How light is your heart?
21 May 2013
Posted at 18:02 Comments (0)
I’m reading Julian Barnes’ beautiful book Levels of Life, about hot air ballooning and the death of his wife. His link between the two is to do with height. He used the word both physically and metaphorically – rising effortlessly up in the air in a balloon, or crashing down into the depths when grief strikes.
I've been thinking about how we often use physical words to describe our emotions.
We do talk a lot about height when describing our moods, mainly whether we’re feeling up or feeling down. Sometimes we think visually, and talk about feeling bright or gloomy.
Another way of looking at our emotional lives is in terms of their weight. If life is treating us well and there is lots of fun and enjoyment around, we often describe ourselves as ‘light-hearted’. If things are not going so well, we’ve had bad news or are expecting something difficult to happen, then we may talk about doing something or approaching a situation ‘with a heavy heart’. We can be weighed down by the cares of the world. Hopefully, we can sometimes throw off our burdens or share them with other people.
The word depression contains elements of both height and weight. In physical terms it refers to a hollow, an area that is sunk below its surroundings. It also refers to a sense of pressure, of being compressed, constrained, pushed down.
For me, there is a very strong link between my emotional state and my sense of weight. This is nothing to do with my actual weight in kilograms, which could usually do with being a bit lower!
If life is difficult I feel heavy, tired, sluggish. I find it’s a big, big effort to drag myself around. I’m trudging through treacle.
But when everything is going well I really do feel lighter, not just in my heart but in my whole being. Sometimes I feel weightless, it’s as if I could take off and fly.
I love this sense of lightness. It is effortless, floating, breezy - like being in one of Julian Barnes’ hot air balloons, or floating on my back in the Mediterranean with the evening sun (another form of lightness) warming me. I experienced it yesterday evening in my tai chiclass, when my arms floated up and down without any effort at all from me.
Yes please. Unlike Milan Kundera, I don’t find it unbearable.
I can see there might be down-sides to lightness. It can suggest not being serious, superficial, unimportant, lacking gravity (another physical term!), as in “he’s a light-weight.”
But in emotional terms, I think lightness hard to beat.
How light is your heart today?
24 February 2013
Posted at 17:08 Comments (1)
I’m working my way through the whole of The Wire on a DVD box set. I know, I know, I’m ten years behind the times. But better late than never, and I’m loving it.
In Season Two, D’Angelo Barksdale is on a long prison sentence for drug dealing. In a reading group discussion he quotes Scott Fitzgerald’s famous statement ‘There are no second acts in American lives’. D’Angelo reckons this means we only get one chance at living our lives. Whatever role we find ourselves in is the role we are stuck with. We can try to change things, to break out and live differently, but we can’t do it. We are trapped. (You can find the scene on http://biblioklept.org/2012/08/13/dangelo-barksdale-breaks-down-the-great-gatsby-the-wire/)
There is certainly no second act for D’Angelo, who is killed a few days later. Nor for most of the characters in The Wire, whether drug dealers, trade unionists or police. Attempts to make big changes are invariably doomed to failure, death or disaster.
It’s like a classical Greek drama, where human beings are playthings at the mercy of capricious, unpredictable gods. We have the illusion of free will, but in reality our lives are predetermined, chosen for us and directed by forces beyond our control. So we’d better just accept our lot and make the best of a bad job.
Well no, actually. No way. Absolutely not.
Great TV, great drama, but I refuse to accept this pessimistic view of the world.
We are persons with the capacity to lead our own lives. We are not passive victims of fate or circumstance. We have choices. We can do things differently. Transformation is possible. Think Nelson Mandela.
Even if we’ve made a complete pig’s ear of our life up to this point, even if we’ve had a very rough deal until now, it is possible to turn things around. We can have second (and even third and fourth) acts.
Last week Helen (not her real name) came to see me in my surgery. It was the first time we’d met for more than ten years, as she’d move away from our area for a while. Back then she was dependent on alcohol and heroin, and had problems with hepatitis. She was heading rapidly downhill. But no longer. Helen’s off all that stuff now. She’s back in control of her life, caring for her teenage daughter and half way through a degree in sociology.
For lots of people retirement is a great time to start over. Second act, third age - it’s the same thing. Once earning our living is no longer necessary we have a chance to try something we’ve always wanted to do. We can reinvent ourselves.
I wonder what I’ll do next.
