describe it?
Of course, I should have seen it coming, and been prepared. But instead of spotting the brambles on the path ahead and sidestepping, them I blundered straight on and got entangled. After the release, the reawakening of The Shock of the New comes the entrapment that could be dubbed the amnesia (or is it anaesthesia?) of the old – back at work, instead of experiencing the familiar surroundings in the light of newly-expanded awareness, the very familiarity of these surroundings triggers old associations, and force of habit leads thought patterns dutifully back to the tired old paths of same old treadmill.
I could just label this as post holiday blues, tell myself to snap out of it and get on with living: yes, of course we’d all like the freedom to roam at will, to explore and experience, or simply to sit still and be, but real life doesn’t work like that, does it? Real life is a grind and these occasional moments of freedom when the chains are loosened for a while are nothing more than a morsel thrown to a starving soul to keep it alive in its prison just a little longer.
[Aside: I haven’t got it yet, have I? Freedom or slavery; life or death; joy or sorrow - I haven’t figured out how to see both-and instead of either-or. Even that last sentence ironically illustrates itself…]
There is a ray of hope though. I can see two messages in all of this:
This contrast reinforces yet again (as if any more should be needed) the degree to which I don’t fit in my role in the organisation for which I work; for the sake of my own health, I must find an alternative way of making a living.
The second lesson is more encouraging: taken out of the toxic environment in which I feel so stifled, and given a few breaths of clean, pure oxygen, life returns to the soul.
Last Wednesday, whilst still enjoying the holiday after-glow, I made the comment at counselling that whereas before I’d felt trapped in a box, now I felt bigger than the box, almost overflowing it. The immediacy of that feeling may have gone now, but an echo of it still remains, if I listen for it. Maybe that’s the key which unlocks the box, the means to break that inside-outside dichotomy. Overflowing is being both inside AND outside.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Seaside craft shops – or those in any tourist area, for that matter – are a rather mixed bag. Sometimes full of nothing but imported junk, sometimes with goods of moderate merit but no local connection, sometimes with local products that are in effect mass-produced – simple designs churned out by the score; pleasing enough perhaps, but nothing special.
Once in a while though, one stumbles on a treasure. I found one such this morning; the outward appearance was fairly typical - small, with an eclectic jumble of eye-catching trinkets in the window together with some locally produced work – but although cramped, the layout wasn’t crowded and the face behind the counter looked friendly and welcoming. A century ago, all of the shops in this narrow street would have been houses, and even as a house the rooms would have been small; as a shop, they were minute, several, and on multiple levels (probably as a result of internally linking two neighbouring houses); the archetypal Aladdin’s cave experience. Through the first room, through the second, down a step, past the narrow stairs, and up another step lay the furthermost room, and in the farthest corner of that farthest cave I spied something that caught my eye.
I couldn’t tell quite what it was at first; a rough, unfinished-looking sculpted shape, rather like a pile of curled up oak leaves gathered and glued together in a wild, almost savage shape. The head – or what I took to be a head - suggested wolfishness, although at first the form wasn’t obvious. At one level, what I saw in front of me was a wire frame to which had been applied thumbnail-sized dobs of clay, roughly formed, and minimalist colour applied. Once you looked past that apparently crude appearance, it was undeniably wolf-shaped, but equally undeniably it was a long way from a true physical likeness of a wolf; almost as far as you could get from such a likeness without losing it altogether.
Yet the more I looked, the more wolf it became. Not as a physical likeness, but almost a spiritual one. In her sculpture, the sculptress had presented pure essence of wolf – savage, powerful, cunning, single-minded. Just as fur is only the outer covering of the animal, so the clay’s irregular surface was just the outer appearance; somehow, the bone and muscle and sinew and spirit were there too, underneath.
The sculpture was hollow; a wire frame covered on top and side with clay but open beneath. Like trying to catch an invisible sprite by throwing paint over it, it was as though she’d caught the wolf’s spirit by moulding clay around it; primitive wolfishness made incarnate. She’d seen beyond fur and muscle and bone into the very soul of the wolf and given it form, bringing it into our world of sight and shape and touch.
