Monday, December 28, 2015

By George (and Joanna), they did it!

I don't know about you, but I certainly feel in need of a new year.  The fast-moving days of 2015 have been more than enough.

It's been an anxious and exhausting year . . . internationally, politically and environmentally.
But, before the New Year arrives, don't you think we might be wise to take a pause?

This pause between Christmas and the New Year is valuable.
It's valuable in offering us a quiet moment in which to look around.

Time to look at the accumulated physical clutter.  Not just the Christmas cards and decorations, but all the out-dated paperwork,  the clothes we're unlikely to wear again, the household items we'll never use.

Time to consider the year-long build-up of apprehensions and anxieties that are cluttering up our minds.  To weigh up those tired, outworn plans that will surely never see fruition.

A moment, perhaps, in which to ask the pertinent question:  do we really need to take all that exhausted clobber into a new year?
A few items in our hand baggage perhaps.  But why choose to be burdened with such a very weighty suitcase?

There are, of course,  facets of the passing year that need to be kept and used as building-blocks for the future.
I'm sure you'd agree that we need to keep the resolution of the Climate Change conference, but not any subsequent back-sliding.
We need to keep the compassion spawned by the migrant crisis, not the subsequent waves of protective self-interest.
We need to preserve the sense of purpose and unity triggered by terrorism, whilst discarding the fear and hatred that can follow in its wake.

But, wait a moment.  Do these ideas of pausing and discarding seem a little spartan?
If so, take heart.
I've something comfortingly familiar to offer you.

It's friends that matter.  With so much uncertainty we need the company of familiar faces to escort us on our journey from the old year to the new.

Are you, I wonder, suffering a sense of withdrawal after the final episode of 'Downton Abbey'?

Thanks to time-travel and angelic intervention, George Clooney and Joanna Lumley have worked a seasonal magic spell . . . a comedy video in which you will be reunited with all your favourite characters.

So, as the year draws to a close, let's throw out all that unwanted clutter but, at the same time, pop the Crawley family safely in our hand baggage.

Should our world continue to prove stressful in 2016 remember that, if you need a smile and a touch of nostalgia, you can always click here.

Carson hasn't gone with the departing year.  On the contrary, he'll be waiting to serve you a restorative sherry at Downton Abbey!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Below the manhole covers . . .

Walking home the other day, I tripped . . . luckily, the shopping I was carrying cushioned my fall.
What had caused me to trip?
My heel had become stuck in a small opening in the pavement.  A manhole cover had been removed and someone had forgotten to replace it.

Not surprisingly, I now pay far more attention to the pavements I walk on, and what I've noticed has come as a considerable surprise.

Try it for yourself.  Look down as you walk through your neighbourhood.
You'll discover, as I did, that manhole covers are everywhere.
Small ones . . . large ones . . . holes covered in metal . . . holes covered in framed tarmac or concrete.

If you study them, you'll see that they allow access to gas pipes, to water pipes, to telephone cables, to electrical wiring, to sewers.  The ground beneath our feet isn't solid . . . on the contrary, it's an active workplace for all that's keeping the surface structure functioning.

This discovery spawned another discovery . . . the realisation of how little we appreciate all that's going on down below.
Unthinkingly, we switch on lights, turn on taps, and access the computer and the television.  When we pull out the plug in the bath, do we stop to consider where the dirty water is going?

Our tendency, it seems, is to place value and attention on the superstructure whilst taking the foundations for granted.  Yet the prized housing above ground would be no more than a useless shell if deprived of the vital utilities below.

These last few weeks have made it clear to all of us that there's something else we take for granted.  Below the manhole covers of our daily existence lie the essential components that underpin all life on this planet . . . namely air, water and sunshine.

Accepting the reality of climate change has forced us to peer cautiously beneath those manhole covers . . . and we've had a shock.

Did you know that, in 2004, nearly three hundred million people were effected by climate disasters, ninety-eight per cent of them in developing countries?
Or that, in the past thirty years, vast swathes of the African continent have been reduced from fertile farmland to arid dust?
Or that, according to Sergei Petrovskii, a professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Leicester, the warming oceans could seriously deplete the world's oxygen supply?

