Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Stardust to stardust . . .

May I share some thoughts about stardust? About stardust . . . and earthquakes . . . and trying to make sense of it all?

Perhaps the words stardust and earthquakes sit uneasily together in one sentence. Stardust has associations with magic and fantasy, it is an ingredient that adds sparkle to our lives.
As for earthquakes . . . ?
At the moment we're witnessing all too graphically the grief and misery that earthquakes are capable of inflicting. What's more, we're all sharing this grief and misery. It is global suffering that reaches out to touch everyone, even those who know nothing of the source.

But last night, still numbed by the intensity of the earth's potential for self-destruction, I watched Brian Cox's television series on the origins of the universe. Did you see it? There are times, and this was one of them, when I'm truly grateful that my education never included chemistry or physics. Now I have the thrill of coming upon an amazing story at a time when its scope, fascination, and incredible implications mean all the more for never having encountered it before. After spinning in space with the Global Coherence Initiative this was another mind-blowing lesson to absorb . . . whether I fully comprehend what I'm learning is quite another matter!

Let's start at the beginning.
I didn't know, did you, that we really are made of stardust? That it isn't just a fanciful expression. If I may, I'll attempt to give you a layman's version of an amazing story.

Over thirteen billion years ago . . . long before 'once upon a time' . . . all that there was in the universe, the newly-born universe, was formless potential. Then the element hydrogen fused into helium to form stars . . . brilliant stars shining alone in the impenetrable blackness. But these stars were subject to something that we know only too well, they were subject to time. One by one, the stars grew older. New stars arrived, but the existing ones aged.

However, unlike some of the human beings who were to come into existence way ahead in the future, the stars had no intention of fading away, they believed in going out with a dramatic bang. As the stars ran out of hydrogen and their end drew near, far from retiring into themselves, they grew steadily brighter and brighter. In a battle between energy pushing out and gravity pulling in, they burned ever more fiercely.

But time cannot be defeated. The final explosion was followed by a collapse and, in the process of collapsing, the stars produced components that had never existed before. In their fiery death throes they produced carbon and oxygen and all the ingredients of life. These, the vital building blocks for everything in the universe, including ourselves, were spewed out by dying stars.

Yes, I know, that is only half the story. It is only the physical component. What about the intelligence given to that mixture of carbon and oxygen . . . what about consciousness? This is where the story becomes mind-blowing, the divine intelligence, of which we are a part, used stardust to fashion an earthworm . . . a snowdrop . . . birdsong . . . not to mention a curious creature that walks on its hind-legs, finds words to express its ideas, and can, of itself, invent, amongst many other things, the computer that I'm working on.
Stardust with consciousness? That more or less sums us up.

Thinking along these lines doesn't diminish the shock, the grief, or the apprehension of the present moment . . . but it does give one a sense of the vastness of the picture. Somehow the words 'dust to dust, ashes to ashes' carry more poignancy and more relevance when seen in relation to our origins and our physical destination.

I wonder, I just wonder . . . could this be the source of the story of the Phoenix? Could it be that the fire of love and compassion, arising in the wake of a natural disaster, releases the Phoenix from the ashes and gives birth to the new?
Could it be that we need these ashes every so often? That a fierce explosion is beneficial, an explosion that breaks down old and rigid structures and eliminates out-dated ideas?
Could this be such a time . . . ?

It's just a thought . . .

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

May I kiss it?

Oh dear . . . attention-seeking creatures that they are, I'm afraid my cats are constantly weaving their way into our correspondence! But when I tell you that this story is about another venture into the world of Pet Therapy . . . well, I'm sure you won't mind.

You'll remember Rupert, my much-loved Burmese who died last year. Did I tell you that he made regular visits to the Special Needs Department of our local school?
Let me share something that happened after one of these visits. We were leaving the school when a small boy came walking towards us. As it's a secondary school he can't have been less than eleven, but he seemed very small for his age. Catching sight of Rupert, who was riding on my shoulder, the boy came to a halt. I waited to see if there was anything he wanted to say.

There followed what seemed a long silence, during which the boy stood gazing up at Rupert with rapt attention . . . finally, he spoke.
"May I kiss it?" he said.
I was startled. This was not what I'd expected!
"Of course," I replied, confident of Rupert's total reliability.
By crouching down I enabled the small boy to reach up and place a firm kiss carefully on the top of Rupert's head.
There was another long pause, during which Rupert and the boy studied each other. Then, with a faraway look in his eyes, and a smile of total satisfaction on his face, the small boy continued on his way into the school.

I'm telling you that story because, during the past few weeks, I've been wondering whether Chloe might be able to affect a similar transformation. She is very tolerant and children love her.
Her weekly visits to the nursing-home are a treat for us all . . . but could there, I wondered, be some way that we could extend her therapy to include children?

Looking through the addresses provided by Pets As Therapy, I found a care-home for mentally disturbed children less than a mile from where I live. An exchange of emails established that they would be happy for their children to meet Chloe, and a first meeting was arranged for last Monday.

It was during the days leading up to this encounter that my doubts began to creep in. Not only did they creep in, they established themselves, took root and flourished. Was I being unfair to Chloe? Could children with mental difficulties be relied upon not to scream? What if they wanted to pull her tail . . . or poke their fingers in her eyes? Was I about to subject her to an ordeal, rather than a pleasure? And, if everything went seriously wrong, how could such a hazardous encounter be of any possible benefit to the children?