What do you think? Are we stuck with what we’ve got, or can we change things around? Have you had a second act? Or are you planning one?
26 January 2013
Posted at 19:10 Comments (3)
Where do you go when life gets too much for you?
When everything’s getting on top of us, when we just can’t take it all any more, we need to escape to somewhere safe. A refuge, a bolt-hole, an asylum, a shelter - a sanctuary.
In the Middle Ages a sanctuary was a place – often a church or monastery - where safety was guaranteed for people fleeing from arrest or prosecution. By the law of the medieval church, a fugitive from justice or a debtor was immune from arrest. If you’ve ever watched Derek Jacobi in Cadfael (or read Ellis Peters’ stories) you’ll know how that worked.
If you were seeking sanctuary in those days, getting your hand on the door knocker was enough. You were safe and your pursuers couldn’t touch you. Next time you’re in Durham, grab hold of the sanctuary knocker on the main door (complete with protective gargoyle to ward off evil spirits) and breath a huge sigh of relief.
We don’t always have to go to such extremes. It is good to have our own personal sanctuaries, for those times when we just need to get away from it all. You might find yours in the shed at the bottom of the garden, or on your allotment. Or jogging round the park, with your favourite tunes on your iPod. Or soaking in a hot bath with music and candles, and the bathroom door firmly locked.
When I was growing up in Dublin, family life was often stressful. To escape from all the hassle, I created a little library for myself in the outside toilet. I loved sitting there and reading. My brother Nick found a different refuge (usually from us older brothers wanting to beat him up!) in the branches of an old apple tree. Going through major life changes in my late 20s, the main place I felt safe was in my car, driving up and down the M6 between Manchester and Worcester.
Sadly, sanctuaries can become prisons. Lots of people use booze or drugs as a means of escape. They work for a while, giving that warm glow of comfort and forgetting. But too much for too long and they cause more problems than they solve.
If things are really, really bad – if you’re experiencing abuse or violence at home and don’t know how to get away from it - you may seek sanctuary inside your own head. You find ways to watch what’s happening to you as if you’re outside the situation. It’s safer and easier than experiencing the pain or terror directly. But you risk losing touch with the rest of the world. As a GP, a lot of people with problems like this find ten minutes of sanctuary in my consulting room.
How do you find sanctuary, when life gets too much for you?
A feather on your heart
28 November 2012
Posted at 07:13 Comments (1)
Here is a message from my friend Mary. She has given me permission to post it. It speaks powerfully to my recent posts. The wonderful image of the feather on your heart will live with me for ever.
I hope you and all your family are really well and warm as the winter bites...
I finally got to reading your ‘Day of the Dead’ blog – not a big mystery why it took me a while to ‘go there’, given the loss of my mother in August and the energy one needs to cope and grieve.
Reading about the different celebrations and festivals surrounding the dead, I was very suddenly taken back to the room in my mother’s house where we brought her, after the hospital, after the undertakers, after choosing a coffin and jewellery and her favourite dark pink jacket to wear in farewell. And the astonishment I felt that she looked so like herself, lying there, with that fine delicate skin and those hands that so often held us safe, shaped our worlds, hands that told stories with abandon and sketched love, dismay, anger and longing on the air around us. Astonishment that, in that room in her house, it seemed there was no veil between the living and dead, and yet there was. Astonishment that someone so utterly vibrant could actually die. It’s changed me.
I feel I want to fight harder for a life lived well and vibrantly, because it doesn’t just land on you, you have to choose it and leave other things or people or stuff aside. And perhaps sometimes it does just land, like a feather on your heart. My mother Carmel had an extraordinary ability to take joy in the smallest thing and then she’d tell you all about it, so you got to share in her sense of joy in a world that can surprise, that can waft a feather straight to your heart. Her life was not easy but her spirit was indomitable. She taught me so much, far more than I ever understood or recognised.
On the Day of the Dead here in Ireland, I watched five of Tomas’ great nieces (all of one family) dress up respectively as Snow White, a leopard, a ghost, a ‘scary guy’ and a little red devil. They brimmed with the excitement of becoming something completely different, an unknown quantity, a mystery. The cold air clung to them as they pranced out into the dark and along the very quiet street of their small village, crossing over into a different realm. Maybe then I saw my mother, transformed into something entirely different, a mystery. Finally, they turned for home, rosy with excitement, coming in from the dark. When they hugged us (and can they hug!) they became known again, solid little bodies in our arms, familiar, warm, ours. So my mother. A mystery, but familiar, ours.
