In praise of play

31 05 2020

One of the joys of bringing up young animals is watching them play. Every morning Teio greets me with an affectionate nuzzle and within a few minutes he is searching for someone or something to play with. If Max, the senior collie who lives downstairs, is up and about, Teio will run down to engage in play, chasing the older dog around the small square of parched grass in our shared garden.

Witnessing the old collie grunting with pleasure and rolling about on his back and the bright-eyed young whippet delicately pointing his paw to keep the game going, I forget that I’m up an hour earlier than usual. I forget I haven’t had coffee yet. I’m awakened by the energy of their play and for a moment nothing else matters.

When dogs play they are truly in the moment. They aren’t wondering if they should be doing something else more important or getting on with the serious business of their life. In a young dog’s world, play is his life.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been wondering about the place of play in my own life. I know that I feel happiest when I’ve spent time sharing a simple walk with family and friends with the dogs running through sunlit trees up ahead.

Even though I’m enjoying the moment, there’s also a part of me, though, that whispers: this can’t last, take it while you can. When I tune into the warning, my happiness continues, but as if through a perspex screen. I can see it, but I can’t touch it.

My young dog knows nothing of these conflicted feelings. He can’t feel two different feelings at once the way we can. Why are dogs happier than humans? Possibly because their lives are less complicated, but also because dogs are more generally affable then we are. Put it simply: they are friendlier.

The friendliness of dogs is, of course, one of the reasons we love them so much. The sight of a shining eye looking up into our face and pink healthy tongue lolling from a happy dog’s mouth is enough to melt the most miserable of souls.

I was touched by the comment of a young man on one of our outings to a local park this week. The young man looked to be in some sort of difficult or chaotic place, disheveled and anxious, but he stopped for a moment when Teio bounced up to him. Hearing that the young whippet was friendly, he crouched down and offered his fist for Teio to sniff. After a minute of friendly greeting the young man looked up. ‘He’s a nice dog – a good dog,’

The young man’s body language softened. ‘I’m trying to attract more good things in my life.’

‘Well, this morning you certainly have.’

We smiled at each other and I saw through the chaos to the place of worry and fear that I recognised like a familiar friend. We went our separate ways, but the young man’s words stayed with me.

We all want to attract more good in our lives. But so often when we find the good, we are afraid to fully take it. We are suspicious of goodness because it requires us to open our hearts and be grateful or glad or uplifted. When you’re used to being afraid or insecure, your own happiness can startle you as much as a threat.

It’s tragic that we are like this, and I wish it weren’t so. I wish we could be more like affable dogs, bounding across the social distance restrictions to playfully reunite. Of course, after months of social isolation many people will be pleased to see one another and there will be parties and barbecues and gatherings again.

But in those very social occasions there will be mixed feelings. There will be laughter and banter and there will be fear; there will be insecurity; there will be wondering what comes next; there will be questions: how to pick up the pieces, how to repair the damage, build the business, mend and start afresh.

This is how we are as human beings. We survive crisis, we come through disaster and chaos. We emerge shaken and changed and more vulnerable than we are perhaps aware. May we remember, too, that we also know what we need to help us on our way. A good dose of the good is good for us. And enough time to put our worries away for a while and remember how to play.





When we aren’t looking

25 05 2020

Good things come to us all by themselves and with a sense of rightness for the moment we’re in. This is the gift of the unexpected. Some call it serendipity.

I wasn’t looking for a dog to take on right now. There were tons of practical reasons not to, especially in a period of such fragility and uncertainty. But the heart doesn’t listen to reason. Intuition doesn’t respond to cold logic. All I know is that my heart leapt when I heard he needed a home. Then, when a saw a picture of young Teio – pronounced TeeeOh – it set something in motion that I needed to follow.

The yearling whippet is living with me now and we’re getting used to sharing a space. He’s getting to know my rhythms and routines. We’re learning each other. His energy is most undoglike. Soft, curious, very alive. He can stretch out his limbs and take up the whole length of sofa. He’s tall and lithe with almond-shaped melting brown eyes. It’s like having a lovely young gazelle to stay.