Did you realise that, as you read this, thousands of refugees are swarming northwards in Bangladesh, fleeing the rising sea levels engulfing their towns and villages?
Or, to come closer to home, that erratic rainfall in southern Europe is seriously impeding the UK's supply of citrus fruit and bananas.

The western media keeps such news firmly below the manhole covers, it was the opening of the Climate Change conference in Paris that enabled the facts to escape.

Click here to listen to the eloquence of Xiuhtezcatl, a fifteen-year-old delegate, when speaking of the global catastrophe that his generation is likely to inherit.

It's a week since the world's leaders gave their impassioned opening speeches in Paris, and much of the media have replaced the manhole covers on climate change.
Although the conference continues, you'd hardly know it.  We're more concerned with war and politics.

Is there anything we can do . . .  anything to ensure that we'll be walking the streets of the future?
Let's breathe in deeply, appreciating the oxygen available to us, and ponder that question.
Surely it's the one that really matters . . . ?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The gift of the mysterious

The days are getting shorter . . . the nights are getting colder . . . and, with the increase in darkness there's a corresponding increase in an underlying sense of anticipation.

Ever since the late Stone Age this has been a significant point of the year . . . a time of mystery, a time of wonder, a time of revelation.

It's little wonder that early Christian leaders interwove myth and prophecy to create a Christmas story in Midwinter.  But they also gave us the shadowy pathway that leads to Christmas . . . the mysterious weeks of Advent.

We live in a world that enjoys a mystery, it sees it as a challenge . . . something to be solved.  It's a world in which it's felt that all questions should be answerable, all conundrums understood.

But, by and large, we're not so fond of the mysterious.  We turn away from the strange and the unusual, all that defies an easy explanation.  We like certainties.

Nonetheless, if we think about it for a moment, even the word 'understand' implies a position of deference in relation to knowledge.  And isn't it true that, in our hearts, we all need the mysterious?

What is it that holds a blade of grass erect?
What resonates so clearly in the song of a bird?
What departs from the body at death?

The answer to each of those questions is 'life'.   We all know that.
But can you, or I, or anyone else explain what 'life' really is?
We know when it's gone . . . that's all.
But, as it says in the Talmud, 'Why ruin a perfectly good question with an answer?'

Christmas is approaching, the New Year will follow . . . and something new will be emerging from the darkness.  It's a time of birth, and all births are mysterious.

There could hardly be a time of greater uncertainty than we have at the moment . . . environmental uncertainty, international uncertainty, future uncertainty.   But mystery lies at the heart of uncertainty and mystery creates wonder.

As we wait in the shadows, mightn't it be wise to acknowledge the enriching power of the mysterious?

It's a quality that words can't fully convey.  Instead, I've something profoundly mysterious to offer you.

Click here for a moving prelude to whatever lies ahead.
And remember, no questions . . . just wonder . . .  and gratitude.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Below Stairs

At times it feels as though I'm trapped below
The slatted floor of heaven. Fleetingly,
I glimpse an angel's foot, or what might be
The shadow of a trailing wing, and know
There's something overhead. And yet, although
I'd love to join their distant company,
The dust and darkness of captivity
Enfeeble ears and eyes and overthrow
The will. Unaided, I can't penetrate
Their realm. But, neither can I comprehend
The puzzling clues which seem to indicate
That loving angels constantly descend
To join me in my cramped and dusty state,
And light the stairs that lead to journey's end.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Food for thought!

"Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But names will never hurt me."

It's a Victorian nursery-rhyme that you might still hear in a school playground.

But is it true?
Children might like to believe it, but recent scientific experiments have shown that it's a serious distortion of the truth.

We like to think that it's our actions that create change in the world around us . . . the doing, not the being.

But what if we turn that idea on its head?  What if we consider the possibility that it's primarily our thoughts and words that create change?  That it's not our actions, but our attitudes and emotions, that play the largest part in forming both ourselves and our environment.

You'd like proof?
This short video will give you plenty of food for thought . . . and will do so in more ways than one!

Click here . . . and be prepared to marvel . . .

Monday, October 26, 2015

In the beginning . . .

