Small gifts from the sea

28 03 2021

Like many of us, I have missed the pub, the picnics, the public gatherings and events that punctuated previous years. Nevertheless, there are some compensations for a year of social distancing. The beach has become my back yard, a place of reflection, imagination and connection.

On my beach walks I collect small treasures that have no worth to anyone but me: a few polished sea glass stones in greens and blues; an oyster shell; slender driftwood sculpted into suggestive shapes. I keep these treasures in a jar to look at while I wash the dishes. This small ritual creates a sense of space in a day where I am necessarily attached to a screen.

Because I haven’t been able to travel far, I have travelled small instead. Small things have always delighted me. As a child I used to take long meandering walks around the lanes and across fields, and collect things along the way. Insects, leaves, feathers. Small pieces of the outside that made me feel connected to the inside. Some leaves I held onto for years. Not long ago a found a dusty fragment from a tree of life I visited in an Arabian desert thirty years ago.

I am not systematic in my collecting or my classification. I often find things that seem significant, and then store them somewhere only to come across them unexpectedly. I enjoy the surprise this brings, the joy of rediscovering a mood, a feeling or a moment lost in time.

All life is made of such moments, of the smallest movements that link together to create a chain of being. When I look back over the past year, I see how richly textured it has been even in the bleakest moments. Under the surface of flatness, of sameness, of ordinary routine there have been moments of rare delight and connection.

The sea has been a constant in a turbulent year. Each day the sea offers something new and unexpected. A school of dolphins bouncing through sparkling waves; foam whipped dry by the wind; a pause by the steps to listen to a sea shanty spontaneously offered at the end of a dog walk. The sea keeps me going through difficult times. It reminds me that light and movement are constants of change as much as darkness and stagnation.

Sometimes it’s hard to see through the darkness. It’s hard to keep going when discouraged or disheartened by forces beyond your control. The sea is powerful and beside it I often feel small. Walking by the sea, I am reminded each time of how vulnerable we all are. The sea also, paradoxically, brings me a surge of strength to keep finding my way home.

Those times when I step onto an empty stretch of sand with my hound and find a space to breathe, those times are real and true and those times are when I feel a rising sense of hope.





The food of love

14 02 2021
Classic French Recipes X. Marcel Boulestin

We all want to be loved in our shining magnificence, in our unflawed glory, but true love waits until we are low and exhausted and confused. It beams right through the humble heart and lights us up. It reminds us to be soft and tender and raw. It lets us know that the quiet space of no hope can often be transformed into a new understanding. Love lets us know that we are never alone.

I have learned about love in the unlikeliest of places and from unlikely people and beings. Love often shows up when I am least expecting it. When I am low and close to giving up, it will announce its presence quietly: a shift in the way the light falls over a row of frozen benches looking out over the estuary one early morning; a new note in the tone of someone’s voice; a drop in the wind. All of a sudden there is understanding, a fresh way of apprehending what was previously obscured. Like many of us, I set things up so that my life runs smoothly, rolling on oiled wheels. Love likes to stop me mid-track. Here take a look at this, it says. If I ignore it, it is patient, which is the mark of a great disrupter; love takes its time to surprise you.

Shell fish featured in my first love story. Whelks and cockles, to be precise, which now I think of it are prized as aphrodisiacs. I collected them in a bucket with a boy who couldn’t look at me. I wondered all that day and the next day and for a long time after why he would not meet my eyes. I wanted to find him to ask him – what? Nothing had occurred. We had simply hunched next to each other on a barnacle covered rock and he had told me my future. He told me what he could see, that I was blind to boys like him. I would go after the other kind of boy, which I did. I wonder how he knew this at 12? What I would give to go back in time and take the bucket from his hand and look directly into his eyes and tell him he was wrong.

I went to buy shell fish this morning because I have been dreaming of fresh scallops. I took an old French cook book to bed and read with relish how to make béchamel sauce from scratch. I love this battered old book. I’m enchanted by every recipe created by the cook whose first name is the mysterious initial X. Marcel Boulestin was a food writer from the 1920s and 1930s who inspired many cooks including Elizabeth David. His cooking is plain, elegant and simple. As much as I enjoy imagining creating epinards florentine, spinach in a creamy sauce, I admire Boulestin’s spiky writing. I love the way he tells you precisely what to do.

