Monday, December 29, 2014

Plato's Cave

It's a story that I'm sure you know,  but would you mind if we recall it in the lead-up to the New Year?

I'm thinking of 'Plato's Cave'.  The tale of the prisoners who were fooled by shadows.  The prisoners, chained to the cave wall, who truly believed that the flickering shadows cast on the walls in front of them were all that there was . . . that they were reality.

With their backs to the fire that was casting the shadows, and unable to see the people passing behind them, the captives had no idea as to what was creating the moving spectacle.  For them the world was one-dimensional . . .  insubstantial shadows were all that existed.

Do you remember how that the story continues?
It tells of a prisoner who broke free from his chains and rushed out into the sunlight?  Overjoyed by his discovery, he then returned to his fellow prisoners to try to explain, in the face of their incredulity and disbelief, the vibrant, three-dimensional world that awaited them outside.

It's a haunting story.
But what is Plato trying to tell us?  That we're lucky to be free?
No, surely he's suggesting that we are the prisoners . . . the self-incarcerated prisoners, captives mesmerised by shadows.

Wouldn't you agree that there's an over-riding sense of captivity at the present time . . .  we're all held captive by fear.  Be it fear of terrorism, of economics, of epidemics . . . fears specific, fears non-specific.  Fears which cast large and distorted reflections and affect us all.

We're held captive in a world reduced to intimidating shadows.
As for the chains that bind us, we've crafted them ourselves.  It isn't hard to recognise which ones bear our own personal hallmark.

I'm recalling Plato's story because it seems to hold particular significance at the start of a new cycle.

The year that's passing created many frenzied and distorted images.  Rather than carry them with us into the New Year, surely it's time to reject their power and leave the cave in search of the light?

But we're inclined to forget the all-important need for trust when stepping forward.  We look for excuses as we huddle together in the dark.
Is January, we wonder, the right time to make such a move?  The low winter sun produces a dazzling light, wouldn't it obscure the path ahead?

Then there's something else. Whilst we're attracted to the light, what it reveals can be disturbing and painful . . . there have been many such revelations in 2014.
Life may be grim and uncomfortable watching shadows, but it can offer the illusion of security.  We are seduced and beguiled by the false world we've created, we've grown attached to our chains.

In all this uncertainty, one fact is undeniable, we are more likely to step out of our cave if we do it together . . . more likely to accept the invitation of the beckoning sunlight if we move as a group rather than try to move forward on our own.  More likely to succeed if we discard past judgements and maintain the vital ingredients of love, gratitude and hope.

'Snowflakes,' wrote Vesta Kelly, 'are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together'.

I wonder what guise we'll choose as we enter the year ahead.
Will we choose to remain as isolated prisoners, ensnared by the shadows of the past?  Or will we be part of a sparkling blanket of snow, heading unfettered into the promise of the future . . . ?

Let's compare notes in a year's time and see if we made it!

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Conscripted Angels

"An angel never wriggles, sulks or talks,"
The small boys' harassed teacher told her class;
Then marked out on the floor with coloured chalks
Where each of them should stand. "Nor does he pass
His hamster round," she added testily.
The kings and shepherds waited, smug and proud;
How each rebellious angel yearned to be
A king, or at the least to have a cloud
To sit upon. The shepherds had their sheep;
The kings had cardboard crowns and gifts to bring;
And even Joseph had his wife to keep
Him occupied and stop him fidgeting.
That angels never moved or spoke, they knew;
But what, they puzzled, did real angels do?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Cotton Ceiling

Tell me, which would you rather have, cotton or marble?
Give me cotton any day . . . particularly when you're near the top of an ageing Victorian building.
But let me explain . . .

Do you remember me telling you that the penthouse above my flat had been transformed, what had been a family home was now an investment?  It had been purchased by a sheikh from the Middle East. Bullet-proof doors had been installed and heavy marble laid on the Victorian floors . . . the sheikh, so I was given to understand, intended to pay short and infrequent visits to his new investment

Saddened by the change, I anticipated seeing very little of this new neighbour.