You'll receive very few words from me this week because I've something to share with you . . . it's a remarkable TED talk.

That statement is a little misleading.  It isn't a talk in the usual understanding of the word, instead it's a five-minute film accompanied by natural sounds and background music.
The only words you'll encounter will be those of wonder and appreciation that will flood into your mind as you watch.

The concept of a talk without words might seem a contradiction in terms, but wait until you witness the eloquence of wildlife in motion.

Several years ago I was fortunate to be part of a team of translators.  What was brought home to all of us was the act that translation isn't a matter of accurately substituting the words of one language with those of another, it's far more than that.

As we came to realise, the translator needs to go beyond the word to the thoughts and emotions that inspired it.  The word comes by way of response.
Aren't there times when a warm hug is capable of expressing far more than words could possibly manage?

But, in the beginning, as Genesis tells us, it was a word that was needed.
All the limitless, nameless potential of creation may have been poised vibrating at the starting-line, but it took a word (we might prefer to call it The Big Bang!) to set it in motion.

Click here to watch the  outcome . . . enjoy!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Happy New Year!

I felt thoroughly ashamed of myself this week . . .  ashamed of my ignorance.
But I don't think I was alone.  I wonder, did you know that we've just embarked on a New Year?

I'd invited a good friend to tea on Wednesday and, to my surprise, she arrived with a gift in the form of a box of small cakes.
It was a very kind thought, but, as I pointed out, I was the hostess, she'd no need to bring the food.

It was, she told me, New Year's Day . . .  these were special Islamic New Year cakes.  My friend is a Muslim.

The small cakes were stuffed with dates and proved absolutely delicious.

 Whilst drinking tea and wishing each other a very happy New Year,  we much enjoyed them.

But, as I say, I felt ashamed of my ignorance . . . and asked her to tell me more.

I learned that the Islamic world had just moved into the year 1437, and that a Public Holiday was being celebrated in many countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

However, there was much more to it than that.
Whereas the Christian year is governed by the movement of the Earth around the Sun, Islamic years, so she told me, follow the waxing and waning of the Moon.

The month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic Year, had started with the current New Moon.  Each of the eleven subsequent months will follow the same pattern.

As the waxing and waning of the Moon takes a few days less than the standard length of the Christian month, this means that the Islamic year slides slowly backwards through the seasons.
The New Year that has just taken place in the autumn will, in a few years' time, move backwards into the summer.

Last Wednesday's New Year will have been recognised by the majority of refugees flooding across Europe.

True, they won't be expecting celebrations or New Year cakes.  But wouldn't it be good if, at the very least, we recognised the pattern that shapes their lives, if we knew of their calendar?

The Sun and the Moon have a harmonic relationship in the heavens.  Would that their two calendars could follow a similar pattern here on Earth.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Story of Stuff

"My house," said the comedian on the radio, "is a little pile of stuff with a cover on it . . .".
His audience chuckled appreciatively, everyone knew exactly what he meant.

Stuff . . . it's what we each of us have in abundance.  Not only that, we're encouraged to have it . . . our purchases, so politicians tell us, boost the economy.

But do we need so much . . . do we need even half of it?
Let's look at the things we rarely use.
Ladders, for instance, they occupy space and could easily be put at the disposal of our neighbours.  And what about the lawn-mower and the wheel-barrow . . . couldn't they be shared?

Caught up with this idea, I went online in search of support.
To my considerable surprise I stumbled upon a quiet revolution.
Did you know about it?  I certainly didn't.

To give you an example, the 'Streetbank' website enables neighbours to share within their community.  According to this site, there are currently nearly fifty thousand neighbours sharing over fifty thousand things . . . everything from tools and instruments, to sofa beds and skills.  Their stated aim is to build a sense of community through lending . . . and it's free to join.
If your home as cluttered as mine?  Then go to 'Streetbank'.

And what of the stylish hat you bought for a friend's wedding?  Perfect for the occasion, elegant and much admired at the time.
Is it fated to spend the remainder of its days abandoned in a hat-box in the cupboard?
Not if you click on the 'Vinted' website which claims 'to make secondhand clothing the best and easiest choice'.  'Vinted' takes a fee when items are sold, but users can swap items for free.