Clean the spinach well and, having washed it in several waters, drain and dry it. Put it in a thick saucepan with a good piece of butter, and cook, stirring well on a fairly quick fire.

This is how I learned to cook spinach. I love the poetry of washing it in several waters and the good piece of butter, the generosity to the cook with the conviction that this way of cooking spinach and stirring in other ingredients, each carefully picked and prepared, will result in a simple meal of deliciousness. Boulestin’s cooking is probably considered old-fashioned now; there is a lot of cream and butter, I mean a lot, although for me this is part of the charm because it reminds me that cooking creatively means looking at the foundations of good recipes and essential elements and assembling them in the way I would like to eat now.

There were no scallops at the farm shop because the boats had not been able to go out to sea in these high winds. Half expecting this, I had already planned to buy mushrooms instead. Forest fungi packed into a brown box; I chose the oyster mushrooms because they were the closest to the sea theme I had in mind. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with the mushrooms. They are pearly and precious and I want to do them justice. Boulestin has several mouth-watering concoctions involving oil and butter, garlic and parsley. I will perhaps saute them with fresh coriander and lemon because bright flavours are singing to me right now.

Thinking about food is a simple form of love especially when the world outside is complicated and still so uncertain. There is comfort and reassurance in knowing that my outing to the supermarket or farm shop or greengrocer will yield some small pleasure. I find I’m savouring food more than ever because life is precarious and food is one of the loveliest ways to say to yourself or someone you love: here, eat this, I care. It might be wild outside, but this will delight your heart.

The small, simple and humble ways we care matter. Philosopher Alain de Botton says that we need to consider the mundane when practising love. We need to make room for love in our daily domestic lives. When we think of love as some operatic performance we forget how most of us live our lives – in quiet symphonies of small duties. Feeding children, feeding animals, feeding ourselves and those we love with words and actions that leave us either feeling nourished or depleted.

Love has the capacity to illuminate the mundane. When I think of moments when love appeared in this week alone, I recall swift and sudden tears, laughter, gestures of surprise, gratitude, hope, compassion, connection, warmth, imagination and shared understanding: all rich ingredients of love.

Oyster mushrooms with garlic, onion, leek, kale and coriander, cooked in olive oil with fresh thyme and some butter.




Slow fade to black

10 01 2021

During this winter I’ve taken a walk most evenings at twilight. There’s a moment when the sun lowers behind the trees that makes me reach for my camera. As the cold laps across the fields and starts to freeze my fingers, I frame the last filaments of light. Scrolling through my photo collection, I notice dozens of images of trees at twilight, each tree with bare branches outstretched as if to ward off the oncoming night; holding it slippery, gleaming and alive in the sway of a dark net. This slow fade to black creates the kind of ending I would wish for all dying beings. There’s no agony in twilight, no fuss, no sense of loss: the light dims and merges into the lovely muted softness of the time we call dusk.

The year itself has now gone past its own twilight and is again in the ascendency. Already I notice the evenings drawing out, reaching further into the light and the rise is welcome after a dark year of loss with heavier loss to come. Driving home each day, I hear the bone weariness in the voices of the intensive care doctors and nurses interviewed on the radio. I hear the urgency in the reports of a crisis in the NHS overwhelmed by a virus ‘out of control.’ Driving through the twilight, I think about beginnings and endings. I wonder what is beginning for us as a community of beings dedicated to looking after the most frail and the most vulnerable. I feel hope that elderly people who have been housebound for months will live to experience another spring. At the same time, I know many will not.

In living and loving so fiercely, we so often forget that we must die. It’s hard to look death in the eye. Our instinct is to hold onto life at all costs and we have developed such intricate ways to prolong life, sometimes for good years, but in the end death outwits all our technology. Death endures our best attempts to slow it down. It comes whether we are looking or not.

