Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Recipe for the New Year

Oh dear, this was going to be no more than a brief note, a simple message designed to wish you a very happy New Year.  Then, I stopped to ponder . . . and, yes, you can guess the consequences.

If you're busy after Christmas, and would rather have no more than the brief note, then please feel free to stop here.  But, if you'd like to share the journey . . .  and I'd love to have you . . .  you're very welcome to come.

Tell me, have you ever stopped to consider the word 'new?
It is, as I've discovered, nowhere near as simple and uncomplicated as you'd think.

To the modern world, 'new'  doesn't merely mean 'freshly arrived', it's also synonymous with 'improved'.  When we read 'New Recipe!' emblazoned on a dish in the supermarket, the words imply that the old version was lacklustre and flavourless.  This 'new recipe', on the other hand, offers all the mouthwatering appeal that the old one lacked.  True, this is a marketing ploy, but it wouldn't be so successful were we not conditioned to expect the multiple benefits implied by the word 'new'.

Which brings us to the fast-approaching New Year.  Seen in these terms, a new year is not merely a change in the date . . . the time for a new diary and a new calendar on the wall . . . it has far more excitement to offer.  The approaching year is introducing a new ingredient into our lives.  It is, so we hope, improving the recipe.

Wouldn't you agree that we need a new recipe?  Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days are as much as we can take in the dish labelled '2013'.   Weary in the middle of winter, burdened by the old year's accumulation of events, we need the concept of renewal . . . the offer of a new opportunity, the promise of a fresh chance.

So, what is a New Year?  Surely it's no more than a date, a label stuck at random on a revolving planet?   Maybe, but that label is critical to us.

Around the globe, as tradition dictates, the clocks will reach midnight in slow sequence. One after the other, the bells will ring out and the old year will pass into history.

What can we expect in 2014?

It would seem that there are two aspects to a New Year.  There's that over which we have no control . . . the slings and arrows, and the unexpected blessings.  Then there's the 'new and improved recipe'  . . .  our contribution to the menu.

The ingredients for that recipe are the same powerful mixture that has dominated man's actions down the centuries . . . but, as always, it's up to us which ones we'll select for the year ahead.
Might I suggest a nutritious blend of 'love', 'trust' and 'collaboration' . . .  mixed with 'care' and liberally seasoned with 'gratitude'?

Whatever awaits . . .  may it prove a happy and truly nourishing New Year for all of us.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Remember Me?

Do you remember me?  I've never known
A chance acquaintance with the clarity
That I knew you.  Eyes met in unity;
I read your mind, in truth it was my own,
And gathered not from words but from your tone
Of voice that you enjoyed this harmony
Of total understanding.  Eagerly,
As children do, we shared all we had grown
To know and love - yet rarely could explain -
Until the moment of our parting came.
We buttoned up our coats to leave the train
And knew that it could never be the same
Were we so foolish as to meet again.
It's strange to think I never knew your name.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hats off to Christmas!

Would we have heard about the nativity play in Neath had it not been for the saga of the hard hat?  I doubt it.  But that hard hat carried the story into the headlines.

In case it didn't reach you, this Welsh nativity play was due to feature Mary, accompanied by Joseph, riding on a donkey through the streets of Neath.  A simple and straightforward dramatisation of the Christmas story . . . or so one would have thought.

But, no!  It appears that, according to the small print in the insurance specifications, in order to travel by donkey through the streets of Neath, Mary needed to be wearing a hard hat . . . no hard hat, no arrival at the inn, no baby in the manger, no Christmas!

Surprisingly enough, it would seem that the majority of our Christmas celebrations have passed below the radar of the Dept. of Health and Safety.
Perhaps this is just as well.  Were they to notice what's truly going on, surely they'd consider Christmas a potential disaster zone?

For a start, Santa greeting all those children in his grotto . . . there's no doubt that, under any vigilant Health and Safety regulations, he'd need to be clean-shaven.  Just think how many lethal germs could be lurking in those luxuriant whiskers.

Then there's the ubiquitous Christmas tree, carelessly festooned with dangerous fairy-lights and scattering unsanitary pine needles on the carpet . . .  all of the trees would need to be stripped and banished to the nearest timber yard.