Thank you for the blog, and the stories that connect completely unknown people...
15 November 2012
Posted at 13:35 Comments (1)
If you’ve been reading my posts for a while you’ll know than I love the music of Van Morrison. My favourite album of his is Astral Weeks, recorded in New York over two days in 1968 when he was just 23.
For me the best song on that album – probably my top song ever – is the second track, Beside You.
You can listen to it on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ke27QakSPxM
Here’s the bit that I love the most:
To never never never wonder why at all
To never never never wonder why it's gotta be
It has to be
And I'm beside you
It’s the refrain, it weaves amongst the rest of the lyrics, simply supported by flute and acoustic guitar.
The meaning behind Morrison’s songs isn’t always easy to work out, and he is notoriously reluctant to explain himself. So we are left to make our own best interpretations of what he is singing about.
I think Beside You is a celebration of the direct experience of unconditional love. It’s about loving being with someone just because you can. Because you’re there and they’re there, you’re together and it’s fine. No need for conversation or discussion, no questions asked, no demands made. No trouble, no fret or worry. Being in this particular moment, with someone you care about, and knowing that this is entirely, totally sufficient.
Being together, in ‘the silence easy’.
Which sets me thinking about my own Beside You moments.
I am fortunate to have so many people that I can be with, enjoyably, comfortably and without worry, that I am wonderfully spoilt for choice here.
Here are three recent moments that spring to my mind:
· On the couch in Mary’s house, with my most recent grand-daughter Florence snugglingly asleep on my left shoulder, watching my other four grandchildren playing on the floor and listening to Mary and Rachel discuss the imminent arrival of number six.
· On a sun-lounger by the swimming pool in the Gulf Hotel in Bahrain, sipping mint and lemonade, reading Rose Tremain’s Merivel, the afternoon sun warming my skin, Sue dozing peacefully beside me.
· In a park in Canberra, pushing my brother Steve along the path in his wheelchair, watching a game of touch rugby, feeling in complete harmony as we share a joke about the game and realising that - whatever happens and whenever it happens – I will always remember this moment with joy.
Go well on your merry way. I hope you have a rich store of Beside You moments, and I wish you many more of them.
Day of the Dead
30 October 2012
Posted at 13:53 Comments (6)
Forget Halloween, it’s just a commercial nonsense. What’s much more interesting is the day after, 1 November. We call it All Saints Day. In Mexico it’s known as the Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
If you think that sounds grim, macabre or spooky, you couldn’t be more wrong. The Day of the Dead is a massive communal celebration. Thousands of families visit their local cemeteries and have parties at the gravesides of their dead relatives and ancestors. They build little altars at home, and decorate them with photographs and loved ones’ favourite foods. It’s an event that goes back many hundreds of years, at least to the Aztec era.
The biggest and best Mexican celebrations are in Oaxaca. A couple of years ago Sue, Mike and I were there for the festivities. We had a ball! The city cathedral was surrounded by hundreds of huge sand sculptures. The main cemetery was transformed into a place of light, with music and dancing, eating and drinking - bubbling with energy and excitement. It was full of joy.
The nearest we get to this in our buttoned-up western culture is the Irish wake, when family and friends come together to celebrate the life of whoever has just died, often with their body present in the room. There’s plenty to eat and drink, and laughter, with some good stories told. But it’s different, it’s about just one person, and it only happens the one time.
Wouldn’t it be great to remember and celebrate our dead on a regular basis, and do it together? It would reaffirm our sense of who we are and where we belong, and remind us that we’re part of a big supportive community.
Of course we might want to pick and choose a bit about who we’re remembering - there may be some people we are glad to have got away from.
And since many of us move around a lot, we might have to work out the best place to do our celebrating.
For me it would probably be the churchyard in Corbridge, Northumberland, where my father’s buried, near where he and his parents lived for many years. We’d need some big braziers to provide us with heat and light, as it can get pretty cold up there. As well as the food and wine and singing (‘Blaydon Races’ would have to figure), we’d take a football and play a bit of 3-and-in.
Where would you hold your Day of the Dead?
And what would you do to celebrate?