None of us can know how we might meet death. The philosopher Socrates met his end with maddening good cheer, refusing to go into exile and stop his teaching, refusing to stop pointing out what was obvious to him and infuriating to his prosecutors: that he couldn’t die anyway. He would merely change from a mortal being to an immortal one. His soul was going somewhere better, thanks. Now hand over that cup of hemlock.

Socrates’ death began a revolution, a commitment to bring his ideas out of obscurity and into the light. Grief created an explosion of ideas and an outpouring of brilliant work by his most faithful student Plato. Without Plato’s commitment to honouring the ideas of his mentor, some fundamental principles of education, mathematics and the beginnings of the universe might never have been born. Grief is so often fertile soil for making things anew. At the same time, death takes away our illusion of control. It lets us know that we have limited time to live, and that, according to Plato, is a good thing. We should live our lives remembering that we will die. A good life is a life that has recognised death and made room for it. All living is a preparation for death.

Not many of us are like Socrates, boldly going to his final destination, as if he were merely hoping from one Greek island to another, but perhaps we could learn to open the fingers we habitually place over our eyes when considering death. Perhaps we could in the words of Joan Halifax, anthropologist and Zen priest, who spent years sitting with the dying, meeting them in their pain and suffering, find a ‘sane relationship to our sadness without being overwhelmed.’

This makes me think of the way animals grieve and die: sanely, simply, softly. At the start of this week, our resident elderly goat Bill died. Rickety, tired and prone to infections, Bill was in human years the equivalent of a centenarian. He spent nearly every morning seeking out a warm sunny patch in which to rest his old bones. Although often exhausted, he was always gracious to visitors and enjoyed a good scratch between his horns. His death came as no surprise. Last winter his grave was dug in preparation, but he lasted longer than anyone expected. Our Dartmoor pony Tinker tenderly nosed Bill’s lifeless body as he was lifted into the wheelbarrow to be wheeled off to his burial.

In Greece, people are buried the day after they die, which means there is little time for elaborate funeral preparations. One of my Philosophy students said there was no fuss around death in the Greek village where he grew up. One minute, you’re there, the next you’re not, and everyone just gets on with it. Nevertheless, no fuss doesn’t have to mean no care. Maybe caring means acknowledging the fact of death itself with full presence and gentleness, just as Tinker did for old Bill.

Some Christmases ago, I witnessed a pair of horses show a similar interest in the death of one of their herd members, an old thoroughbred mare who collapsed in the field where she was later that day buried. The remaining herd members, a pony gelding and another pony mare, remained present to the death of their herd member by standing near her grave, pawing at the earth, turning over the soil under which she lay. I witnessed vividly that day how animals are not afraid to get close to death. They are perhaps aware of death in ways that we are not.

As I write this, I notice two images: a tree at twilight in a beautiful winter scene painted by John Skinner, and the gentle smile of my friend who ended his own life. I also notice the new ticking life of my young hound, licking his paws on the sofa and I sense that here is life beginning and ending, beginning and ending. I don’t need to understand it. I just need to remain still and sane enough not to be overwhelmed. I think of Tinker taking the time to caress old Bill with her lips, and I secretly hope that wherever the old goat has gone he gets to hang out with Socrates.

Bill, right, never passed on the opportunity for a good scrap with Betty.





Look into my eyes

6 12 2020

You see me as I am and as I have always been. Clear, honest and full of love. I hold all of my life in my heart and if you ask me in the right way, I will give it in service to you.

You who know the ache of being separated from your own kind, the hours when you feel the heaviness of your own singular presence. No other to lighten your way. No other to enter your life and make it into something shared. No other at night when you lie with your heart open and awake. Waiting.

I feel you. I feel you want to come closer and I lower my neck to you. You ask permission to caress and I soften. I caress you in turn with my breath and I feel you open the space in you that was shuttered. Years, you say. You tell me you have not hugged anyone in years. Nor has anyone touched you. I feel your sadness like gravity.

I hold you here. Your hand rests on my neck. I am still for you. Quiet. I listen to your words of love. I hold your longing. I hold your kindness and willingness to share with me your secrets. I hold them sacred for you. I see you. I see how you have touched the place you do not speak of to those of your own.

