Gone, Leaves

Overnight they left, flown
like a flock of bright birds
leaving bare twigs
dark trunks
against the autumn sky.

Now pavements strewn
with drifts of leaves
copper, yellow and brown
and every colour inbetween
bring memories as crisp
as every step;
snowdrifts are fun, but
oh! I remember
falling
into piles of leaves,
laughing.

Add to Basket

We are receivers. Every day, every minute, we are collecting, whether we know it or not – images, sounds, stories. Ideas. And we react to these things, because it’s human to do so, and some make a deeper impression than others. 

Drawing of little red insect

But just because we’re picking things up all the time, it doesn’t mean we have to stow them all away and keep them – it is possible just to notice some things and then allow them to leave, even if at first this sounds improbable. It requires practice. 

I don’t have any difficulty knowing which things I should keep and which to let go – but negative things stick more readily and tenaciously than positive ones. It’s how we evolved. It’s said that you need the conscious awareness of five positive things to balance out one negative one, because the negative is so much more powerfully drawn to our attention.  

Drawing of coriander

I’ve started keeping an imaginary basket that I collect things in. I choose these things, and at the end of each day I can take them out one at a time and look at them again, and feel the same sensation I had when I first encountered them…. like the red and black flying beetle that landed on the garden wall, and stayed for a few moments in the sun before flying off before I could identify it. Or like the smell of coriander when I was chopping it at lunchtime. And the children I watched one afternoon running around in the playground after their karate class while older people walked their dogs, or just stood around in the sunshine. 

Sketches of karate kids and man with dog

These are the things I can draw. There are other things that can’t be sketched, like the wood-pigeon and the blackbird that I hear when I’m sleepily awake at 6.00 am, and the taste of the melted dark chocolate sauce I made yesterday with brandy mixed in it to pour on vanilla ice cream. 

These are just a few of the things in my basket, and writing this I’ve tasted them all over again – but I realise what may be even more important is that now I’ve shared them as well. Good things are meant for sharing. 

The idea of a basket of collected memories is not my own. I wish it were, but I first heard of it from my mother, who inherited it in turn from a dear friend of my sister, so it kind of runs in the family. 

In the UK, when you shop online and choose your purchases you collect them by clicking ‘add to basket’. In the US this would be ‘add to cart’ which to me always sounds mildly hilarious because it conjures up images of a chunky wooden wheeled horse-drawn sort of a thing. In supermarkets in England we use a trolley…….or a basket. 

Finding Time

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This is my grandfather’s pocket watch, which usually lies hidden at the back of a drawer along with other assorted things I’ve kept since I was a child. From time to time I think of it and remember where it is, and sometimes I’ll go and rummage about and find it, and hold it in my hand.

I’m glad I still have this thing that was once his. I used to have others – I remember a little wooden snuff box that still smelt tantalisingly of snuff – but no amount of thinking or rummaging in drawers will bring this back. It’s gone, and exists only in my memory.

I was still very young when my grandfather died and my memory of him is hazy and dim. But this watch, this small thing that he must have held often, and handled – it lies in my hand, smooth and round and surprisingly heavy, and I think of him. In another hundred years, or even in 50, what object that I use every day could find its way into another’s hand and be so full of delight? I can think of nothing at all.

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Weekly photo challenge: time

Pinto

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Drawing something imprints it on my mind.

Back in the summer a furry black and white cat was living wild in our neighbour’s back garden; clearly visible from our bedroom window she was there day and night, curled up in the long grass or sheltering under bushes. I started to feed her under the fence.

This was not an attempt to befriend her but simply to supply her basic needs until we could find a better solution. (We already care for another neighbour’s elderly cat who doesn’t much like other felines and who has decided she likes our all-day company better than an empty house.)

As autumn approached we got her a weather-proof kennel and thought our garden might provide better shelter, so I approached her with cat-treats and talked to her, softly. She didn’t move, but when I was within striking distance she put her ears back and gave me a powerful left hook, claws out, catching me on the fleshy part of my outstretched hand. Bruised and bleeding I retreated and we both left it at that for a few days to think things over.

Black and white, and wild – so we called her Pinto, like a feisty little mustang. But every morning before breakfast I practise tai chi in the garden, and before long she started to appear over the fence and join me, weaving herself round my legs, and waving and curling her tail in the shape of a question mark. We fed her outside the patio door and she took up residence in the kennel, peeping out of the door like a miniature guard in a sentry box – black fur as soft and bushy as a bearskin helmet.
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Finding a place for a stray cat in a rescue centre isn’t quick or easy. We tried to trace her owner without success and got her on a waiting list in two different centres, and meanwhile day by day she became more and more a part of our lives.
She must have thought so too because one morning she left us the gift of a freshly killed rat on the garden path. Still limp, its ruffled fur was slightly damp and I wondered at its long, strong tail and exquisite ears like tiny crumpled petals.
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Last week one of the rescue centres offered us a place. For the next few days we let her into the house in preparation for her new foster home and she was calm, collected and perfectly behaved. I started sketching her as often as I could because I knew saying goodbye was going to be like losing part of myself, and I wanted to make the most out of our connection and remember every part of her.

