Wonderful year

30 12 2013

It’s been a wonderful year. Looking back over images of the past twelve months I see how new themes have emerged in my work and become threaded into all that I do. Just before Easter, I moved my horses to a new field and I see just how inspirational the Devon landscape has been to me. Living closely with the rhythms of nature has helped me to appreciate simple unfolding beauty, such as the unfurling of new oak leaves, or the appearance of the first bluebells, the changing colours of the fields and the sky.

I’ve shared warm and thoughtful times with friends both in the landscape and in the classroom and learned from every encounter. In the summer, I made new friends with the launch of Thinking Through Philosophy in my home town of Teignmouth and was heartened and encouraged by the generous and open-minded response of all those who came to the seminars. It has helped me to see that philosophy is most relevant and life affirming when it is grounded in every-day living.

Being grounded in what is real has made my year wonderful. As with every year, there have been challenges and sorrows and disappointments; it hasn’t always been easy. Looking back, though, the disappointments have already faded and I see that there have been many more new opportunities and experiences than I anticipated at the start of the year when I was still limping and depressed from a severe knee injury.

Twelve months on and due to regular walks and rides I feel fitter than I have ever been.  I feel joy each time I connect with my horses. They have helped me to be patient and to focus on one step at a time by doing only what I felt physically capable of.  Halfway through the year, I still needed someone to come out with me as I felt too insecure to ride alone. Now when I look back I see how far I’ve come. I can remember the first time I lay on the ground and the feeling of being connected to the earth and knowing that my body was going to get stronger as long as I didn’t push it. Of all the lessons of 2013, the most significant for me is taking note of when I need to rest.

It’s been a year of recovery and recuperation and reflection. Nonetheless, it’s been an active and productive year.  Ideas that I have long wanted to put out into the world are now beginning to take shape. In the autumn I was privileged to help with the training of untouched ponies on Dartmoor through my association with the community interest company the Dartmoor Pony Training Centre. In handling these highly sensitive and reactive feral ponies, I learned to listen even more closely to the signals from my own body language and came away deeply moved by the experience. Those days of silent communication in a light-filled cold barn were thrilling and transcendent. 

In January I am launching Thinking Through Horsemanship, a long-nurtured project that brings together my twin passions for philosophy and for horses and develops ideas I have been thinking about for over a decade. The pilot will launch with a group of young people at Sirona Therapeutic Horsemanship.

Choosing images from the year was difficult, but I was guided by the theme of wonder, one of the key preoccupations of philosophy. To do philosophy is to adopt an attitude of wonder. Here are some wonder moments from the past twelve months.

I wish all my readers a warm and wonderful start to 2014.

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New oak leaves

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Bluebells in the wood

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Cattle though the hedge

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Lisa with Dragonfly

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Marian with Sheranni

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Philosophy in action: Gordon with Naomi

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Jet on Dartmoor

 

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Pippa with Stanley on Dartmoor 

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July sky

 

 

 





Some ways of looking at light

13 03 2013

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Learning photography has made me pay more attention to light. As soon as the cloud lifts, I find my eyes drawn to my camera which has been sat in darkness for the past month. My photography teacher is uninspired and so am I. We’ve agreed to put lessons on hold for a while until the light improves. There was a bit of sparkle in the sea today and I felt my spirits lift. The season is turning, and spring is pushing up from the ground. A woman in Turn of the Tide, one of my favourite local shops, noted that the birds are sounding sweeter.  

I bought an emerald green scarf, jewel bright, soft. It’s still too cold to wear it, but I imagine lighter days will be here soon. People seem more open as spring approaches. March feels like it’s the true beginning of the year, the time when light grows stronger.

 I’m noticing lightness in people, too. The young woman in the co-op was only too happy to thinly slice ham for me even though she had never used the machine before. She took five minutes or so to get the slicer going and apologised all the way through the procedure: you must think it’s like being served by a clown. At one point the manager arrived to see how she was getting on. Clearly slicing ham was not part of her job description, but she was happy to have a go and make a hash of it, which was why I didn’t begrudge her the five minutes she needed. Her light-heartedness inspired me to be generous.

It’s only when people are light with each other that true generosity is possible. It’s only when people give up holding on to what makes them heavily important that they become people who inspire. As part of my professional life, I watch many presentations and have developed an aversion to the laboured point, the overly spelled out, the heavy emphasis, the worthy yet dull. I expect to endure presentations rather than enjoy them.

An inspired presentation by a professor from the University of Washington has got me thinking about the nature of shared ideas in scholarship. Too many academic presentations deliver theory like a hard brick of knowledge, built on the foundations of previously cited identical bricks; it is rare to encounter theory that lets in the light and air in the form of an invitation to comment and connect with pieces that may not precisely fit.

Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor here, but a dry stone wall composed of irregular stones is a much stronger structure than a brick wall, and can last for centuries. Facts and data can always be quickly manufactured and will always feel flimsy. Knowledge built from ideas that have had time to ripen and season can feel like the beginning of a work of art.