Look into my eyes and tell me how you are and do not pretend. I will listen. I will see you.

Written for Maggie (not her real name) and for all those who are lonely for touch, love and deeper understanding. A recent survey shows more than 1.7 million people in Britain will be spending Christmas alone this year. This is twice the usual number.





Making Music

15 11 2020

I have always admired people who can make music. To be able to play a clarinet or piano fluently seems to me like the most gorgeous gift. My musical talent fits into a matchbox. At school I was in awe of those musical geniuses who had the facility I lacked. I remember once picking up a guitar with a fluttering feeling of finding my instrument and being told by the teacher that I was holding it back to front.

I resigned myself to becoming a listener rather than a player. I was an ardent onlooker and observer and remained in awe of those who had the secret knowledge. Last week, I realised the true point of music is to connect.

We set up in the barn with an array of hand pans, exquisitely crafted by Lyndon Forster, who offers music workshops through his community enterprise PanKind.

We had invited Lyndon to visit in the summer and we were all entranced by the reaction of the horses to the melodic sound of the pans. As soon as Lyndon started playing, the herd, who were some distance away grazing lifted their heads. Then, as if drawn by a magnet, they came to investigate. Dragonfly, our most sensitive Arabian, seemed to connect most intensely, exploring the pan with his whiskers as we experimented with different touches to lift the sound from the metal.

The barn which is a combination of tractor garage and night shelter to two Dartmoor ponies Evie and Rose became transformed into a music studio to which we had invited a group of patients from Langdon Hospital.

One of the patients, a talented musician, was instantly gripped by the guitar and provided background accompaniment to the ripples of sound from the rest of the group. Another patient gently moved his fingers down a dulcimer while Evie breathed over his hands. Someone else touch played a pan. At one moment I realised that all the beings in the barn were utterly absorbed in the process. No words were needed. We were connected as one.

No division between animal or human, patient or staff, teacher or farmer. Just us. Playing. In a big draughty barn. It felt completely natural and also humbling.

When we allow things to unfold with a harmony and rhythm all of their own, we make music. The spontaneous music of being as we are.





Doughnuts are the future

8 11 2020

We are poised for a new era in leadership with Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States. Among many there is hope that one of the world’s most influential super-powers will regain balance, perspective and return to a quieter, more dignified style of governance. In the words of one BBC commentator: ‘The wildness is over.’

Kamala Harris is preparing to step into her role as vice-president, the first time a woman has been elected to this position. She has said the election is about so much more than the candidates. ‘It is about the soul of America and our willingness to fight for it.’

Overnight, the rhetoric of power has shifted, from angry defence and threats, to calls for patience, hope and healing as the knotty details are worked through. There is a change in the atmosphere. At a time when the world needs it most, there is at last some breathing space.

In parallel to following the US election, I have been reading Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth, which makes a case for radically changing the way countries are financed. Her Doughnut model, which has been welcomed as a new vision for humanity by academics, business leaders and entrepreneurs is also a reason to hope.

I never knew economics could be so gripping until I started the Doughnut and what I have learned is that current financial models are clunky, crude and misaligned with how most people want to live. They are straight pipelines that facilitate basic input and output of money without considering the well-being of the community which both supplies and needs the money. I recommend reading the book to get a sense of the scope of the Doughnut, which if adopted by governments as the way to move beyond the obsessively narrow focus on growth as the measure of economic success, could sweetly change the world.

The Doughnut is a series of circles that considers critical planetary degradation; the safe and just space for humanity and critical human deprivation. The model places the safe and just space for humanity between two rings: one of ecology, the other social. We can most comfortably thrive in this buffered zone where we are no longer pushing the earth’s resources past its capacity to keep us in the manner to which we have become accustomed.

“The last two hundred years of industrial activity have been based on a linear industrial system whose design is inherently degenerative. the essence of that industrial system is the cradle-to-grave manufacturing supply chain of take, make, use, lose: extract Earth’s minerals, metals, biomass and fossil fuels; manufacture them into products; sell those on to consumers who -probably sooner rather than later – will throw them ‘away,’ When drawn in its simplest from, it looks something like an industrial caterpillar, ingesting food at one end, chewing it through, and excreting the waste out of the other end.”

