Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Song of the Land 

It happens most often in summer. Not that it really happens often at all; often-ness is relative in this case – a rare occurrence is just slightly less rare in a season of warmth and sunlight and siesta-like laziness brought on by the proximity of holidays.

Perhaps it’s warmth as much as anything that’s responsible; bundled in winter’s layers, we’re isolated as well as insulated. But with the freedom of summer, when chill winds and wet soil are but a distant memory, (yes, such times do exist, even sometimes in the UK!), when I might lay bare-armed and bare-legged on the earth, gazing idly at the sunlight filtering through a leafy canopy above, so still I'm putting down roots into the earth beneath; when, once in a while, the everyday clamour which batters the senses is allowed to become still, another, rarely used sense comes into play. I barely want to breath lest the sound of my breathing, raucous and grating by comparison, drowns out the soundless song that needs only an unsuspecting listener for its harmonies to ring:

The song of the land.

Listen for it, and like as not it wont be heard. Go searching, and it'll evade the senses. But just once in a while, a kind of peripheral sixth sense, akin to peripheral vision, catches a hint of something not quite sensed, like a light that has to bend round a corner to be seen.You daren't look straight at it, for it isn't there to be seen. But look askance - hear askance if that makes any kind of sense at all - and in a moment whilst time stops, the song can be heard, resonating gently through all creation.

What brings such thoughts to mind on a cold, windy, overcast day in March, a day when my head is filled to overflowing with thoughts a universe apart from summer and whimsy?

Once again, it was the words of Annie Dillard, as I sat on the train, wedged should-to-shoulder between my silent unknown travelling companions. I guessed dimly the gist of what she was trying to say, but I didn’t experience it, not at first; this time, her words didn’t generate any immediate surge of understanding. She felt the weight of what she called silence present over the land; I felt nothing at all.

But there was just one instant where her experience and mine reached towards each other, touched, and like a Disney cartoon where cold, grey, dead winter turns in a matter of seconds to a Technicolor spring filled with an abundance of life, her words breathed life into the experience whose effect I remembered, even if I haven’t been able to record it adequately.

Annie Dillard saw angels; I heard the song of the land.

[So much for the post below! How could I let a thought like this one, occurring unbidden out of nowhere, go unremarked, even in this half-expressed form?]

A fortnight to go… 

Much activity chez moi, but regrettably none of it with a blogging focus.

A busy spell at work builds to a crescendo of activity next week, which by an unfortunate set of postponements and delays coincides precisely with another am-dram show, this time involving 28 songs, some of which I don’t think the band will have played through before the dress rehearsal. I love being involved – why else would I have said yes with only a month’s notice? – but the combined pressures of days pulling a critical plan together and nights attempting to hone my limited bass playing skills leave little room for much reflection or creative thought.

Hang in there; in spite of appearances this last month, I’m not in the process of abandoning blogging – but for the next couple of weeks I’m likely to disappear temporarily from the virtual world, since the only hands I’ve got will be fully occupied juggling some very real balls which I dare not let drop.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


It may not have been quite this cold around here this last week, but it's certainly felt like it at times.

The photo was taken on the cliffs below Carnedd Dafydd, in Snowdonia, eight years ago. At this point we decided enough was enough; we weren't equipped for tackling this kind of terrain, and so reluctantly turned back.

It didn't matter though that we didn't reach a summit; simply being there was pleasure enough.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Doorways. I know they’re somewhere hereabouts; portals from this world to another, from this place of tangible things, visible happenings, to a parallel universe where those things are revealed as merely the intersection of a greater reality with our poor senses.

You can be walking, or running, or stumbling along whatever path your day should lead you down, minding your own business, getting on with whatever life happens to be bringing at that moment, when without warning you discover you’ve walked through a portal and find yourself in that parallel universe.

I stumbled against one such doorway today; in an unguarded moment, I leaned against the words of Annie Dillard and the unseen doorway unexpectedly yielded; I fell forward and found that the door had morphed into a liquid one-way mirror, and part of me had detached itself and was now in the parallel universe, watching the world from the other side.

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

[… ]

“I have a taste for solitude, and silence, and for what Plotinus called “the flight of the alone to the Alone…"

“You quit your house and country, quit your ship, and quit your companions in the tent, saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” The light on the far side of the blizzard lures you. You walk, and one day you enter the spread heart of silence, where lands dissolve and seas become vapour and ices sublime under unknown stars. This is the end of the Via Negativa, the lightless edge where the slopes of knowledge dwindle, and love for its own sake, lacking an object, begins.”

From an essay “An Expedition to the Pole” by Annie Dillard, in which the search for the Pole is a metaphor for other searches of the spirit. Published in “Teaching a Stone to Talk”.