It's a sensitive subject, I know, but dare I suggest that cars, too, could be considered stuff?
Just think about it for a moment.  The large majority of cars we see thronging our city streets have only one occupant . . . the driver.  Surely such a large and powerful object isn't really necessary to convey one person from point A to point B?

Not only that, cars en masse cause congestion, not to mention the room they occupy when parked by the kerb.

Share a car and just think of the personal saving in taxation, insurance and petrol.  A saving that would more than pay for hiring your own car should it be needed for holidays or weekends.

Additional benefits for all of us would be a dramatic reduction in the mounting problem of air pollution . . . and the speeding up of the remaining traffic.

Did you know that all of this can be made possible by clicking on 'Bla Bla Car'?  Or, if parking is your problem, that 'Parkatmyhouse' will help you to share an off-road parking space?

Stuff . . .  it's everywhere.  But is it limited to material possessions?
I don't think so.
Have you noticed how our heads are stuffed full of stuff . . . stuff that takes the form of habitual ideas.

One such idea, and a very pernicious one, is that we should each of us own everything we need.

But we live in a world of finite resources, surely it's better to share than to be profligate?

A sharing that will simultaneously care for the earth, lose superfluous stuff and help us to make friends?  It sounds good to me.

'Not mine, not yours .  . but ours'.
The perfect thought to stuff into our minds and clear out all that clutter!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Through the kitchen window . . .

May I tell you a story that features a friend of mine?  She shared it with me last week.
It's an incident that she'd watched unfolding through her kitchen window, and it's such a heart-warming story that I'm sure you won't mind hearing it second-hand.

My friend lives in London.  Her flat overlooks a busy pavement, a noisy road, and the entrance to an underground station.
Each morning, sitting by her kitchen window, she enjoys her breakfast whilst watching the world hurry past.

There are many people going by . . .  some of whom, over time, she's come to recognise.
There are the pupils, often late for school, who rush by the window clasping their homework.
There are the office workers waiting at the bus stop, looking for a bus to transport them to work.
And there are the cars that draw up by the pavement, disgorging passengers who then rush into the station to catch the next tube into town.

My friend had grown familiar with one such car which stopped briefly outside her flat each weekday morning.
From the passenger seat would emerge a young man.  Invariably, he would reach back inside the car for his briefcase, accept a lidded paper cup of coffee from the driver and then, clasping briefcase and coffee, dash into the melee at the station entrance.

However, last Friday, as my friend munched her toast, she was in for a surprise.

The accustomed car drew up . . . the passenger got out . . . but what was this?
Instead of reaching back inside the car for his briefcase or accepting the proffered coffee, he was fumbling with his jacket. Out of the pocket he drew what appeared to be a small box and . . . my friend peered forward in excitement, what was going on?

The young man had dropped to one knee on the pavement and . . . no, she thought, surely not!
Putting down her half-eaten slice of toast, my friend moved closer to the window . . . the young man was opening the box and removing a small object that gleamed in the morning sun.

My friend screwed up here eyes to look . . . was it a ring?
She had never seen the driver of the car, but the normal pattern of events was rapidly changing.
A young woman emerged from the driver's door and, clearly flushed, came to stand by the kneeling young man.

Yes, my friend decided, peering excitedly through the window, it was definitely a ring.
The young man held it out . . . the young woman looked down at  him . . .

At this critical juncture, a large bus drew up outside the flat and everything else was blocked from view.

When the bus had discharged its departing passengers, absorbed its new ones, and finally continued on its journey, the parked car had gone.
Of the young man there was nothing to be seen.
My poor friend, who had been wholly absorbed in the gripping story, was left wondering . . . had they?  Hadn't they . . . ?

On Monday, as she watched intently from her window, it was clear that the usual pattern of behaviour had reasserted itself.
But my friend is quite convinced of one thing.  As the driver's hand reached out to give the young man his coffee there was something new and sparkling on her fourth finger!