Kate Raworth Doughnut Economics 2017 (p212)

These ideas pose challenges to business leaders of the 21st century in the form of the corporate to do list. There are five options to choose from and working through them requires overcoming a tendency to stick with what we can do, rather than what we could do to not only boost our businesses and enterprises, but to add benevolent value to the world in which we do business. I love Kate Raworth’s breadth of vision, her clarity and her belief that making a difference in the broadest sense is possible no matter how small your enterprise.

Top of the list is generosity. A generous mindset looks to nature as a model. Nature gives bountifully, she takes usefully and she wastes nothing; she’s also a creative genius. She makes works of staggering complexity and beauty from a handful of dust. Poppy seeds flung into hard ground by winds need disturbance, light and air to germinate and bloom. Blobs of jelly become fish, elephants and human beings. Caterpillars emerge from silk duvets transformed into winged jewels.

It is hard for some companies to be generous because stuck at number two – do what pays – means viewing your business through the narrowest of lens. There are plenty of examples of number two: some universities charging exorbitantly high prices for food parcels delivered to students in quarantine or ill with Corona Virus springs to mind. Universities, such as Reading, are right at the top with their home-grown boxes of wholesome food. It may cost more to feed young people well, but the benefits of doing so are worth so much more than the savings gained by offering value packets of pasta or cereal, or in some cases, no food at all.

Regenerative design invites us to learn from nature’s 3.8 billion years of experimentation. It invites us to think of nature as our source of inspiration and our teacher. Generous designers such as Janine Benyus, whose innovative work is featured in the book as an example of thinking beyond the usual boundaries, creates cities that act like ecosystems. Imagine ‘rooftops that grow food, gather the sun’s energy, and welcome wildlife.’ Imagine ‘pavements that absorb storm water then slowly release it into aquifers. Buildings that sequester carbon dioxide, cleanse the air, treat their own wastewater, and turn sewage back into rich soil nutrients.’ Cities as generous as forests.

The world feels new today. There’s talk of new possibility, of unity, of ecology not as a political issue, but a universal one. Nature holds the key to solving the problem of her own destruction, if only we would pay proper attention to those who want to show us. Raworth says that ‘today’s most innovative enterprises are inspired by the idea that the business of business is to contribute to a thriving world.’ These ideas shine a light on a new way of waking up in the world, a way to feed our organisations and enterprises so that we all might thrive. Nature lead the way!





Circular Thinking

1 11 2020

It feels as if we’ve come full circle. Back to days of uncertainty within a pandemic that doesn’t seem to be blowing over like the storm we hoped it would be. The pandemic won’t go away. It circles around us, whipping up fear and panic. It forces us to confront the most pressing questions of what it means to live in the unknown. We are not good at living with the unknown. We like things to go from from A to B, from awful to better, not B to W, bad to worse. We expect things to improve. When they don’t, we’re affronted.

There are so many advantages to thinking in straight lines. We can predict things, count things, order things, make everything fit into neat rectangular boxes that we can then file away on top of other neat rectangular boxes. We like things orderly because it helps us to feel safe. One ripped open box with all the contents strewn over the floor is disconcerting and damn right inconvenient.

We will all need to review our plans now. We will adjust because we have become quite flexible if we stop to think about last November when we were still meeting for cosy pub lunches, organising bonfire parties, work gatherings, family celebrations and thinking ahead to Christmas. Only a year ago, our lives were constellated around social events.

Now our lives are constellated around not contracting a virulent disease that we will spread to others, causing harm and social dysfunction. We are not prepared for the harm we might cause because we are still stuck in last November when all seemed to be well in the world. Then, we were ready to move onto the next thing.

Now, we have no idea what the next thing is. It could be a month at home reading and decorating the front room or redesigning the garden. It could be a month working in an intensive care unit, shielded against infection, working harder than ever to keep people alive. It could be a month of total isolation, locked up in a prison cell for 23 hours of the day.