Then, at the start of last month I was disturbed by the sound of footsteps on my ceiling . . . my neighbour, I realised, had arrived for his first, short visit.
I'd never been disturbed by overhead neighbours before . . . marble, it seemed, was noisy as well as heavy.

But far worse was to follow.  Shortly after the footsteps I was shocked to notice small bubbles of water which, having penetrated the edge of the hall ceiling, were rapidly patterning the wall.

Appalled at this turn of events, I rushed out of my front-door, up the stairs and hammered on the bullet-proof door.
There was no response.  I hammered again.
An Arab gentleman, whom I took to be the sheikh's valet, appeared in the doorway looking a little surprised.

"Water!" I told him indignantly, "It's coming through my ceiling!"
The valet inclined his head, "We will look into it," he said soothingly.
"I don't want it looked into," I protested, "Something needs to be done NOW!"
The valet, who had clearly had enough of this excitable Englishwoman, gave a polite nod and tried to close the door.  However, as my foot was firmly in the gap, this effort defeated him.

It occurred to me that, high on the list of every valet's Code of Conduct, must be the firm instruction: 'Never disturb your Master in the bath'!
But surely this was a time when rules needed to be broken?
"Now . . . please!" I pleaded.

The valet, torn between duty and a genuine desire to respond to my distress, finally made his way down the passage and, as I watched, knocked tentatively on the bathroom door.

Anxious to know if my mission had succeeded, I hurried back down the stairs.  To my relief, the water was no longer oozing out of the ceiling.

But any relief was to be short-lived.  What I hadn't realised was that the sheikh had installed no less than three bathrooms.
Deprived of bathroom number one, he had, it seemed, simply resorted to bathroom number two, where, once again, he had turned on the taps.
This time the water didn't merely trickle down the wall, it cascaded with joyous abandon from the centre of the hall ceiling.

Buckets, saucepans, dishes . . . every water-collectible vessel I had . . . was called into action to try to contain the incessant downpour.

Things had become serious.
The valet came . . .  the sheik's representative-on-all-things-structural came . . .  the plumbers came.
It was generally agreed that action, speedy action, needed to be taken.

But how could they get to the pipes and discover what was wrong?
Yes, you've guessed it.  Because of the weight of the marble they could no longer tackle the job from above . . . entry to the pipes had to be from underneath, up through my hall ceiling!

They would, the sheikh's representative assured me, repair all the damage.
In due course they would plaster and repaint the hall.  They would replace my sodden hall rug.
"You can't," I told them sadly, "my Grandmother made it."

Suitably sobered, they set to work.  It was hours later that they finally assured me that they'd discovered the cause of the trouble and put a temporary patch on my damaged ceiling.

But was the problem solved?  I was far from convinced.
Water trickling through the bathroom ceiling a few days later further fuelled my anxieties.  What if they plastered and painted the hall only for the leak to re-open?

From being blissfully unaware of the  intricate web of piping so close to my ceiling, I was now only too conscious of the powerful flow of water . . . water clean and water dirty . . .  that was circulating above my head.

It was then that inspiration struck.
"I know what we'll do . . . " I told the man in charge, "until we're certain that all the leaks have been traced, we'll have a cotton ceiling!"
He looked a little bemused, "I've never heard of a cotton ceiling?"
"Nor have I . . . but couldn't you fasten a cotton dust-sheet right across the ceiling?  It could stay up for a least a year.  Just think about it . . ."

And so it was that, with Chloe's enthusiastic assistance, a top-quality dust-sheet was screwed firmly into place.

The sheikh has now departed, he'll be gone for at least two months.  My flat has finally dried out.  But, as a permanent reminder of a traumatic episode, I've acquired a cotton ceiling.

Nonetheless, if I'm to be honest I must admit to being proud of  my idea . . . I like my cotton ceiling.
It's unusual . . . it's distinctive . . . and it effectively conceals all the damage.
If you find yourself in London, you're welcome to drop in and see if for yourself.

The moral of the story . . . ?
Well, surely it must be that you can't impose the weight of modern wealth on an old and fragile superstructure.

Do you understand why it is that I prefer cotton to marble?
After giving the new ceiling a thorough inspection, Chloe completely agrees!