Vertigo and the quest for self

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is one of my all-time favourite films.  It has everything in it: a mysterious enigmatic heroine, a messed-up hero, romance, the American West, a beautiful deserted rose garden in the cemetery of a California Mission, unanswered questions, exploration of the deep embedded patterns of the psyche, archetypes, the quest for self…..I could go on.

‘Vertigo …

a feeling of dizziness …

a swimming in the head …

figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed ….’

 

The whole film captures this swooning, swimming feeling.  If you haven’t seen it, the plot is worth investigating and this post will allude to only some of its many fascinating facets.

On a psychological level, the film is about a man, John Ferguson (also known as ‘Scottie’), who doesn’t really know himself, and when he looks inside he has a sense of giddiness, panic and vertigo, he feels engulfed.  He is desperately looking for the answers to his own questions, his own enigma, outside himself.  In chasing a woman, or indeed more than one woman, he is actually searching for himself.

A professional involvement becomes deeply personal when John (Scottie) finds himself drawn to his friend’s wife, Madeline, because she embodies the mystery of times past and carries her own mystery within her, as archetypal Woman.  He doesn’t get to know her and she doesn’t let him in.  In fact, she is literally playing a part within the plot of the film.  He is held transfixed on both a narrative and a psychological level.

When Madeline apparently dies by flinging herself from a Mission tower, he is devastated and this reinforces his deep wound from the past.  (Of course, as we later discover, the real Madeline is already dead.) When he then meets her brunette look-alike Judy, he is taken over by the impulse to recreate Judy in the image of Madeline only to discover ultimately that it was actually Madeline who had been created by Judy.  The woman he thought he loved didn’t exist and his love was simply a projection of himself. 

What a great metaphor this is for what happens often in life, and how convoluted experience can be.

John (‘Scottie’) wants to bottom-out the mystery of Madeline-cum-Judy, the mystery of Woman, and get to the core of the spiral deep inside himself which leaves him feeling dizzy and groundless.  He objectifies his personal dilemma, and seeks the solution outside himself.  He is both drawn to Madeline and yet at the same time unable to truly connect with her. 

The reality is that he is unable to connect with himself.  And no one can connect with another person if they are not connected within. 

The phenomenon of vertigo is known to be double-edged.  The sufferer feels an intense fear of falling, yet at the same time is drawn to the depths and feels an overwhelming impulse to fall.  On a psychological level, there is a strong pull to let go and surrender to the fall into the other, into oneself, yet in this is also a fear of death, of the loss of self in the other, even in the finding. 

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”

- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

When Judy dies at the end of the film, John is cured of his vertigo.  He needs exactly the same thing to happen to him again, in precisely the same place, with the same woman who he now sees differently, for his lesson to be learned.  He is freed from his own confusion, his state of being mystified and engulfed just before this moment of her death when he discovers the truth - but at what cost?  He has lost his illusions, has he found his self?

The woman he thought he loved is shown not to have existed.  He re-made Judy in the image of Madeline who he suspected was re-making herself in the image of her great grandmother.  There are multiple layers of deception and illusion here, and at the heart is a sense of archetypal unknowable Woman, Woman as object, not a woman loved for her self.

The objectifying of Woman is a common phenomenon in art and life.  It is a form of collection with an underlying desire for mastery and control, rather like netting butterflies and then sticking pins in them to display in glass cabinets.  Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady is another example where the plucky young American girl Isabel Archer arrives in Britain and is turned into a curio in the collection of the man she marries, Gilbert Osmond. 

In Jungian terms, Scottie is chasing his Anima, the unexplored, unconnected feminine part of himself he fears and yet is deeply drawn to.  The objectified feminine can be found in a number of archetypes – for example the Mother, the Madonna, the Temptress, the Wanton Woman.  In one woman, multiple archetypes can reside. 

When this pattern of objectifying exists, especially across a series of women, a man is living out something unresolved.  When caught in this pattern, it can be endless, with a series of unresolved projections of the one on to the other, without real lasting connections being made.

In Vertigo, Scottie gets catapulted into and, at the end, catapulted out of, his trauma.  In life, we may come across examples where the pattern just gets repeated, unconsciously and even despite the best efforts of the individual to step out and change.  Sometimes, though, through an uncanny repetition such as the one in Vertigo, there can  be an experience of such catapulting out and potential transformation of the self.

Let the buyer beware!  Woe betide anyone who stumbles unawares into someone else’s pattern and gets caught up in it, as a fly in a spiderweb, or sucked into the vortex of a spiral of dread.