It’s impossible to make plans. We’re all going with the flow. This goes against our grain as straight line thinkers. We’re having to enter the circle and it’s freaking us out. It’s stopping us in our tracks. It’s making us pause and consider whether we might have other options.

When I teach in circles, people are often worried about allowing who they are to be seen. They feel anxious and exposed. Facing inwards, they wonder what they might find. What pain and suffering might leap out from the darkness and grab them, leaving them vulnerable. The circle is inviting, but also repelling. If entered correctly, there is nowhere to hide.

The circle is also a safe container for feelings. I recorded some words shared in a circle with the group who visited the horses for a connection day on the farm last week. The question: what would living life with joy feel like for you?

The response: Carefree; Energising; Happy; Full; Being Real; Heaven; More Colour, More Clarity; Simplicity; Lightness; At Peace; Fun; Free, Musical; Harmonious.

I love this list. It gives me hope that feelings of joy remain within our reach. I also love the character of the compassion circle. It has come to inspire my teaching in a much deeper way than I thought possible. Sitting and sharing circle space with a group of curious and courageous people who have never met before has been the gift of the most challenging year. I’ve met people differently this year.

I’m noticing, too, how the circle spirals into my everyday awareness. I see circles in places I had not looked at before; in the forms of trees, the shape of water, the flight of birds. The world, as I see it, arcs and bends and curves, honouring the earth itself. I realised today most fully that all life is circular. There is no going, no returning and what we think of as straight lines will eventually warp and roll. It impossible to keep going straight, without looking, truly looking at those we meet.





When we connect

30 08 2020

Last summer I led a course for an amazing group of women. We were taking a break and sharing stories of connection. Spontaneously I started talking about my connection with Sheranni and as I finished I felt a rush of gratitude for all that he had taught me. The participants were on the edge of their seats and not because of my storytelling. Unbeknownst to me, Sheranni had during the telling of it walked from the far end of the field to greet me. Someone captured my look of surprise on their phone camera.

Horses understand connection. They read the feeling that is the basis of true connection and often they are moved to act and deepen their connection to us in moving and powerful ways. I’m still in awe of how they do this. What subtle minds they must have to distinguish between nuances of feeling when we ourselves, supposedly the clever species, cannot read each other at times.

Someone once observed in a session that ‘horses know everything there is to know,’ and the phrase struck home. Over many years I’ve studied horses and wondered what it is they know. The horses who serve our community at Horsemanship for Health know health and ease of living. Our team of six horses live without stress and not one of them has been traumatised or neglected. Our small herd of four have spent the past six years living in close connection with each other and that connection has created horses who are balanced and open to new experiences with humans.

The more I observe the flow of connection, the more I realise how important it is for vital health. Without connection, we become withdrawn, isolated and eventually ill. Loneliness is one of the biggest epidemics of our time and may eventually kill even more people than the current pandemic.

It’s much harder to treat loneliness, of course, or even to measure its impact although university researchers are now taking it seriously as a social concern. The pandemic has increased loneliness among many who have been unable to connect with loved ones during weeks of isolation. We have come to a new appreciation of the simple joy of putting your arms around someone you deeply care for and giving them a hug.

Because we are social beings who thrive on connection, we all know loneliness. We know how small and afraid it makes us feel inside. We know the field of belonging is our true home. We know we have lives that offer little opportunity for belonging. Lonely people are told to make connections, but when you feel desolate inside, you believe no one will want you. No one will want to connect with your abiding need for acceptance.

How this makes us forlorn. A child without friends is the saddest of little creatures. I can remember times from my own childhood when all I wanted was for the pretty girls with the neat homes and clothes – the ones who seemed to have it all sorted – to accept me for who I was and to adore me as I adored them. They were too preoccupied with their perfect appearance to care.

And so I turned to boys who didn’t care how I looked and to animals who cared even less and through these friendships I learned how to get along with most people. We find our style of connection through those who accept us in all our wonkiness and wobblyness and I suspect now that I was too unconventional for those prettily perfect girls who introduced me to loneliness. In a way, I am grateful. If I had been let into their world, that would have been even worse because I would have modelled myself on the wrong kind of people for my character.