In an unsettled world, how good to share an indisputably happy story.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The View

"We'll take you up to see the view," they said.
And so we journeyed through the Autumn rain,
The children wishing they had played instead;
Their weary parents trying to explain,
With fraying patience, how they ought to show
Their aunt the countryside. Five people, set
Apart by irritation, huddled low
Within the car. We got out on the wet
Sweet grass a very fractious cavalcade;
'Til, over-awed by space, dissension died,
And clouded eyes awoke to see displayed
The patient glory of the countryside.
As mortals changed, we stood in silence there;
And five were one, and one was everywhere.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Something magical going on . . .

I can hardly wait to share this unexpected treat!
A good friend of mine in Ohio sent me a report from her local news-station.  The theme is dementia and, believe it or not, it's positively uplifting.

The fear of dementia would seem to haunt the future like a spectre.  We cannot avoid old age, but what does it hold in store?
According to recent records, the life-span of those living in the western world has increased by a decade over the past century.
But what does this extended life-span have to offer?
Without our memories  . . . without our dreams . . . who are we . . . ?

According to this report, which includes a moving video, if we're to be successful in combating dementia one of the answers lies with sound.  It's sound, not words, that's all-powerful.

This resonates with my own experience.  Each week I take my cat, Chloe, to visit patients at our local nursing home, one of whom suffers from severe dementia.

Chloe, who always rises to the occasion, greets each patient with a polite, "Miaow!".  It's deeply touching for me, and any staff on duty, to witness the dementia sufferer's reaction to this greeting.
Her eyes open and focus, a smile of pure delight spreads over her face, and a frail hand is lifted up in an effort to touch Chloe's fur.

It's the sound of the "Miaow!" that works the magic, not any words of mine.

You may well be more knowledgeable than me.  You may already know of the extraordinary power that sound, specifically music, holds in firing parts of the brain undamaged by dementia.
Whether or not you're familiar with the science, you cannot fail to be moved by the video in this report.

I would love to think that it will be circulated widely in care homes and nursing homes.  I would love to believe that, in consequence, musical instruments will be made available to those who, at the moment, do little more than spend their days gazing unseeingly at the unceasing flow of images on their television screens.

I would also like to hope that it might be shown in schools and colleges.  Nothing could demonstrate more powerfully the need for music in childhood . . . the need for children to experience the joy of making music for themselves.   Whilst schools urge their students to write, calculate and debate, the demands of an over-crowded time-table sometimes means that music is pushed to the side-lines.

Words can illustrate our individuality and ability, but they can also bring discord and division.
It's music that brings us together . . . and it's the music of our youth that stays with us throughout our lives.

Let me end by quoting the words of a participant in this video,  "I think," she says, "we've got something rather magical going on . . . "
It is magic . . . deeply moving magic.
Click here to experience the magic for yourself:

Monday, August 24, 2015

A dose of optimism . . .

Wouldn't you say that, in many ways, it's been a challenging week?
So many of the certainties of the past seem to have transformed into uncertainties in the present.

Exhausted migrants, fleeing war and deprivation, stream into Europe . . . fierce fires, destroying acres of forest, surge across California . . . China's currency is devalued causing a wave of international concern . . . Greece struggles to recover.

This is all true.  There's no doubt that it's true.
But it's also what the media has chosen to tell us . . .  which is usually bad news.  We're offered a dark and often distorted picture.

'What bleeds leads' would seem to be the maxim.
But whereas blood and trauma may well grab the headlines, those same headlines can also have the effect of bleeding us . . . bleeding us of vitality and hope.

Wouldn't you agree that we need a nourishing diet of news that's optimistic and positive?  Something to help us cope with the influx of disasters.

We need a clear light to  be shed on the picture . . . and it isn't as hard to find as some might think.
May I recommend a tonic which I take daily?
It's a dose of the international online newspaper, 'The Optimist Daily'.

Founded in 1995 to counter negativity in mainstream journalism, it now produces an inspirational daily bulletin from its twin headquarters in Rotterdam and San Francisco.
Click here if you feel the need for a boost of invigorating good news and common sense.

Did you know, for instance, that India has just unveiled the world's first airport to operate entirely on solar power?  Or that an organic farmer in California has found a way to produce more and better vegetables whilst using less water?  Or that Sri Lanka is thinking of floating giant balloons high above the clouds to obtain cheap, nation-wide internet access?