If art can ever be said to have a purpose, perhaps this is it: the artist experiences something a little beyond the reach of our usual senses and finds a way to bring it into our awareness. And in that moment, our awareness expands.
Monday, August 15, 2005
Wednesday August 10 2005
Oh, to be able to see all of the time, and not only in those moments when sight seems like a new gift and every vision enthralls! To see with heart and mind and soul as well as with eyes. To see as Annie Dillard saw “the tree with lights in it”
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
But wouldn’t it be too distracting? How would eyes ever pay attention to the paid work of hands if they were forever distracted by the dance of light and shade, colour and shape? How would mind stay true to its allotted straight and narrow course when so many tantalising diversions present themselves, inviting exploration? How would soul remain aloof, detached, refraining from interference with the necessary tasks of hands and mind, restraining itself from leaping in recognition at meeting with a kindred spirit?
If we could see all the time, we’d find ourselves in a world surrounded by sources of delight – but we might neglect those necessary activities that support and sustain us in the longer term. Office meetings might be spent in earnest meaning-of-life dialogue or simply engaging with our colleagues true presence; car journeys would take three times as long – or even never reach their destination – I’d be forever pulling over to pay full attention to a view – evening sun across a field of stubble, paintbox yellow of oilseed rape against an inky black sky; city life would slow to a lazy snail’s crawl as travellers’ tales are shared. But mundane practical matters like avoiding driving into a ditch, or into the back of the car in front, dictate that we have to curb the distracting effects of these delights; we have to filter them, reduce the brightness of their colours, set our selves – that part of us that knows and recognises the true value and importance of such things – at a distance, in order that conventional apparent progress may be made in the matters of daily living.
The lessons that teach us how to create these filters begin early – who hasn’t been scolded for gazing out of the school classroom window, supposedly daydreaming? “He’s a dreamer” they say in despair – but shouldn’t dreaming be something to celebrate? Instead, we’re told “Pay attention”. But we were paying attention – real attention. Just not to the same matter as that demanded by the teacher. So we drag our attention away from delights and learn how important it is to pay attention only to those matters dictated by others, and cease to listen to our own voices, the voices of heart and soul.
Somewhere between childhood and maturity (whatever that is) two strands of development have unfolded. One: discovering delight, wonder, awe, amazement, thrill, stimulation in the world around – in diversity of life, of people, of form, of beauty; the other: a hidden, unacknowledged, counter-current which teaches that such responses to the world are trivial, unimportant – or of lesser importance than our grand affairs, childish – and childish becomes a derogatory term, although to be child-like in our appreciation is perhaps to be closer to manifesting our true selves that we’ll often get in our adult lives
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
And because this second, shadow strand is unacknowledged as a culturally imposed process of “development”, driven without question or choice, we believe the world-view encouraged by it to be true; we believe in this upside-down set of values we’ve learned; we believe that beauty, truth, innocence are all incidental to the ‘real life’ instead of being the very stuff of Life itself.
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
We’ve learned well how to mask, how to hide, how to distance ourselves from those deep, instinctive and above all natural responses. Life becomes so completely filled withal the mundane matters – which, to be fair, we had no choice but to take note of; matters such as setting up home, bringing up a family, establishing a foothold in the world – that instinctive appreciation never got much of a look-in, so that now, when the immediate pressures of living no longer occupy every waking moment, no longer take their place in the front line of the forces opposing is on our daily battles of existence; now, when finally I want to wake up again to those moments of innocence, it can take a deliberate effort.
But thankfully, it’s not impossible. Sometimes the sheer splendour of the world shouts so joyously it can’t be ignored. Other times, that splendour is more coy, shrinking itself to hide under a stone, waiting for me to turn it over; it disguises itself, say in a wave breaking on the shore, the sound of wind in the treetops, sunlight on water, shadows cast by the moon. On those days, unless I look deliberately and hard, I’ll like as not miss it. But the splendour is there all the same, whether I see it or not.
O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
Becoming attuned to splendour, to natural energy – almost, it feels, to the boundless joy of the universe – may turn out to be the same thing as being fully present, being fully aware, living now. Paying full attention with all the senses, including those we don’t count as physical, the senses with which we appreciate the metaphysical – oh, I sense that if I could but do that I’d see the world ever exploding in a riot of wonder!