Except he has surprising outbursts of puppy behaviour. My work room appears as if a crowd of three-year-olds have just finished a rip-roaring birthday party. Shredded bits of paper, plastic and twigs everywhere. Furniture askew. Rugs rumpled and a disorderly play bed bang in the middle. I look at the mess and my heart heaves with happiness.

In his first hours, Teio followed me everywhere, moving from room to room, checking, checking, checking, his jittery claws clipping the wood floor. I wondered what I had done. Would he ever settle? Would I ever get any work done?

I put his soft bed on the floor next to mine. He jumped into it and looked up at me. I wished him goodnight and turned to my book. The next moment he leapt in one smooth movement to the space at the foot of my bed. There he now sleeps soundly, dreaming, a mushroom coloured velvet bolster, slender white legs twitching as he remembers – what does he recall in his sleep, I wonder as I watch him, thinking how strange it is that he should leap into my life almost when I wasn’t looking.

This gift of new young life is both messenger and metaphor. I think this young hound has come to show me how to be happy. How to trust. How to hope. How to love no matter what is happening in the uncertain world. How to remember to dream.





Magic in the Moment

3 05 2020

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Some mornings we arrive and the horses are busy grazing and barely acknowledge us. Other mornings, they are waiting by the gate. And on rare, magical mornings, they are both lying down and allow us to spend moments of wonder and stillness in their presence.

I arrived at the meadow yesterday to find Jo settled between the two horses. Returning with my camera, I captured this special moment on film. As you will see, the horses have very different styles of interaction. Dragonfly is calm, relaxed and grounded throughout. Even when Sheranni goes through his attention-seeking comedy routine, Dragonfly remains unruffled. They are aware of each other, but not drawn into the other. Each horse makes space for the other horse to be as he is in the moment. This doesn’t seem like much, but making space for another, especially someone you know very well, is an art.

As humans, we find this extraordinarily difficult. Imagine that you’re having a quiet morning sleep-in and your companion suddenly decides to get up and put on some loud music and start dancing around the bedroom or practising their juggling moves. How would you react? Would you allow your companion some space to do their thing, or would you tell them to ‘get lost’ as you burrow under the duvet in a clenched bundle of righteous annoyance?

As humans, we are very adept at being still and serene when things are going our way, when our companions are tiptoeing around us, holding our space and keeping our peace, but what happens when they are not? What happens when they do their thing at full volume? The tendency then is to accuse them of being selfish, of having no consideration, of being insensitive. Who hasn’t thought this when confronted with noisy neighbours?

The horses show us how we might hold space regardless of what is happening around us. We might not enjoy the intrusion – and let’s face it most of us would prefer to lie-in undisturbed – but when disturbances come, as they will and do, we might choose to remain in a state of presence, as Dragonfly is demonstrating here; we might choose to stay in our space and breathe more deeply into it, knowing that the present contains everything we need, expanding our awareness to include the annoying little clown in the background. It won’t make him go away, but it might make it easier for us to live with him.

Something to start practising anyway…





The Space Between

24 04 2020

Having more time at the moment means more time to wander, and to wonder. On a walk a few days ago, I wondered who first thought of the idea of putting book shelves into an old phone box? And then furnishing the shelves with a range of books – what was it about the phone box that said: let’s make a little lending library right here? 

I don’t know, but drawn to one delightful little time capsule on my walk, I opened the heavy door and was immediately transported to my teenage years. How many hours had I spent hunched up in boxes exactly like this one with the heavy black phone, mouth piece infused with some strong cheap perfume like Tweed, cradled on my shoulder? How long had I stood chattering in the cold, sometimes with a newspaper parcel of fish and chips to keep my fingers warm, waiting for the phone to ring at the magical chosen hour? The box opened the door onto my younger self and there I was, lying on my bed reading a novel instead of studying for my A Levels, counting down the hours until I could put on my warmest coat and head out to telephone a boy who had most likely spent the afternoon in his own desperate place of procrastination.

