Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Please keep in touch

"Do keep in touch," I said to a friend the other day. She had sold her flat and was about to leave London. Regretful that we'd no longer be neighbours, we agreed to keep in regular contact.
It was only afterwards that I found myself pondering on my choice of words.

I may well be wrong, but it seems to me as though the most powerful of our five senses is the one that we least appreciate and understand. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we take it for granted.

In a world of constantly changing images and sounds, it is impossible to overvalue the miracle of sight, the vital gift of hearing. Taste and smell are also much to the forefront of our daily lives. But what about touch? Whilst it's an integral part of our vocabulary, does it feature equally strongly in our thinking?
We ask our friends to 'keep in touch'. We say we are 'touched' by an event or some unexpected kindness We 'touch base' when getting down to business. But it would seem that whereas the need for touching is fully recognised by our unconsciousness, it is more or less ignored at the conscious level.

Sight and sound can communicate a great deal, but, surely, it is only when we touch, physically touch, that words and sight are rendered redundant?
Take hugging, the benefits are scientifically proven. People willingly join groups with complete strangers to enjoy a session of hugging. They come away happy, relaxed and at one with the world about them.
Give yourself a good, bear-hug and see how good it makes you feel.
Now place your hand on your heart and take a long, deep breath. Did you feel the heart expand in relaxed response?

This is a picture that, for me, epitomises the power of touch. Look at it for a moment.
Can you feel the magnetic and electrical field buzzing between the two hands as they reach out to each other?
The fingers may not yet have touched, but the force of energy linking them is tangible.

Now . . . look a this second picture. Do you experience, as I do, a genuine sense of pleasure and relief that the gap has been closed, that the two hands have made contact?

I was taking part in a workshop the other week. One of the exercises we were asked to do was to express gratitude for our hands, something I'd never seriously considered.
After a few moments, I picked up my note-book and found myself writing these words:

"Never before have I realised the extent to which hands are vital to my life.
I need them to write (as I am doing at this moment), to feed myself, to touch and make contact, to stroke, to explore, to manipulate, to hold tight, to lever, to clutch, to pacify, to wave, to smooth, to caress, to play an instrument, to take a photo, to wash myself . . . wonderful, wonderful hands."

Have I convinced you of the vital importance of our fifth sense?

Please, keep in touch . . .

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why birdsong?

I wonder, were you awake at four o'clock this morning?
It's a time when I'm usually asleep, but this morning something woke me . . . something very loud and persistent . . . a sound that seemed to be coming from directly outside the window. It took a few moments for me to rouse myself and recognise what it was that I was hearing.
Not the traffic that you'd expect to hear in Central London, not the drone of low-flying aircraft . . . in complete contrast, it was the dawn chorus, the soaring notes of birdsong.
To my bemused mind it was as though all the birds in London, augmented by an influx of vociferous relatives from the suburbs, had congregated in our communal garden to give of their best. I didn't make this recording, but it will give you some idea of the amazing sound I heard.

I'm sure there's a good, biological reason why birds sing so loudly in the dark of a January morning. I'm sure there's an equally good reason why they should be singing with such abandonment three hours before sunrise. But, in this instance, I'd rather remain ignorant, so please don't tell me.

Let's stay with the questions . . . does it take one bird to start the chorus? Is it the same bird each morning . . . the early riser? And the others, snoozing peacefully on their branches, are they reluctantly summoned from sleep to participate?
What is so remarkable is that every different variety co-operates in this morning burst of song. They may well be establishing territorial claims, I don't know, but the actual song is one of unrestrained, joyful co-operation.

Quite apart from the question as to why birds sing in the early morning, why do they sing at all? Other species don't need to make music to attract a mate, warn off a rival, or sound an alarm. And, whilst we're asking questions, why do cats purr? To the best of my knowledge, no other mammal makes such evident sounds of pleasure.
Finally, why do we laugh? In the terms of the evolution of the human species there is not the slightest need for laughter. Yet we've been blessed with this wonderful, infectious ability that deflates pomposity and enriches our lives.

The memory of this morning's dawn chorus is still with me. It didn't just brighten the four o'clock darkness, it brightened the day. In these darkened times, we need a song in the darkness . . . a positive note to offset the headlines in the morning paper. We need birdsong . . . and purring . . . and laughter. And, as with the birds in the garden this morning, it needs to be communal to be fully effective.

"First there was birdsong," so the saying goes, "then birds were created to sing."

We can't let them sing on their own.
Let's challenge the darkness and join them . . . !

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Tale of Two Candles

I think that the New Year could do with a heart-warming story, don't you?