Perhaps that’s why we develop these shutters and filters, only allowing ourselves to see dimly how astonishingly alive, how spectacularly vibrant, how overflowing with abundance of things of wonder this world is. If we could really see all of that, we’d be dazzled, blinded, overwhelmed. We’d see God.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Sunday, August 14, 2005
Saturday 6 August 2005
Years ago, I saw a TV programme about a man who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His symptoms were quite bad – continual severe muscle tremors - and although he lived with his family he chose to look after himself as much as possible, getting up early to make his own breakfast so that the rest of his family didn’t have to watch him struggling and making a mess. It may sound a cop-out, but I guess both sides found it easier that way. In the course of making the TV programme, someone came up with the idea of him trying out swimming again and being filmed. Clearly, he’d swum before he had the disease, and equally clearly it would be risky – would you jump into a swimming pool knowing that you didn’t have full control of your limbs, that they have a mind of their own sometimes and you have less than a 50/50 chance of getting them to obey your commands?
Early one morning, before the pool was open to the public, he stood on the side, hesitated just a moment, and dived. Straight in, head first, into the deep end.
It seemed like a miracle: he swam a full length easily and with style, without a hint of a twitch or spasm. When he reached the far end, he was so desperate to tell the crew how wonderful it felt, the words came tumbling out of him, a huge smile across his face, talking nineteen to the dozen like a seven year old kid who’s just won a race at the school sports day.
He came out of the pool and dried off to talk to the camera, but was so excited he was determined to do it again, to repeat the thrill. Who can tell what it must have felt like, to be free of that monkey on his back? He dived again, but this time was different. The element of shock had gone, he knew what was coming and this time the sudden grip of the cold water failed to jolt his system sufficiently to force the Parkinson’s disease to release its grasp on his nervous system. He floundered and had to be rescued by a pair of lifeguards – not an easy task as by then the Parkinson’s symptoms had returned with a vengeance and his whole body was shaking in violent, uncontrolled jerks. Out of the pool, a look of utter dejection supplanted his previous euphoric excitement.
The Shock of the New: that was the title given to a TV series I also remember from that same era. The phrase was coined to describe responses to modern art, but seems equally apt to describe the way in which the sudden shock, the jolt to his system, had for a while freed his nervous system from the tyranny of the disease.
Something a little like that happened last night. There may have been no violent shock, but the utter novelty of coming away by ourselves together, just the two of us, for the first time in twenty five years, created a shock of a kind that eased the grip of the old way of being, the way tied to history and habit and old mental models and all manner of limiting beliefs, just enough to create an almost tangible sense of release. No shock as such, but the effect was similar: an immediate change on a sufficient number of fronts to create a fresh perspective; enough cords were cut to allow the possibility of movement in a way that previously seemed denied, even if the cords had been tied by my own hands.
Of course, whether I now choose to exercise that freedom and explore the space that in reality has always been open to me is entirely up to me.
Saturday, August 13, 2005
Day One - Friday 5th August 2005
Cat Stevens plays on the CD player as I cook dinner. For just the two of us; the first time for twenty-five years that we’ve been away on holiday together without any of our children; not even an occasional weekend away in those intervening years. The apartment in which we’re staying is on the top floor: light, airy and spacious, and I feel a lightness entirely in keeping with the elevation. The music’s rhythms, at once gentle and lively, want to flow through me; I might dance if I knew how, although that might not mix too well with dinner preparations. But the music takes my hands anyway; its life-force is too strong to be resisted so even the simplest of tasks – slicing vegetables, laying the table – share the flow of the music, and I sing quietly under my breath. Cat Stevens played to us some thirty years ago too, although he was on vinyl back then – strange how his voice has improved with the passing years.
Passing years – so full, so busy; how can we have lived so close all that time and still not really know each other? We know all the details that mark out the edges of each other’s lives – I could choose your clothes, or pick a menu, or a movie to see or music to hear and I’d be right most of the time. I know how you’ll react in almost any situation – and you, I – life can be so predictable it sometimes seems hardly worth the bother of playing out the details. Perhaps that’s where the sense of adventure, of excitement, went – with no uncertainty, no surprises, it went off to find pastures new.