Inside this miniature library, there was no polite sign asking for payment or primly inviting people to take books to read and enjoy. No indication of who might have previously owned the books. Captivated, I chose one: a travel book by Rory Stewart (no, I didn’t know he was a writer either…) an account of his walk through remote and dangerous parts of Afghanistan, entirely on his own, for no reason other than wanting to go there and see what the crazy place was up to. The title: The Places In Between seemed to resonate with the new identity of this individual telephone box, divested of its phone.

We’re all in a between place right now. A place that feels familiar and strange. Aside from open access books, I’m interested in all the other small offerings that are springing up. Take me home flowers for key workers, phone calls and well-being check-ins, group gatherings, including a book group who are composing haiku as a diary of this time. I’m heartened by View from My Window, a facebook group which has gone viral, and simply shares pictures of people’s views from their windows. From my front room, I’ve visited places I will probably never see: a stunning sunset over West Palm Beach in Florida; a herd of inquisitive nyala in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa; olive trees at a mountain retreat in Umbria, Italy. Some of the posts come with stories, and it’s intriguing to read how many people are reconnecting to their pasts through objects they have lived with for years such as an old rocking chair, but have never really properly looked at it before.

Post teenage years, I overlooked red telephone boxes. They were obsolete, pointless in a digital age, smelly, ugly and slightly embarrassing like an elderly relative who forgets to wash and farts all the way through a smart family birthday dinner. They were awkward: I mean what do you do with a phone box, too small for anything useful like low-cost housing, too big and iconic to simply trash. So the boxes remain in our country lanes, sore relics of the past, that is until someone rescues a box on its last legs, spruces it up and breathes new life into its musty interior.

Within this small act of generosity lies the grit of all creativity. Being creative doesn’t have to mean doing anything grand or special or perfect. Being creative in its purest essence means to slip something into the world that was not there before, something that will delight, provoke or stimulate similar acts. Essentially, being creative is the art of looking at something with fresh eyes. Of course, the less romantically inclined might scoff that the unsecured phone box is bound to be vandalised. It is bound to have all its books ripped to shreds or stolen and never returned. It is bound to be used as a toilet or get a kicking or two.

Of course, to the person who found this box and bothered to keep it clean and furnished with books, none of this matters. They ignored the cynical voice that said: why? It’s just a smelly old phone box for goodness sake?

People all over the world are creating something small right now. They are filling the spaces between with tiny art-works: drawings, quizzes, films, choirs, photographs, poems, loaves of bread, friendships, heroic walks, pots of tea, walks, long rambling talks, silences, a beautiful lace fence (can you believe?)

Let’s be collectively delighted. Let’s make more. 

 





Wise oaks

19 04 2020

 

 

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As part of my recovery to health after a long bout of viral exhaustion, I’m taking slow walks in the quiet lanes. Often I take my camera, and for some reason whenever I see an oak tree, I have to stop and look at it. I find it difficult to pass by a particularly splendid specimen without stopping to pay my respects. I probably have hundreds, if not thousands of photographs of oak trees. Many images of the same tree.

It’s a bit of a strange obsession, I know, but I can’t stop, and whenever I’ve been ill the urge to be with oak trees is a siren call. So I go. When I find a tree I like, I hang out with it for a while and then I take its photograph. I don’t know why, but I always feel better after I’ve done this. The trees seem to be part of my recovery to strength, to sanity, to wholeness. Oaks are stoic and grounded. They have deep roots and the really ancient ones have weathered more storms than I will ever know. The trees cheer me on when I’m low in spirits. And there’s nothing like an oak for a power blast of motivation when you’re stuck on something.