Pinto has enormous paws. They’re like boxing gloves and she uses them like that – though softly now, without claws. Her silky black back is smooth and soft and rounded, and crouched over a food bowl she looks like a tiny black bear. Stretched out on the sofa she’ll roll on her back with her front paws folded under her chin and reveal her perfectly white chest and tummy. Watching her I could feel my heart soften and melt…..

So I’d do yet another drawing. But being very black and very white and very furry makes her hard to draw. In the end her paws are the only part of her I really drew at all well.
Pinto indoors005

The drawings aren’t important themselves, though. They’ve done what they were supposed to do, and imprinted the memory of her more clearly in my mind.

Manic Multi-tasking

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It’s a strange contradiction, the way a photograph can freeze a moment in time in a profound sort of stillness that doesn’t exist in the moment itself.

There is a kind of mad addiction to multi-tasking that has taken hold of us nowadays, so that we feel we’re being under productive if we’re not doing two or three things at the same time; but it only ends up by diluting the experience of everything we do. So while bringing home my shopping and fumbling for my door keys I notice a woman trying to take her dog for a walk and hold a conversation on the phone and struggling to do both – and seeing it I grab my phone camera with one hand whilst almost dropping my keys and wondering if I’ll be quick enough to record the image of her, all the while thinking this is a split-second story if only I can capture it. At the very same moment I am aware of how doing several things at once is to do none of them really well, and musing on the fact that we now believe that multi-tasking is the preferred – no, the required way to carry out our daily activities, and this belief is stealing all the enjoyment out of doing things, and in fact making them disappear. Walking your dog without actually noticing you’re doing it will result in you having no memory of it. (The dog is, quite literally, out of the frame.) Memories are made of things we appreciate, celebrate and enjoy.

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The simple act of doing just one thing at a time and nothing else is becoming a lost art.

Split-Second Story

A Lost Art

Voices

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Years ago, long before mobile phones with digital voice recorders, I used to carry a dictaphone around with me, the kind that uses mini-cassettes. My awareness of the world is probably about 95% visual – looking and seeing is how I learn and think and understand – but when it comes to listening, I’ve always known that that voices are something special.

I’m fascinated by accents and dialects. Hearing English spoken in all its global and regional variations it never ceases to amaze me how different it can sound, and I love listening to languages of all kinds. I’ve been known to follow people in the street just to carry on listening to the strange and wonderful sound of their unintelligible conversation, and whenever I hear something unfamiliar I can’t resist trying it out, getting my mouth to form deliciously unexpected vowel sounds. (Consonants defeat me; the subtleties of Urdu seem to be beyond the capabilities of my tongue and hard palate, but given a chance I can make a convicing imitation of the vowel sounds of Ireland, Australia, South Africa and various parts of the United States and I speak Spanish with an accent that is unfortunately far too plausible so that people think I’m fluent when sadly I’m absolutely not. I can’t seem to help it – I’m like a parrot, compelled to imitate strange sounds as accurately as I can for the sheer fun of it.)

When I was learning Spanish twenty years ago I used to record myself reading from the newspaper or from children’s books, and listen critically to hear where I was going wrong. I still have these tapes and they are a vivid reminder of what I was doing at the time, but here and there amongst the stories and articles are other recordings that I made on the spur of the moment for different reasons entirely, and some of these have captured a moment in time with such clarity it feels like magic.

Going through these tapes the other day I found a fragment of conversation that took place in the house of an old friend who has since died. I don’t know what prompted me to start recording; we are all laughing so much that at times it’s hard to work out what’s going on but the voices are so clear, so real, that I’m suddenly and completely transported in time. Nobody knew I was recording, so everyone is talking naturally and hearing his voice with all his idiosyncrasies of expression, his accent (american, and his spanish uniquely awful even after half a lifetime in Spain), his interjection as he suddenly thinks of the word we’re all looking for and above all, his laughter – I’m instantly there again, in that moment, filled with the same sense of fun and happiness that we all shared that lunchtime in his kitchen.