In learning to predict the disagreements and conflicts, we also learned to avoid them. We only sidestep them though – they’ve not vanished, they’re still there, still real, we just choose to tread a path around them instead of trying to bulldoze a way through. Strange then that we haven’t taken the same trouble to learn to recognise how the good things come when they do; if we had, wouldn’t instinct now draw us towards them as surely as it steers us around the bad things? One of life’s enigmas…
We know the details so well, you and I. Yet after all this time, so much is still unknown -although had it formed sufficiently to be known twenty five years ago? A tiny seed perhaps; buried, barely germinated, then grown in secret in the intervening years - can it now be a gift, each to the other? A gift twenty five years in the making?
The weight of those years falls away; who’d have believed it? All those ties, those hands that clamour to drag down, shrugged off in a moment. Unencumbered now by the worries that have been gathered over the years, freedom beckons – to do and be whoever it is that lies within that circle bounded by all those details that mark only the periphery, the outer border of being,
And you? Can I help to lift a similar weight from your shoulders too? Can we both draw back the curtain and share what we have each become? The joys touched, the pain held, the times our souls have stood naked under the stars wondering, gazing, searching – and alone? Would we stand thus together, fingers shyly reaching out to meet and touch? And will we fall willingly together, without fear, into the pit, so deep the sky shrivels to a tiny dot lost above our heads? And rise together, each buoyed by the radiance of the other? And fall and rise again and again, however many times life asks it of us, with no weariness, only love?
A line has been drawn, in a way I had not thought possible. A possibility has become real - no mere fantasy. Can it be that I have at last understood that I am free? That when I go from here, whichever way, for better or for worse, is entirely my own choice and limited only by my own imagination?
It was, and remains, a hope. For a moment, a vision of the possible became real. Such visions rarely retain their clarity, but at least now I have its picture to remind me.
Friday, August 12, 2005
A few more can be found on Flickr; I may sort and upload some more tomorrow too.
It turned out a surprisingly productive break, as well as being a relatively lazy one. In addition to the photos, I have 36 journal pages to sift and sort: a little bit of R&R works wonders for the soul, not to mention the hand holding the pencil.
Thursday, August 04, 2005
I’d like to write a witty and light-hearted piece about all those frantic last-minute preparations and worries and lists that always seem to precede holidays. (Funny isn’t it how we start the winding down process by winding up?) Like to, but it wont happen. Leaving aside for the moment that I don’t do witty and light-hearted very well when it comes to writing, all those frantic last-minute preparations and worries and lists jostle far too insistently for attention, filling up every last nook and cranny in an already over-full head.
Oh, I nearly forgot to say. The reason for all this rushing around? We’re off tomorrow for a short break, a week on the Norfolk coast. No plans other than to take it easy – maybe a boat trip to see the seals off Blakeney Point, that kind of thing. A week to slow down, unwind and become conscious again. Or one with Consciousness, you might say.
Of course, I’ll be taking reading matter with me: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; The Artist’s Way by Julia Campbell, started once, then put aside - I plan to act on it this time; a print-out of fellow-blogger David St Lawrence’s downloadable Danger Quicksand: Have a Nice Day (subtitled An Unconventional Guide to Surviving Corporate Employment); Thesiger’s My Life and Travels.
And of course the camera will be coming along too. Maybe I’ll be up early enough for sunrises across the North Sea? Or maybe not.
See you in a week then; look after the place while I’m not here, wont you?
Tuesday, August 02, 2005
But right now, I’m viewing this office as though through the wrong of a telescope; it may be physically close, but all of a sudden it feels distant. The centre has shifted.
Its lunch time and I was just checking in – as you do - on the blogs, and the comments and the sitemeter stats. There in the referrer log was a URL that looked out of the ordinary and worth following up: the Washington Post and an article titled Blogging Through the Ages. And there, half way down, was a very familiar name and URL…
That’s the remarkable thing about blogging – like wormholes in space-time or quantum-mechanical tunnelling, connections spring up apparently from nowhere, defying old-world concepts of proximity.
I’m gobsmacked. Completely and utterly. Thanks, Jen.