Last Wednesday I had reason to visit Piccadilly. Whenever I find myself in Piccadilly I try to allow time to spend a few minutes sitting quietly in St.James's church.
Part of Wren's magnificent legacy to London, St. James's is far more than a beautiful building. In the words of its current statement of purpose, it is called, amongst other things:

* to create a space where people of any faith or none can question and discover the sacred in life through openness, struggle and laughter and prayer
* to a common commitment to be in solidarity with poor and marginalised people and to cherish creation.

If you wander in, as I did last Wednesday, you can be certain to encounter a wonderful cross-section of visitors. After settling myself in a pew at the back of the church, I looked around.
The middle-aged couple holding hands, what had drawn them to St. James's? Were they celebrating good news, or marking a wedding anniversary? As I watched, they crossed to the metal candle-stand, carefully lit two candles and, smiling happily at each other, placed a donation in the box as they made their way out of the door.

Several people were sitting quietly in the pews, some were curled up asleep. A tramp, with his meagre cluster of possessions beside him, rose to his feet as the couple departed. He, too, was drawn to the candle-stand. After facing the flickering lights for a few moments, he bent down, took two candles out of the box, lit them carefully, placed them in a prime position and then, after a moment of quiet reflection, returned to his pew.

I had an appointment, it was time for me to go. However, I needed to say 'thank you' before leaving. Rising, I crossed to the stand where eight candles were now burning brightly.
Candles are surprisingly powerful. How often in our daily life can we create a living light? How often can we leave a tangible, lasting memory of our departed presence in a place that we value?

But my intention was thwarted. The only candles were those already burning, the candle-box was empty. It was foolish, I told myself, to feel so disappointed. There was nothing to prevent me from leaving a donation without actually lighting a candle.

I was about to turn away when I realised that someone was standing at my shoulder. It was the tramp. Reaching forward, he removed the two candles he had placed in position only a few moments previously. He then blew them out and ran his grimy fingers down the wicks to quell the smoke. When this operation was complete, he carefully returned the two candles to the box. After giving me an engaging, conspiratorial grin, he made his way back to his pew.

The candles were still warm as I retrieved them. Carefully, I relit the wicks and returned the candles to their previous places on the stand. Was it my heightened imagination, or did they shine even more brightly on this second occasion?

I made my donation as I left . . . a totally inadequate recompense for the gift that St. James's had given me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Who's sleeping in my bed?

Tell me, do you sleep well on holidays?
I used to think that my holiday sleep was fitful . . . an unfamiliar bed . . . an unfamiliar room . . . an over-excited cat for company. Last week's experience has made me think again.

Chloe and I were having a short break in Surrey. A wonderful time during which Chloe, in addition to some serious tree-climbing, became completely addicted to the joys of hotel life.
But, after three days, it was time to respond to the needs of the New Year. Albeit reluctantly, we had to go home.

Was it Chloe who woke me that last morning? I'm not sure. But I came out of sleep a little befuddled. Although the curtains were thick and the room dark, a shaft of light between the curtains indicated morning. Where, I wondered sleepily, was Chloe?
Turning my head I could just make out a shape on the adjoining pillow. I was puzzled, it seemed too large for Chloe, too large and too pale . . . cautiously, I stretched out an enquiring hand.

My fingers met with a sizeable, material-covered frame. Thoroughly startled, I peered into the shadows at what appeared to be a large lampshade.
A lampshade? What had Chloe been up to . . . for surely no-one else had been in the bedroom during the night?
The only lamp in which I could recall her expressing any interest had been the one in the hotel lounge.

By now, I was waking up fast and, as I did so, I realised that it wasn't just the lampshade on the pillow, there was something else sharing the bed. Instead of Chloe's familiar body curled into mine, stretched out beside me I could feel a long and heavy intruder.

Again, I extended an apprehensive hand to investigate. This time my groping fingers encountered the cold surface of polished glass.
Memory flooded in. Hadn't there been a tall lamp on the bedside table? As though to endorse this conclusion, my new sleeping partner gave off a series of alarming sparks and a low fizz!

Hurriedly jumping out of bed, I crossed to the window and pulled back the curtains. Light flooded the room revealing all too clearly that, lying alongside where I'd been sleeping was a substantial, glass table-lamp, its detached lampshade positioned neatly on the pillow.

How one small cat had managed to 'fell' a large table lamp, far less move such a cumbersome trophy across the bed, was beyond my comprehension. Even more astonishing was how I'd continued to slumber peacefully during the noise and upheaval.

With the utmost care, I lifted the heavy lamp, re-positioned it on the beside table, and replaced the shade. Cautiously, I switched it on . . . and discovered to my relief that it was still working!

Chloe, who had been monitoring my activities from the safety of the window-sill, registered pleasure when the bedroom furnishings were back to normal.
"Time to go home!" I told her sternly.
Even if her gaze turned wistfully towards the Surrey countryside, she knew in her heart of hearts that this was no time to argue . . . all good things, she was fast learning, eventually came to an end!