It's OK to be Happy
27 August 2012
Posted at 16:42 Comments (4)
Our son Mike married Paula a couple of weeks ago. It was a wonderful day. The ceremony was on the bank of a river in remotest Northumberland. The sun shone (amazingly!), Paula was radiant, Tom remembered the rings, and we all knew we were part of something special.
There were three great speeches during the wedding feast. Lots of fun stuff, and a dollop of wisdom too.
Mike told us how he and Paula first met, in a pub in Newcastle. They talked about all sorts of things that day, he said, “but most importantly, about the thing that would come to define us ever since then. I can't remember why we were talking about it, but we both agreed that in life, it was OK just to be happy. You didn’t need to worry about lots of stuff, or feel guilty about being happy. Being happy was just OK."
This is such a great message, I’ve been thinking a lot about it ever since.
Life isn’t always fun, not by any means. It can be tough, unbearably so at times. It would be foolish to think that we can smile our way through everything that happens. Of course we can’t.
Fortunately for most of us, most of the time, things aren’t that bad. But we are very good at finding reasons not to enjoy life when we can.
Here are four bad reasons not to be happy, and some answers to them.
1. I have no right to be happy. There is so much suffering in the world, if I’m happy that means I am not taking all that suffering seriously. It means that I don’t feel enough for other people. I’m being selfish.
a. How does your being miserable help relieve other people’s suffering? If you’re happy you’re probably also more creative and energetic, so more able to help where you can.
2. Only stupid people are happy – they just don’t realise how complicated the world is, how easily things can go wrong, or how meaningless the universe is.
a. I used to believe this one, I’m sorry to say. It’s patronising rubbish. Happiness does not derive from our understanding of the world, but from our reaction to that understanding. Go gather some more rosebuds.
3. I haven’t time to be happy. I am too busy doing stuff, sorting out my life and all the things I have to do, to stop and enjoy it all.
a. You can enjoy the busy-ness. Getting immersed in things, to the point where you stop worrying about how you are feeling, can be a profound source of happiness.
4. If I’m happy, it means I’m not trying hard enough. Life is all about achievement, success, making the world a better place. Allowing myself to be happy means I think I’ve done enough, and that can never be true – there is always more to be done.
a. Another one of my own mental torments, coming from my protestant work ethic background. And maybe one I haven’t fully disposed of yet. Time to re-read my post ‘The best is yet to be’!
Desiderata, that famous poem that was on walls of many student homes back in the day, ends with the command: ‘Strive to be happy’. Sorry, but that sounds too much like hard work to me.
We don’t need to strive. We can simply allow ourselves to feel good. We can give ourselves permission to be happy.
24 June 2012
Posted at 22:28 Comments (1)
Life is precarious. It doesn’t matter how hard we work, or how carefully we plan, things will go wrong. A lot of the time we find ourselves surrounded by hassles and worries, or filled with boredom and tedium. Sometimes it’s much worse – a severe accident, a life-threatening illness, or the untimely death of someone we love. So when we have glimpses of happiness, it is good to cherish and celebrate them.
Robert Herrick, 17th century poet, urges us to make the most of the good times while we can:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
I’ve gathered a few fine rosebuds, this last week or so.
Last weekend was the big cycle ride from Carlisle to Liverpool (the reason for my two previous posts about cycling uphill). Getting over Shap summit despite driving rain and a strong head wind was wonderful. Cruising the nine miles downhill to Kendal was even better. Exhilaration, feeling alive –all that and more. Two rosebuds at least.
A bonus of distance cycling is that you can eat as much as you want, in fact you have to, to keep your energy up. So slap-up breakfasts, mid-morning stops for double ice-creams and hot chocolate. More rosebuds. Calories, who’s counting?
At the half way point, the entire family turned out to greet us. An evening with all my children and grandchildren, together in the same place. A whole heap of rosebuds there.
This week Sue and I’ve been in Ireland, taking part in a GP conference in Kilkenny. Before that we had a couple of days over in the west, including a drive to Spanish Point, on County Clare’s Atlantic coastline. Hard to believe it was midsummer’s day: wet, windy and cold. But it was beautiful, in a wild sort of way. We sat there for an hour or so, well wrapped up, eating apples and soda bread, watching four girls learning to surf, and listening to the waves breaking on the shore.
On the drive back the sun broke through the clouds, and I remembered Van Morrison’s wonderful song Coney Island. So, with apologies to Van, here’s my final rosebud:
I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes streaming through the window in the summer sunshine. And all the time coming from Spanish Point, I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time.”