Memories of friends who have died are always poignant but this feels like something more than memory, and it’s something that I will always treasure. What is it about a voice that can have this power? Does sound, like smell, reach deeper into memory and touch emotion the way no image can? Probably. No photograph could do this. Much as I’d like to think that some of the pictures I take might one day remind me of who I was with and exactly how it all felt, I know this isn’t true.

I need to do more listening.

 

Visitors

Some days I get more visitors than others. I’m not talking about the kind that knock on the door, or even those that fly in the window (yesterday a tortoiseshell butterfly) or make their way in through devious means (we are regularly visited by cats who take advantage of any opportunity, one of whom belongs to a neighbour but who long ago decided to take up permanent residence with us).

The visitors I am thinking of are those that arrive spontaneously and unbidden in my head, when I may be visited by anxiety, fear, despair, bewilderment, anger, dread and foreboding. I am happy to say that nowadays I find myself welcoming happier visitors such as delight, peace, calm, and joy on a regular basis, but this has not always been the case.

Our brains evolved to react with lightening speed to signs of danger and to register with careful attention signals of fear, anger and so on, as a survival mechanism. (Sabre-toothed tiger! Look out – run!) So much so, that feelings of pleasure, like (my, it feels good to sit here in the sun), – sensations that are important but of a less urgent nature in survival terms, are given less attention on the scale of what’s really important and tend not to register so memorably or with such powerful effect. They tend also to slip away, and don’t re-visit us as spontaneously or dramatically as the negative emotions do, which is why it’s important to redress the balance and give them more of the attention they deserve.

But I’ve also learnt to treat all these visitors for what they are – just that. They come, and they go. It’s no good trying to hang on to the nice ones any more than it’s helpful to stamp on the nasty ones. Far better to observe them; feel them –  there’s no point denying them whether you like them or not – but remember, they’re just passing through. As Rumi’s poem says, better to meet them at the door laughing. Besides, you never know what they’re trying to tell you….

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jelaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet, 1207-1273)

Little Black Notebook

For as long as I can remember I have kept notebooks. They have come in all shapes and sizes, with plain pages and ruled pages and pages printed with a grid of squares; some have been sketchbooks, some of them journals, some of them organisers full of things like lists of things to do and notes of telephone numbers and addresses and reminders of various kinds. Some are work records, with technical information and research and diagrams and plans and outlines for projects, some of which have even seen the light of day. All of them serve a different purpose and I can’t imagine life without them.

I’ve been looking back through some, a strange exercise a bit like time-travel. One contains notes from when I was learning Spanish, and I came across a list of words that I had trouble believing as they sounded unreasonable to my anglo-saxon ear. Izquierda (left). Cesped (lawn). Croquis (diagram). Sed (thirst). Murciélago (bat). Bat, for heaven’s sake! I had real trouble with that one, and I still have difficulty in using any of these words with conviction, feeling sure that they can’t mean what they do.

Amongst all of these notebooks, one is different – the latest in a long line of little black books that I’ve been keeping for many years – and this one has been going since 2007. It’s a pocket-sized vinyl-covered artist’s notebook with an elastic strap to keep it closed and prevent loose things from falling out, and it’s a mixture of all the other kinds of notebook combined, except that it has also been a collecting-point for my personal thoughts, ideas and even dreams  (those that seemed important to me at the time) as well as quotations from all over the place – anything that jumped out at me and seemed somehow to have ambushed me with sudden relevance and summed up all that I was struggling with or celebrating at that particular moment. I keep the little black notebook for things that really matter, however odd they may be (which is why it doesn’t fill up as quickly as other kinds) and so it’s something that means a lot to me. This latest one is a highly condensed, miniaturised record of all the important questions that I’ve asked, ideas I’ve discovered, things that I’ve learnt – and things that I haven’t – over the past five years.  It’s full of all kinds of things that I’ve written or drawn in order to untangle them and to understand them better, so it’s also something I return to as a storehouse and as a kind of road-map filled with signposts and suggestions for routes still not explored. It’s more valuable to me than all my other notebooks put together. If a fire broke out in the house I would flee with my husband, the cat, and this notebook, in that order.

It’s not good practice to cling to things. I don’t find it hard to let go of material possessions as a rule, but this is an exception – and I’m afraid it also has to do with hanging on to words. Words can sing to your soul and lift you out of the mud when you most need it, but nevertheless there is a point at which they must be left behind. Words can take you so far, and no further, and after that if you cling to them they’ll hold you back. We need words, but we also need Wordlessness, something Martha Beck talks a lot about in her new book Finding Your Way In A Wild New World. (Thanks to Diane MacKinnon, from a post in her Healing Choices Blog – I’ve only just got my hands on a copy of this book and I’m excited by it already.)