My anxieties increased as the day drew near. Before leaving home, in order to reduce her energy level, I took Chloe for an energetic walk in the garden. We didn't have to stay with the children for long, I reassured myself. She could be whisked back to the car the moment there was any trouble. But, as I parked at the day-centre, my mood was definitely one of apprehension rather than happy anticipation.

The smiles on the faces of the welcoming care-staff raised my spirits a little. They didn't appear to harbour any misgivings . . . nor did Chloe.
Would I like to give a talk to the group, the supervisor enquired as we walked down the passage? I said that I would rather sit down in a quiet corner, and let the children approach as they wished.

The door ahead of us was opened . . . with Chloe in my arms and my heart in my mouth, I walked in.
Awaiting us was a room full of smiling, expectant small children . . . welcoming, happy children. The sense of loving care was palpable. Not only care, it was evident that this was a place of support and purpose and much kindness. No-one could have doubted that the children were happy. My last uncalled-for misgiving fled . . . and didn't return.

After introducing Chloe to each of the children in wheel-chairs, I settled us both on a sofa whilst the others clustered round excitedly. A forest of small hands reached out towards us.
"What's its name . . .?" they wanted to know.
I told them.
"Can we stroke her . . .?" they crowded in, their fingers eager, but very gentle. It seemed that the only danger posed to Chloe was one of asphyxiation, asphyxiation brought on by an overdose of love!
"Isn't she soft . . . !"
"How old is she . . . ?"
Beneath my restraining hands I could feel Chloe's tense body slowly relax.

There came an unexpected tug at my sleeve. Looking up, I saw a young girl standing close beside me.
"Please . . . " she said earnestly, "may I kiss her . . . ?"

Yes, I know . . . you're thinking what I'm thinking!
From his vantage point in cat heaven, surely Rupert was looking down with benign approval on Chloe, his worthy successor?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

R U there?

This is going to sound a very silly question, but, please bear with me. It's nowhere near as stupid as it sounds.

Have you ever looked at yourself in a mirror? Not a critical appraisal, to mark the onset of the first wrinkle or a depressing glimpse of another grey hair, but a real encounter . . . have you met the person behind your own eyes?

The reason for that question is something I heard the other day. We meet God, it was said, both in the eyes of other people, and in our own eyes when we look into the mirror.

Curious to put this statement to the test, I went into the bathroom and cautiously made eye contact with my reflection. It was a surprising experience . . . unsettling, vaguely intrusive and strangely disturbing. Absurdly, I felt a little shy of myself.
Was I really looking into the eyes of the divine source? Even more to the point, did I really want to look into the eyes of the divine source? Had I the courage? Wasn't I perfectly happy as I was? Might not too much closeness, too much revelation, take me somewhere I wasn't prepared to go? Well . . . not yet anyway.
Tomorrow, perhaps . . . but not today. Give me time, I told myself, backing away . . . let me think about it.

But it's not easy to wriggle out of such an encounter . . . and hard to deny what your own eyes are telling you. Held captive in the moment, I stayed where I was and let the questioning slowly die away. I also began to ponder on the wider implications of this experience . . . the fact that it isn't just the eyes that link us in this profound intimacy to the ground of our being, it's all of our senses.

Think about if for a moment. The touch of a hand, the loving tone of a voice, the warmth of an embrace . . . in their different ways, each one of these imparts a depth and subtlety of contact that takes the concept of communication to a completely different level.

I was struck by something else. What does 'communication' mean to us? We usually think of it in connection with words. But this form of contact, this contact from the heart, has nothing to do with words.
I use words a great deal . . . I love words. But, without the voice to give them interpretation, without the eyes to give them life, words can be sterile . . . or, even worse, ambiguous. You don't agree? Then look at the way that two actors, given the same play, the same words and the same plot, manage to create two distinctly different characters.

And let's go back to that exercise in the mirror. When we meet each other, face to face, words are often superfluous. Could it be that we are losing more than we realise in placing so much reliance not only on words, but, specifically on electronic communication?
How can a text message convey the underlying sub-text that is carried by the voice . . . or an email transport the infectious joy of laughter? Are we impoverished, even stultified, by our growing reliance on the latest scientific technique?

Wait a minute . . . forgive me if I pause to enjoy a quiet chuckle! Surely this letter is, in itself, proof of what I'm trying to say? Here I am, struggling with mere words to convey, by electronic means, something that is way beyond the power of words.

Nonetheless, as I can't look into your eyes to recognise our common source and render words redundant . . . well . . . I'm afraid that, for the moment, this is the best we can manage!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Growing Up

The day I could no longer walk with ease
Beneath the table, made it clear to me
That I was growing. Soon my parents' knees
Were way below my eye-line. I could see
Above the window-sill and out, far out,
Into a world where adults knew it all
And children yearned to grow and be about
Such fascinating business. To be tall
Held out a promise greater than mere size.
When I achieved full stature I would know
Those peaks of knowledge conquered by the wise -
All that remained for me to do was grow.
Yet wisdom gained shows wisdom still ahead;
Grown up, I find I'm growing down instead.