Oaks work their magic on me. For others, it might be beech trees or holly or sweet chestnut that offer a sense of safety, softness or ease. Trees let us know that all is well with the world, that life has a shape and mysterious rhythm all of its own, and if you stand with a tree for long enough you will sometimes feel part of the flow of life that lies beyond thought. Trees are zen masters at living. They get to gracefully observe everything and remain deliciously detached from it all. They get to live and die in the world without ever causing harm. They are the wisest of living beings.

So I admit I’m a bit infatuated with oaks, which means of course in my eyes they are utterly blameless and perfect. I know someone is probably thinking: harmless? Oak trees are poisonous aren’t they? Especially to horses? It is my guess, however, that an oak tree can’t stop itself from producing tannin which may kill a very hungry horse or pony snaffling for acorns. The lethal tannin is natural and sometimes indeed useful in curing leather, deepening the favour of wine or sherry and smoking cheese and fish. The oak does not maliciously harm. It gets on with its big old life by spreading its branches, dropping its seed, producing a new family, then over time parts of it seize up and become diseased and gradually, piece by piece, it falls into decay. One great grandfather tree I’ve been visiting for a number of years, is starting to look a bit battered now. It was the first oak I called on this week, half-nervous that it might have keeled over and died, but it was still standing, jagged and tough, all whiskered and carbuncular. I have an entire album of pictures of this one tree. He is my tree great grandfather and I love him.

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Such is my obsession, I have thought about writing a book about oaks just to have an excuse to spend more time with them. I remember reading a beautiful piece about a woman’s recovery from depression and how the sound of wood pigeons soothed her back to health. Oaks are medicine for my soul. I love the way they seem to mysteriously inhabit my mind when I most need support. They arrive on call like a magic tree medic, all huge arms, deep beating hearts, full of compassion. We’re here, they say, you can relax. Whatever it is, we’ve got this. We’ve seen this. We know you can get through this.

And I do.

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Sharing Space

11 04 2020

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The pony breathes softly through her nostrils as she relaxes in the early morning sun. Skylarks, great tits and black birds sing their first songs into a sky clear and blue. There is a sense of stillness as the day warms into being.

Sharing quiet space with a horse completely at rest is a private joy, a privilege of looking after horses in a way that meets their needs for companionship, freedom and love.

We always take care to share space with our horses and ponies in a way that respects their feelings. We never expect them to simply accept us settling down in the grass next to them. We wait until they are ready for us to join them. Often they breathe a little more deeply and sigh when we meet them in this quiet space. Their acceptance is truly wondrous. It makes an ordinary morning in the meadow become something magical.

It might look as if we arrived to find the horses serenely waiting for us, but the reality of making a film with curious and intelligent animals means we had to work through their need to explore and examine every bit of kit we took into their home.

Creating this piece took longer than you would think because the ponies weren’t going to settle to order. They were going to sniff, paw, brush their faces up against anything they hadn’t seen before.

They weren’t going to pose or stay in one place until they had knocked over the tripod holding the camera. Twice.

They were going to exasperate my attempts to film them and test my patience. Just as I was about to give up and pack everything away, they moved off. The next thing I knew they folded their legs and slipped in slow motion to the ground. By the time I gathered up the scattered kit to start filming again, they were almost snoring.

I learned so much from this morning in the meadow. I learned to observe what was happening and to let go of my timeline. I learned to listen to the sounds of the morning and to forget about the pony trying to eat my coat. I learned to let the beauty of the unfolding moment arrive in its own sweet time.

Magic often happens when we least expect it.





Finding your niche

5 04 2020

 

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I used to worry that I’d become antisocial. After years of living in London when friends and neighbours would regularly came round for chat over coffee or a shared supper, I wondered why my social self seemed to have gone so quiet. My enjoyment of people was not any less, indeed I cherished my close friendships even more so when I returned home to Devon. Maybe it was simply a question of a slower pace of life. Maybe it was all the still and serene time I spent with horses. Then, I heard the author Susan Cain talking on Radio 4 about her book Quiet. 