As for the hazardous candles that crop up everywhere over the festive season . . . heaven knows what conflagrations they could cause if not banned during the celebrations.

Finally, what about potential dangers on the Christmas table itself . . . what about crackers?
The explosives are too feeble to cause any anxiety, but the jokes would definitely need to be removed.  Can't you imagine the consequences if someone read a joke whilst simultaneously eating his nuts at the end of the Christmas meal?  There could well be an outburst of choking and spluttering . . . maybe even the need to dial 999 . . . no, definitely no jokes.

Yet, when we stop to think about it, Christmas is all about celebrating a birth . . . and what could be more dangerous, less protected, than birth itself?  The baby has no hard hat to shield it on its daunting journey from the womb to the outside world.  The mother has no contract guaranteeing a pain-free delivery.

The process of birth is hazardous, painful and uncertain.
To conceive and give birth to anything, be it a project or a baby, is to take a step into the unknown . . . to voluntarily move away from the familiar and the comfortable and to place your trust in an unexperienced and possibly harmful process.  You are willingly laying yourself open to limitless potential, but with no guarantee of safety.

It's nearly decision time, which shall we trust . . . the unprotected, unlimited promise of Christmas or a hard hat?
Give me that unlimited promise any day!

Which reminds me . . .  was this the genuine article speeding past my bus window in the High Street yesterday morning?
He doesn't seem to be wearing a hard hat, so perhaps it was!

Monday, December 9, 2013

I hum, therefore I am

Have you heard of a project called 'Aberdeen Humming'?
I was intrigued when mention of it was made on the radio . . . this is what I discovered.

A few weeks ago, at the instigation of Suk-Jun Kim, a Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, the people of that city were encouraged to visit what was called a Humming Booth.  Working on the basis that humming is a private act, the booth was designed to urge those who came to offer their favourite hums . . . to invite others into their personal space.

I seems that the people of Aberdeen were happy to respond to this unusual invitation . . . if you'd like to, you can listen to the half-hour compilation tape.

All of which made me think . . . it's true, isn't it.  When we sing, we sing to others.  When we hum, we hum to ourselves.  Not only that, whereas song flows out of the mouth and away from the singer, humming penetrates deep inside and resonates with the body.

At this point I need to come clean and make an admission.
I am one of those irritating people who, albeit unconsciously, hum to themselves as they walk along . . . what you might call a compulsive hummer.

Not surprisingly, this increased my interest in the Aberdeen experiment.
What, I wondered, was so special about humming?

It turns out that humming is special, and it's special for many reasons.  Let me share some of them with you . . .  who knows, I may even encourage you to adopt my bad habit!

Firstly, did you know that humming slows down your breathing rate?  Apparently, we normally inhale and exhale about sixteen times a minute.  However, when we are humming this is reduced to less than six.  Humming also brings down the heart rate, and reduces both stress levels and blood pressure . . . changes which can only be beneficial.

Not only that, did you know that humming can promote healing?  As we've agreed, we can feel the internal vibration set up by humming.  What I didn't know was that our atoms, molecules, cells, glands and organs all have their own distinct vibrations which respond to sound.

My humming may sound a tuneless blur to others, but it would seem that what I'm doing is literally fine-tuning the cells of my body.  Or, as the writer J.R. Savage puts it,  "Being the conductor of our own health can be achieved with simple, peaceful humming."

I also discovered that those of us who hum are in very good company.  Mozart, for one, is known to have hummed as he composed in the knowledge that sound stimulates the brain.  On a more mundane level, exponents of high-speed reading recommend that the reader hums as he reads.  Humming, it appears, enables you to both achieve and maintain a high level of concentration . . . but it does make you wonder whether a gathering of high-speed readers mightn't be a rather noisy occasion!

So . . . let's review the remarkable benefits of humming.  It reduces stress . . . promotes health . . . increases creativity . . . and speeds brain activity.

Is there anything more?  Yes, there is, and my final discovery was possibly the most riveting of them all.

Did you know that The Earth itself is humming?