It didn’t last, of course. Life, as they say, intervened. A voice called: “The next station is White City” and I drew back, and the liquid doorway rippled and grew hard once more.

Back in the hard-edged world of tangible reality, all I can see is that which can be appreciated by dull senses; only the visible, tactile shell of the world. Neither that which is within, nor that which is beyond – the “spread heart” - is available to those senses. Light bounces off that one-way mirror and reflects back unchanged - nothing leaks through from the other side. Two universes might coexist; I might even acknowledge that intellectually – indeed I dwelt on the other side of that mirror for many a day, but then one day woke up to find myself back on this side, with no portal to the other side of the mirror.

But on occasion, such as this morning, I find myself by chance on the other side of the mirror where I find the real real world; I look back and see myself and those around me acting out a life that bears more than a passing resemblance to The Truman Show.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

And now for something completely different… 

Take nine pairs of eight-year-old schoolchildren, the same number of K’nex construction sets, their teacher, and me…

I spent Thursday as the “professional engineer” running this challenge, at the school where my wife teaches. They were given a brief, and had to work in pairs to design and construct a model to fulfil that brief. I'm supposed to keep the brief secret, since schools take it turns to run the challenge using kits supplied by Young Engineers, and many have yet to take part. Unfortunately, that also prevents me going into too much detail here or showing any pictures.

The most striking thing that came out of it was the dramatic gender difference. The boys’ designs tended to be far more ambitious – often way-out and wildly impractical although also often very imaginative – whereas the girls adopted a much more methodical approach, with simpler designs that entirely fulfilled the brief without going over the top, and moreover they worked far more cooperatively together than the boys did. So it was that girls teams were the winners in both the morning and afternoon sessions.

I really dislike having to have winners in this kind of thing, but that’s that way the challenge, which is on a national scale, is organised. However much you pick out strengths in each of the designs, and stress they are all good, the children seem to have competitiveness so deeply embedded in their psyche that the most memorable thing they take away from it is the name of the winner.

This is an annual event, although the first time my wife’s school has taken part (it was her initiative that got us involved in the first place). It was a lot of fun and I’ll do it again next year, but I’m going to think really hard about how I present it to the children. The competitive element is far too strong and detracts from the wealth of learning that would be possible if only we could devote more time to thinking and talking, even if that means less time for building.

Anyhow, analysis aside, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day. It’s a long time since I’ve become engaged with children of that age – perhaps the most lively, inquisitive, enthusiastic age group of any – and some of their joy at being alive (they wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but that’s how it appeared to me) must have rubbed off on me.

Mind you, given the choice between the three Rs and half a day of what looked to be play, I know which one would have inspired a burst of joie-de-vivre in me at that age. Or at any age , come to that.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Job matters 

I didn’t get either of the jobs I was going for (same organisation, different roles). Mostly, I’m relieved.

So why did I apply? One was as Training and Development Manager; ten years ago, I’d have said this was just the way I wanted my career to go. But the commitment and energy needed for this particular role would have left nothing over to do the things I’ve discovered since that I really want to do – the writing, photography, music and more. I don't think I exaggerate if I say that the job would have been the final nail in the coffin for this blog. And all along, I knew there was one key element that I lacked, although I’m pretty sure I made a good job of hiding this; I just don’t have the fundamental belief and faith in the organisation’s ability to bridge the monumental gap between its aspirations and its capabilities. I hear a lot of MBA-speak (players of buzz-word bingo would have a field day here!) , but see no evidence of any deep understanding of the processes of organisational change. In any case, I never really wanted to manage Training & Development; I wanted to deliver it, to become involved with people’s learning at a personal level – however, total lack of any real experience there makes it difficult to find a way in. In spite of how this might sound, I don’t think I’m simply rationalising failure here; all in all, I think I may just have had a lucky escape.

The other was more disappointing. It was not so much a job as a promotion; something like a dozen people were appointed, so as it comes as rather a kick in the teeth to know that I wasn’t even an “also suitable”. Maybe my face didn’t fit; maybe there were lots of bright young things over-eager to display their talents; maybe I didn’t do a good enough job of disguising the fact that my enthusiasm was less than 100%.

I think the message is clear; the kind of fulfilment I seek is not to be found in working in a large corporation, even one that is dedicated to public service. (Duh! As if I didn’t already know that!) For the time being, I’m better off with a role that pays the bills yet leaves some energy left over to go looking elsewhere for what I seek.

I suppose I should take heart though, both from this and from previous applications, that I tend to be quite successful at getting shortlisted for interview for posts that are well off of the obvious track of an engineering career. So I must be doing a fair job of the written part of the application – that at least is encouraging.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Black & White 

A little late for Thursday Challenge...