This book confirmed something surprising: I was an introvert. Now for years I had worked in socially stimulating jobs that required me to think on my feet, present confidently at conferences, talk to people in positions of power and challenge injustice. I passionately loved my work as a news journalist, especially the connections and interactions I made with some extraordinary people, but I knew I also needed plenty of time after an intense interview or press gathering to find a quiet space to recover. I used to seek out dark, unfashionable pubs my cheerfully social colleagues would have avoided. This was my own version of after-work drinks, such a core feature of city professional life.

Thanks to the revelations in Quiet, I realise that my constitution means I need to decompress alone; it means I prefer one-to-one conversations about meaningful ideas than social stories or shared anecdotes. It means loud bars are exhausting. I thrive when the lighting is low, the music muted and the atmosphere is calm. Rather than moving from topic to topic, like a butterfly in search of social nectar, I prefer to properly explore a theme with someone equally drawn to diving in deep.

For a long time, I pretended to be an extrovert, and I didn’t even realise I was doing it. I just thought that being introvert was boring and a little bit lame. When I woke up to being introvert, life suddenly made more sense. I began to seek out quiet spaces in my life and to limit my networking. A sign when I have reached my limit of social contact is when I go to say something and my tongue feels pasted to the roof of my mouth. I used to believe I needed to try harder, to get unstuck by being a bit funnier, but now I recognise I can take myself home to a nightcap with a friendly book.

An unexpected delight of declaring as an introvert, has been the playful conversations I’ve had with family, friends, students and colleagues, who have naturally wondered where they fall on the extrovert-introvert spectrum. It’s not an easy thing to determine. Susan Cain first turns to Carol Jung’s enquiry Psychological Types, which suggests: ‘Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, extroverts to the external life of people and activities.’ But contemporary researchers point out that there are no neat categories. Saying you are introvert or extrovert is not like saying you have straight or curly hair.

“There are almost as many definitions of introvert and extrovert as there are personality psychologists, who spend a great deal of time arguing over which meaning is most accurate. Some think that Jung’s ideas are outdated; others swear that he’s the only one who got it right.

“Still, today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.”

Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. (Penguin 2012)

Returning to Quiet to prepare for teaching a course with the horses, I was struck not only by its scholarly depth and serious research, but its compassion and gentle humour. Susan Cain shares her personal journey in her warm and engaging TED talk, which I recommend to anyone wondering why it seems they are enjoying this period of retreat from society more than they want to admit.

For an introvert, being ordered to stay indoors is rewarding rather than punishing. It offers time for quiet pursuits such as reading, writing and bread-making. Of course, extroverts enjoy such activities, too, but a typical extrovert will actively want to fill their time and will probably spend more time skyping, zooming, face-timing and news scrolling than a typical introvert. For  introverts the phrase ‘lock-down’, means time to find a ‘restorative niche.’

This idea of a niche to restore and nurture your true self is explored by Cain in her lovely book, and it is particularly pertinent now and not just for introverts. For extroverts, finding your restorative niche might mean volunteering by shopping for others, delivering prescriptions or joining a telephone befriending service so that their social side is allowed to sparkle a bit; for introverts, it might mean limiting your time on social media so that you are free to make sourdough from scratch or study philosophy. Introverts and extroverts may have opposite ways of relating socially, but they do not need to live in opposition. As well as confirming my introvert traits, Quiet reminded me to really love the extroverts in my life, to celebrate the joy, loyalty and energy they bring.

Now in this time of being thrown together with our propensities so perfectly and perhaps painfully exposed, it will be tempting to become territorial over our perceived needs. Some will want to argue and defend, some will fight back, some will prefer to ignore the opportunity to get to know ourselves more deeply than ever before. But what a pity if we emerged from this, no wiser, no saner, no richer. Seeing ourselves as we truly are is a precious gift, coincidentally something we often long for when we are too preoccupied by daily concerns to even get close to the questions we might ask. Could we get quiet enough to start?








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