Gathered any rosebuds yourself recently?
16 May 2012
Posted at 13:31 Comments (0)
In my last post I was wondering why I enjoy cycling uphill. Thank you for all your blog and Facebook thoughts about this – including all those kindly people concerned about my sanity!
I’ve been thinking more about it, not least after a recent ride in the wind and rain, when I ended up with numb feet, drenched right through to the skin – but feeling just great.
It’s not about achievement or performance, I’ve realised. It’s about feeling alive. Being fully in the moment. In touch with my body and with the world around me. Engaging all my senses.
It’s about immediate, direct, physical, sensuous reality. Undoubtable existence. It’s about now. Whatever happens later doesn’t matter.
Maybe this is special for me because it is so different from what I do when I’m working. Work in the university, or in the surgery, involves brain stuff - intellect and emotion – but very little in the way of physical stuff.
It resonates for me with Camus’s Sysiphus (who I posted about last year in Rolling Rocks), pushing his boulder up the mountain: ‘the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.’
When else do I feel alive, in such an immediate, heart filling way?
- Hill walking – perhaps not surprising as it’s a similar thing to cycling uphill. I have vivid and oddly enjoyable memories of climbing Snowdon with my friend Dave and (way back) getting stuck half way up Sca Fell Pike with my father, both in driving rain and howling gales.
- Wild swimming – for me (but not for Sue!) a delightful, sensuous experience. Skinny dipping before dawn in the Pacific at Zipolite in Mexico; and in a secluded lake in Nigel’s Welsh woodland. Did you see Alice Roberts’ wonderful documentary about it on BBC recently?
- Dancing to the late evening band at Campus
- Digging over the vegetable patch in our back garden, with a small child in a back carrier snuffling around my left ear.
- And of course, personal activities known only to Sue and me.
- Like our well-being recipes, what makes us feel alive will vary a lot from one person to the next.
Mary says being in the middle of her second pregnancy is doing it for her - she feels at one with herself, the baby inside her and the world around her.
What about you? When do you feel fully alive?
23 April 2012
Posted at 22:59 Comments (2)
I’m in training for a long weekend family cycle ride. After struggling along the Coast to Coast last year, I realised that I need to get to grips with cycling uphill. Distance is not a problem. Downhill is a doddle. But uphill is different – it hurts!
So on Sunday mornings these days, you’ll often find me puffing and panting my way up Parbold Hill, which is about 15 miles north of Liverpool. It’s a mile or so of 15% gradient, which is a serious climb in anyone’s books. It starts off steep enough. After a few corners, when you’ve reached the village church and convinced yourself you’re nearly at the top, you turn around another corner and – oh no, please no... but yes! – it gets even steeper.
he first time I tried it, I thought I was going to die. No, I tell a lie - I was sure I was going to die. My lungs were bursting, I was sweating (and swearing) and needed three or four stops before I finally made it, just about in one piece, to the top – where there is a great view across West Lancashire and Liverpool, assuming you have enough spare oxygen to keep your eyes working.
The next few times, I realised death was probably not an immediate threat. I could get to the top of the hill as long as I didn’t mind stopping a couple of times on the way. Two weeks ago I got to the top with just one stop. I found going as slow as possible was the best way: it takes less energy and means I can keep going a bit longer. Last Sunday, somehow, I made it all the way up with no stops at all.
But even when I realised I could get to the top in one piece, I was thinking to myself ‘Why on earth am I doing this? What is the point of choosing to put myself through so much pain and agony, when there is absolutely no need at all to do so?’ How does this square with my ‘Best is yet to be’ post, where I was writing about just being, and not needing to achieve so much any more? Why can’t I just be sitting at home watching cricket, or taking the dogs for a stroll?
Hmmmm. It is a bit confusing.
Why do we sometimes choose to do difficult things, when we really don’t have to?
Surely we have enough tough times in our lives without having to go and deliberately find ourselves some more. Am I trying (in vain!) to preserve my alpha-male status? Or maybe it’s just a way of keeping boredom at bay.
But I don’t think so. It seems to me there something important about setting ourselves challenges to keep us ticking over, to keep us feeling alive. And I guess there’s a balance to be struck between being and doing.
What do you think? Have you done tough things that you didn’t need to do? And if so, why did you do them?
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