Mentioning Martha Beck brings me full circle because I find that the very first thing I wrote in this particular little black notebook, back in 2007, was a quotation from her book Expecting Adam. ‘….a sweetness that surpasses anything I ever felt…it comes from looking at the heart of things, from stopping to smell not only the roses but the bushes as well. It is a quality of attention to ordinary life that is so loving and intimate it is almost worship.’

Attention to ordinary life. It’s what I’ve been trying to do all these years and still try to do, every day – if I can, every moment. And when I can, wordlessly.

Holidays In The Mind

A holiday is not always a whole day, or several days, or a week. For a short while every day, we all need to find time to be on holiday just for an hour, or even for a few minutes.

Everyone has their own favourite way of putting everything aside for a while and letting go. Sometimes I don’t find it difficult to do, when life isn’t throwing too much at me all at once, so relaxing is only just a short step away from how I’m feeling most of the time – but at other times it can seem almost impossible.

The thing is, your body and your mind have to do this together, and one won’t work without the other. Sometimes it’s the body that makes it difficult, when you’re in pain, or tense and stiff with anxiety or exhaustion – and sometimes it’s the mind, which just can’t be stopped or even slowed down but goes on madly whirring round and round engaging itself with thoughts and problems that really don’t need to be addressed right at that particular moment, but which seem to assume a gigantic urgency and will not be ignored.

All the advice I’ve ever heard about relaxing and all my experience has taught me that the body has to be dealt with first, so when I can, I usually go for a walk – I drop what I’m doing, leave the house and set off  in whatever direction feels right. I’m lucky to live near a park that has a fairly wild uncultivated wood in it and also a wildflower garden, so I’m blessed with places to go where I’m surrounded by nature – and when I get there, just standing still doing absolutely nothing at all except breathe, and listen, and look, helps me to let everything drop away. I can stand there without doing anything, and simply enjoy being. It almost always works.

If I can’t settle in to being where I am, I watch animals. I like to watch dogs exploring the park because every second is spent in being completely absorbed in the place – the smells! Things to chase! Things to pick up and carry, like sticks! (And preferably the bigger the stick the better – why is this I wonder?) The only things that matter are the sights and sounds and everything immediate that’s going on. No time for brooding. So much to experience. And dogs can show us how to do this more or less anywhere; although a wood or a park is more exciting, even the dullest street is full of interest if you look at it from a dog’s point of view.

The thing is though, I can’t always get out of the house and go for a walk. Not when I need to or want to, that is. Sometimes I’m not well enough to do it, sometimes the weather is just too extreme (though I try not to let this stop me), and sometimes I have things to do at home that just cannot be put aside, and I have to find another way to take time out and give my body and my mind a holiday. So I think about how it feels to go for a walk. Or to lie in the sunshine, sunbathing with the cat (who will instantly make a bee-line for me as soon as I lie down, and climb on my chest). I think about the precise physical sensations of the sun on my face, and the breeze; the colour of the sky, the sound of the wind in the trees. And sometimes I’ll think of being in a particular place, a place that I can visualise so clearly that I can easily imagine that I’m there.

This copper beech tree is the place I visit in my mind more often than anywhere else. Partly because it’s very familiar as it’s no more than two minutes walk away, but mostly because I never enter its space without a feeling of awe and quiet excitement. The canopy is enormous and spreads down on all sides with the tips of the branches almost touching the ground, and in summer the space it encloses is a cool, dark, dappled pavilion that fills me with a sense of wonder more than any church or cathedral has ever done. As the branches move in the wind they brush against you, and looking up you can see and feel the whole tree gently moving, swaying like a huge wooden ship in full sail being rocked by the swell of some vast ocean.

Sometimes as I stand closely to a tree like this one I marvel at the way we take such things for granted. Just for one moment, I like to imagine how it would be to see and feel and listen to a living structure like this for the first time – as if such a thing had never, ever been seen before by anyone. I have always been very short-sighted and got my first pair of glasses when I was only six years old. I will never forget when I put them on for the first time and saw the huge oak tree in our neighbour’s garden as it came into focus; to my amazement I could see not just the trunk and the main branches but every twig – I remember saying ‘look! I can see every leaf!’

When I’ve seen and felt and experienced things of wonder I’m conscious that I will return to them and that they will be there for me as a storehouse of memory when I need them, when I can’t experience them directly. I don’t go out looking for things to collect in this way – that would defeat the whole purpose as the experience would be entirely different. I’m not trying to grab at things and collect them into some kind of an album. I try to go out with an open mind and with open eyes and with as few thoughts in my head as possible, and wait to see what happens………