Finding the right kind of people for our character is the work of a lifetime. In a balanced and varied life, a life which includes other species, there are endless opportunities for connection. In educating my young hound, I’m noticing just how affected he is by my moods and my energy levels. In the past couple of days I was unwell and he lay across my legs until I felt better. Today I am recovered and he is bouncy and filled with life.

Animals are an emotional barometer for me. They remind me to check in with my internal weather and understand how my feelings create a charge that ripples out into the world I inhabit. When I’m tuned into my feeling for the moment and not too focused on the other, I am balanced and when in balance I can truly connect.

Many women, particularly, have led lives driven by the needs of the other. We suspend our feeling for the moment to be sensitive to someone else. This is such a habit we don’t even notice it. We think we are being kind and caring. We don’t question this form of subtle conditioning. Horses are master teachers of emotional intelligence because they do not live socially conditioned lives. They live with feeling that is unfiltered.

It makes me smile to think of how our world might be if we stopped filtering our feelings. If we just walked off in the middle of a conversation without apology to go and have a snack or take a pee. If we just lay down when someone was talking at us for too long and simply closed our eyes. If we licked someone when we had merely shredded a waste paper basket.

Social convention is useful and culturally part of our human communication style. We stifle our yawns in a boring meeting. We don’t interrupt when someone talks for too long. We eat food that tastes awful and say nothing. We look away when we see a minor act of aggression in the street. We keep the peace.

Horses have taught me that social harmony sometimes means giving someone a nudge when they are being annoying. It means being faithful to the group and never letting your own needs take precedence over the needs of the whole. It means never bearing a grudge. It means being open, affectionate and curious every single day.

Just when I think I understand about connection, the horses show me there is so much more.





Early bird

16 08 2020

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Looking after horses means getting up early. Over the eighteen years I’ve cared for my horses, the mornings have become the best part of my day. This morning when I arrived at the meadow, the herd were grouped together nose to tail on top of the hill. My arrival created a ripple of interest and each horse came forward to acknowledge me. Once greetings had been exchanged, the horses calmly returned to their huddle, swishing flies from each other’s noses. Before they did so, each one stood apart in absolute stillness for a moment, as if soaking in the quiet.

How simple it is to live like a horse. How freeing to get up from your bed of grass and greet your family members with interest and curiosity. How wonderful to greet the morning with nothing on your mind except grass and company. For a horse, each morning is a new terrain to explore, a new enquiry through the senses, a fresh unfolding landscape.

The horses are my first thought when I wake. In the very early days of teaching full-time and looking after horses, I would leave home before five am, drive through the dark lanes, lit only by the brilliance of the stars, a flask of hot tea sloshing about in the car. After turning the horses out to their field and mucking out their barn, I’d eat a bar of chocolate for breakfast, dunked into hot tea. On those mornings, in those moments before I reached work and all its numerous demands, I was utterly content. I realised that motivating myself to do something physically demanding every day was creating an inner change in me, although at the time I didn’t quite know what that inner change was. I just knew that I liked pushing wheelbarrows up a muck-heap in the dark and filling haynets in a barn while the owls called outside.

I’ve been getting up early for so many years now that it has become a habit. Even when I don’t need to be up by 6am, I find I get restless staying in bed. The other weekend I went to visit friends in Somerset, and my young whippet, unused to sleeping in a strange house, got me up at just before 5am. We went out the field with my friend’s dog and because I had forgotten to bring my wellies and didn’t want to soak my sandals, I walked barefoot across the wet grass. This is how we used to live and there was some ancient part of me that relished the tingle of drenching dew. 

Since the pandemic, many people have chosen to rise earlier and in the reports of their experiences, I’ve noticed a near universal sense of gentle euphoria. Fellow early birds say they feel more alive, more focused and calm and ready to face the challenges of the day. They are able to get more done. For me, the early part of the day is when I feel most connected to the world itself and less caught up in my own mundane thoughts. I love the easiness of the mornings when each moment feels charged with meaning and all I need to do is pay attention and listen. 