Making a mark

26 02 2013

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Over half-term last week I went for a walk with a friend to check on some calves. The animals heard us coming and called down to us from the high path. It was bitterly cold and not the sort of weather for standing around even though we were protected from the worst of the wind by some sheltering trees. It was a short walk, but one I wished were longer because my friend asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.

‘What motivates you?’

At the very least, that’s a five-mile question. My friend had already mentioned the idea of legacy and that had got me thinking about what I would wish to leave behind once my life is spent. A legacy is different from a memory, from merely not being forgotten. A legacy is more than a single act. A legacy requires something like a body of work, or at least consistent effort in that direction.

When I first started to write professionally, I didn’t think about what it would all amount to. I just poured all my energy into the current writing project and came up for air months, or more often years later. Since I completed my last writing project, I’ve given myself a bit more recovery time than usual because I now want to write only when I have something worthwhile to say. I’m no longer interested in writing for the income alone. I now feel that whatever I write next will be written out of passion.

‘Passion motivates me.’

All the books I adore, all the art I love, all the films that mean something to me, all the people I admire have passion. I’m reminded now of another friend who lost her art a few months ago and has spent this winter working on new beautiful, intricate, extraordinary work, in an ecstasy of relief that she is still able to find the motivation and the heart to not reproduce but fully recover her art. I, for one, can’t wait for her first exhibition because I know that the work has been created through passion. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she said when she showed me her work. ‘But I just love it.’

Loving what you do is a legacy as long as you love it and practise it even when you feel disheartened. Even when you feel that no one is listening. After the walk to see the calves, we settled down in front of the fire with a pot of tea and some fudge brownies. We talked about philosophy. One of the benefits of my job teaching philosophy is that it immediately encourages people to talk about big stuff.

A theme emerged: how to find meaning in life. No matter how far you stray in philosophical enquiry – and it is possible to wander quite far and get lost in the woods – this theme turns up nearly every time to guide you back to what’s important. What life is for is the ultimate philosophical question. Socrates built his career around it; Plato was preoccupied by the best way to organise society and Aristotle was keen to find the answer to lasting happiness or eudaimonia, a state closer to well-being or what we might call fulfilment.

What fulfils us also brings us closer to well-being. The difficulty lies in finding a job or a cause or a way of life that allows us to become fulfilled.

‘It’s just so difficult to get heard.’

This from a teenager who was joining in the fireside debate. Already he recognises how hard it will be to make his mark in his chosen field of engineering. Here is a teenage boy with a passion to build something great. Does it matter if he doesn’t get heard?

I think his point about competition is sobering, but only part of the story. If you choose to build or create one of the first things you must do is to ignore the competition. Not because you don’t care what has gone before, not even because there is plenty of wonderful work out there that totally inspires you, but because you are creating your own legacy. When you are ready to build, you will find people who are ready to listen.





Field View

19 09 2012

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I spend a lot of time staring across fields. The field above captures my attention daily. I’ve always gone to landscape and need to feel it around me.  Sometimes I find myself thinking of a field as I might think of a friend, wondering what kind of mood it is in, wondering how the light falls. When at the end of the day the green folds greet me, I feel uplifted.

Fields refresh and calm. Like many people, a good part of my day is spent sitting at a screen. There always comes a point when I can no longer bear the on-off black blink of the cursor and must take my eyes away and outside for a long cool drink.

Fields have become a part of my working routine, but I don’t take them for granted. When living in London, I longed for green spaces. There was a park opposite my block of flats where I went every day until it became as familiar as my back garden. Craving wilder space, I ventured further to a large park with water. On the way there I usually paid homage to a local authority house with a blue plaque outside announcing it as the former home of the poet Stevie Smith.

When the ache to escape grew intense, I wrote protest poems that reported back to Stevie all the stuff I loathed about the modern world.  I thought the mordant poet would have been amused at the way things had turned out. One letter written at Easter described the way that supermarkets piped in the smell of Hot Cross Buns. Another musing told Stevie about hi-viz cycling  gear and sportswear. I tried to describe colours that didn’t exist when she lived. I didn’t set out to write these letters; they arose as I walked.

I think on the move. Ideas and images may emerge when I’m sitting at my desk, but I always need to pace them out. Walking a green space, park or field, coaxes my impressions and vague scrappy thoughts out into the open. When I’ve had a good tramping about, I’m able to consolidate. At the end of my walk, I have something to say. 

For me, space to write means more than a room of my own. I’ve always found walls of any sort confining. I have a fear of being sent to prison or shut in. Pot-holing is my worst nightmare. I cannot think of diving without the beginnings of a panic attack. I need freedom to roam.

One of my characters was born in a field. Up until half way through the first draft of The Beautiful Truth, the main character was Janek, a young Polish man. It was his story I was following, and yet his story would frequently fade in and out. I began to think of a strong female character to lead the novel and talked through some ideas with a friend. I mentioned the woman I had met in Poland. One afternoon I was walking under the chestnut trees (trees are significant in the story) when I felt her. Krystyna had arrived fully formed. In that moment, I knew everything about her.

It was a thrilling encounter.  I knew then I had a novel that would go in an entirely different direction to the one I planned. I went back to my desk and began to recast my first draft – I still had far to go – but from that moment on it felt as if the ideas were dropping into their right place.








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