If you don't believe me, listen to the words of Mark Morford, an award-winning American columnist:

" . . . scientists now say the planet itself is generating a constant, deep thrum of noise.  No mere cacophony, but actually a kind of music, huge, swirling loops of sound, a song so strange you can't really fathom it, so low it can't be heard by human ears . . . countless notes of varying vibration creating all sorts of curious tonal phrases that bounce around the mountains and spin over the oceans and penetrate the tectonic plates and gurgle in the magma and careen off the clouds and smack into trees and bounce off your ribcage . . ."

Isn't that a wonderful mental picture?
Who knows, could it be that this sensed, if unheard, humming of The Earth, encourages our own music-making?  That this constant background music generates a need for us to join the planetary orchestra?

In participating we confirm our unity with the music of the spheres.
I hum, therefore I am.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Be-wondered and Bewildered

I'm a convert . . . I willingly admit it.  I'm a total convert to the power, beauty and vital necessity of mycelium, or, as it's better known, fungi.  And, as every convert is gripped with a compelling desire to convert others, may I share some fascinating facts with you?

"I see the mycelium," writes the mycologist, Paul Stamets, "as the Earth's natural internet."

It's a mind-blowing concept.
In my ignorance I'd thought of fungi only in relation to mushrooms, which I much enjoy, toadstools, which add to the beauty of the woodland floor, and the largely unseen fungi which carry out the necessary work of breaking down dead matter.  Little did I appreciate their complexity . . . or their essential role in our survival.

Although we have named our planet 'The Earth', we seem to give little thought to the earth itself.  How rarely do we stop to consider the soil beneath our hurrying feet.  Yet, with the exception of fungi, every living thing, in order to survive and flourish, extracts nourishment from the soil.  Plants draw out its goodness, animals graze on what it produces, we feed from it and exploit its concealed energy sources and minerals.  Without the soil, a source that we plunder so unthinkingly, life on the planet would not exist.

All of which brings us to the vital question:  what creates and sustains soil?
Yes, you've guessed . . . only the fungi perform this essential role, thereby producing a fertile environment for the creation of life.

Forget the Redwood, the Totara and the Cedar of Lebanon,  the largest organism on the planet is not a species of tree, but fungi.   Incredible as it may seem, a single field of fungi has been known to stretch out to one thousand, four hundred acres . . . a positive suburban town of underground organic growth.

But could it be that fungi has something else to tell us, something on a completely different level?

When we look at a hollow tree it's easy to make the mistake of thinking that it has lost its heart.  This, in fact, is the reverse of the truth.  A tree, as one might say, wears its heart on its sleeve.  The centre of a tree is no more than dead wood.  The 'heart' . . . the living, growing substance . . . is the layer nearest to the bark, the layer in closest contact with the outside world.  When fungi devour the centre of a tree and create a space, they are, at the same time, removing what is no longer needed and rendering the tree more flexible and supple.

A hollow tree, cleared of its dead interior, can withstand the storm that will topple its rigid neighbour.  A hollow tree, in addition to providing warmth and shelter to many woodland species, will also live considerably longer than those who remain intact.

Might it be wise were we to follow their example . . . to discard the dead elements of our past and move forward unencumbered by their rigidity and weight?

I thought of fungi the other day.  Investigating a rarely opened drawer in my bureau, I came across a package of letters tied up with string.  They were the letters I'd sent home from boarding school, letters cherished by my parents as proof of their daughter's enjoyment of her new life.  I won't say how many years they'd lain there forgotten in the drawer.

Had I opened even one of those envelopes and started to read, I wouldn't have been able to destroy them.  But they were 'dead wood', my parents were no longer here to value them, the letters represented the past . . . a happy period, but the past.

I thought of the fungi as, without undoing the string, I dropped the package into the re-cycling bag.  Am I a little more flexible without them . . .?   I hope so.

Perhaps it's wildlife photographer, Louie Schwartzberg, who best sums up my feelings on the amazing world around and below us,

"I am lost in be-wonderment and bewilderment," he says, "at the complexity of nature."

Be-wondement and bewilderment . . . I completely agree.
Wo knows . . . a regular bowl of Mushroom Soul might help me to absorb the wisdom of the fungi!