See what good news is being concealed in the shadows.

But it's not merely a question of being optimistic, and looking for the positive.
I sometimes think I'd be wise to follow Chloe's lead . . . to relish in the joys of the present moment.

Untroubled by human activity in the wider world, she concentrates on the offerings of her immediate vicinity.

After all,  what could be better for body and soul than a satisfying breakfast, an enjoyable walk . . . and the exciting rustle of mice in the ivy?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The things you look at change . . .

"When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."
So says Dr. Wayne Dyer . . . and his words linger in my mind.

Is it true?  Is it really true that our thoughts affect the world around us?

This is very much the concept of quantum physics, and I've just come across a deeply moving video which strongly bears this out.

The video features a talk given to a school assembly.  It was given by Nick Vujicic, a multi-talented Australian with two small children of his own.

In a moment I'll give you the link and you'll be able to witness for yourself not only the powerful talk, but also the profound change that takes place in the minds of those listening.  A change that's clearly visible on the students' attentive faces.

What they witnessed, listening to the talk, caused the way the students looked at things to change.  This, in turn, meant that, by the end of the talk, they were looking at something very different from what they'd seen at the start.

I'm sure you'd agree that, as a species, we don't change our attitudes easily.  We approach situations ready to form judgements that are based on previous impressions.
We are predisposed to look at life through the fixed lens of opinion and long-held beliefs.

There's the classic example of, "Does he take sugar?"
Unthinkingly we relegate an invalid in a wheelchair to a subordinate role.
The question, as to whether he or she takes sugar, is put to the person pushing the wheelchair, not to the occupant who's about to be offered the cup of tea.

But what if the person in the wheelchair is quick-witted and articulate?
What if the carer comes from overseas and has a limited grasp of English?
Suddenly, the way we look at things has changed.

Now . . . let's share a mind-changing experience.

Click here for that moving,  four-minute video . . . I promise you won't forget it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Silly Season?

Have you noticed how, almost imperceptibly, we've slipped into The Silly Season?

The roads are quieter in the morning . . . the school-run has stopped.
People are often hard to contact . . . they're away on holiday.  
There's no daily reporting from Parliament . . . it's in recess.
To compensate for this lack, sport rises to the occasion . . .  and the news is all about golf, tennis and cricket.

But I sometimes wonder if The Silly Season isn't an inaccurate name for a time with so much potential.
Wouldn't The Pregnant Pause be more appropriate?

Just think about it for a moment.
This period of mid-summer is a pause between the vibrant thrust of spring and the slow decline of autumn.  It's pregnant because it's about to deliver all the riches of autumn . . . the harvest, the fruits, the splendour of the autumnal colouring.

In academic terms, the school year, which started last September, is about to deliver its culminating exam results.  These seeds of success will be carried forward by the students and planted in the soil of the new school year.

But how does this period relate to the rest of us?
It's undoubtably a pause, but it's also a meaningful pause . . . a time in which past ideas, good and bad, are ripening and coming to fruition.

Have you noticed how we use the term 'field' to provide the setting for all forms of human activity . . . the field of science, the field of sport, the field of medicine?
It's as though we're unconsciously acknowledging that everything we do has its natural cycle, its seed-time and its harvest.

As summer draws to a close we reap the harvest of those good and bad ideas.  Surely it's no mere coincidence that both World Wars started during his critical eight-week period?  Not only that, atomic bombs were dropped on on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second week in August, and who could forget that the Twin Towers fell to the ground on September 11th.

In the next few weeks, as we sunbathe on the beach or watch the cricket, it's worth remembering that we're simultaneously conceiving the ideas that will form next season's seeds.
Will they be fertile seeds of peace and prosperity, seeds that will germinate and flourish in the fields of the future?

Who knows.  In the field of economics we could well be in for a surprise.  Prosperity, as we perceive it, could be changing.
May I strongly recommend a recent article by Paul Mason in 'The Guardian'.
Click here to discover how our current pregnant pause could give birth to the postcapitalist era.

A Silly Season .  . . ?
No, but we can all do with some light relief . . . I don't suppose you'd happen to know the latest score at the Test Match . . . ?