Sometimes when I’m up especially early, I’ve thought about all the other people in the world who are looking after sick children or elderly relatives or working a night shift and feel connected to the world in a particularly poignant way. A lot of caring goes on unseen throughout the night. Also an abundance of creativity. Well-known early risers include Charles Darwin, who was certainly a man who had a lot going on in his day with his meticulous research observations and the Origin of Species to design and write. Contemporary creatives who get up at dawn include Oprah Winfrey, who walks her dogs first thing, and Tim Cook, the Chief Executive officer of Apple, who is up at 3.45am to check email, exercise and drink coffee.

It’s tempting to think that a super early start means a punishing push through each day, but I’ve noticed how animals regulate their days with plenty of short rests when they aren’t doing much at all. When I’m bent over my laptop, working at a stretch for hours at a time, it’s easy to forget to look up and breathe, to remember that there is more space in each day than my narrow perception allows. The pandemic has reminded me to do what I must do and to let go of what is not important. Early mornings are a time to check-in when my mind is quiet and uncluttered. Later in the day, when there is much more activity: meetings, messages, meals to prepare, the morning calm and clarity often fades and I find myself searching for it. The horses remind me every day  where it can be found. 





A vocabulary of smiles

26 07 2020

Like many people this week, I have struggled to get my head around wearing a mask when I go out shopping. For a start, there are so many small considerations, such as when to actually pull the mask up to the mouth and when to lower it. A whole new social etiquette is emerging which I’m finding in some ways amusing and in other ways confusing.

Yesterday, an encounter in a coffee shop amused when the manager offered a plastic visor to an elderly couple, who had forgotten their masks, to try on for size. Even though I was masked, I was also offered a turn so that I could agree that the plastic shield bearing the breath droplets of strangers was far superior to my own cloth model.

The confusing part involves how to speak to people when they can’t see your mouth. Rather than offer a muffled ‘morning’ which seems superfluous now that my accompanying smile cannot be read is it perhaps better to offer a nod instead?

In Born to be Good, a fascinating study on human behaviour, social psychologist Dacher Keltner, devotes an entire chapter to the significance of the smile His research dissects the different types of smile human animals offer to each other. One classic example is the ‘service industry smile’ ‘the one that signals the customer is always right’ and masks the frustration of workers who must never show their feelings no matter how unreasonable the demands made by the one being served. This smile creates such strain Keltner observes as to ‘produce a form of schizophrenia.’

“We may experience feelings of emptiness and quiet frustration, or a deep ennui, but we display to the world the smile of satisfaction.”

Dacher Keltner Born to be Good (2009)

 

There are many different occasions when people smile and Keltner’s research has shown that people smile while exposed to the most unlikely situations, for example, after losing and when watching a film of an amputation. But the emotion behind the smile differs according to which muscles are activated. Smiles which activate the delightfully named ‘happiness muscle’ or the orbicularis oculi tend to last longer and communicate genuinely positive states. These smiles have been named Duchenne or D smiles after the French neuroanatomist Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne (1806-1875). If the happiness muscle does not fire, smiling still happens, but does not last as long and often masks a negative state. These non-Duchenne or non-D smiles might be anxious or nervous smiles or smiles to cover up the true emotion.

This research shows that it really is true that we smile most fully with our eyes, which is good news for those who feel that the full range of emotions has been muted by the necessity of wearing a mask. Interestingly, because only the eyes can be seen it might make it easier to read the genuineness of a smile.

Here’s Keltner on how you tell if it’s D or non-D: when contracted, the muscle around the eyes, raises the cheek, pouches the lower eyelid and wrinkles the skin into crow’s feet – the most visible sign of happiness. ‘People may think they look prettier following Botox injections, but their partners will receive fewer clues to their joy, love and devotion.’

So, the next time I’m shopping along with my fellow mask wearers and we’re all eyeing each other as we try to navigate this strange new social landscape, I must remember to look for the crow’s feet.

In the example above, taken from Born to be Good, which is probably one of the funniest works of psychology I’ve ever read, the D smile for the first gentleman, is on the right; for the second, it is on the left. Of course, you all got that, didn’t you?

 








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