Vertigo offers a painful resolution in the precise repetition of events – meeting the same woman, turning her into the previous woman, ending up at the tower of the same Mission, with the same outcome – the woman throwing herself to destruction from the tower.  At least two women are self-sacrificed for John to have a chance to transform himself.  In fact, there is certainly a third in the film, which I won’t go into here.  (Hitchcock’s attitudes to women have been explored elsewhere.)

In real life, people may be victims when they are turned into objects by others.  Yet they are always to some degree self-participating victims, though they may only be aware of this at a very deep unconscious level.  Once their participation is brought to their attention through circumstances or interventions, they have a choice.  The healthy choice is to transform themselves and the relationship and turn it to something else – without the required sacrifice of a life from a tower.

However, it takes two to tango – and this may not be possible; in which case it’s an option of the victim mustering resources to exit from the familiar triangle: Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer.  The Victim resisting the role of Rescuer, since the other cannot be rescued by anyone other than himself.  And the Victim also carefully sidestepping the role of Persecutor.  Even surfacing the other’s pattern can feel like, or be experienced as, a form of persecution.

‘If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Compelling as Goethe’s statement is, it isn’t always or simply true.  Even if you can see clearly (which is doubtful) that an individual is not who he ought to be or could be, who are you to decide what that individual ought to be and could be?  You can see what you’d like him to be – but is that truly what he ought to be and could be?  Is that not just your own projected pattern?  And just by treating someone the way you think they ought to be and could be, is no guarantee that they will become that anyway.

Ultimately each of us needs to bottom out our own vertigo, and the risk is that you become an important yet bit player in someone else’s drama, with the risk of self-sacrifice from a tower. 

with thanks to Madhu and Viv

Posted in American character, connections, Jung, special places, yoga | 1 Comment

The colour of the world

IMG_2618IMG_2639

Have you ever had the experience of seeing things all around you in a colour for a time?  And then that colour changes.

It’s like the leaves changing.  When the leaves are that bright spring green as they are in the moment when spring has not yet sprung, when the buds of leaves are just bursting into leaf and they have that intensely bright hopeful colouring…when you drive by avenues of them, the greens blend into each other and blur, and the whole world feels on the edge of a surge of something-ness.

You know that the leaves will change.  Wait for it, and miss it, and find it later.  You know there will be that moment of spring green-ness, followed by a deeper green into the depths of summer when the leaves are fully out with their beautiful contours, and then the gradual brown creeping in turning to crackling, until they fall right off and crunch underfoot, all brown and down.  With the spring green comes such an up-ness, and with autumn brown a gentle descent.  Down can be inviting though, down is not always low, it can be rolling as it exists in relation to up.

Each colour carries its emotion within itself.  And each colour has a spectrum of emotions to offer.

And yet because you know the drill, you know the pattern of one moving to the next, while you feel it with the whole of you, you also know the story – how it begins and ends and keeps going.  It’s familiar, it’s always a surprise, but it’s a comfortable surprise of remembering and repeating.

It’s a different feeling when the colour of the world just changes.  Maybe you didn’t even know it was coloured until it does change.  What was clear suddenly clearly had a tint.

So you thought you were wearing clear glasses but actually they were shades.  Some people wear dark glasses all the time, maybe they get so used to the dark hue of the world they think that’s how it is.  And some people have those glasses that go dark in the light, as if they cannot bear too much light.

So when the colour of the world changes and now it seems clear again, you realise how coloured it was before.  So you have to ask yourself, is it really clear now?  How do you know? You just keep stripping away the layers, like old paint on a wall, and maybe you get down to the substance itself.  You need paint stripper, wallpaper-remover, all those psychological chemicals, to make sure you’re really removing it and not just putting more on.  The layers accumulate and they are so tightly packed one on the next, you can’t even tell one from another.  And how do you know when they’re all gone?

You just have to stay with it – like an optician, each lens gets clearer and lighter, like a painter doing your preparations with great attention, care, discipline and persistence.

And sometimes you may wonder, would you want a world without colour?  Would you want instead the right colour for each scene, each situation?

The shock is when you realise the picture itself that you painted, is not there.  You blink back something, short of breath.  And so there is a disappointment when you reach out to touch that which has no substance.  You let go of that which cannot be grasped or held.  You step back and wait and accept.

The blinking stops, the breath is quiet.

Actually, this is a good place to be.

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.

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So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

- T S Eliot, Burnt Norton

Posted in connections | 2 Comments

The way we know each other

I wrote you some letters a few years ago. I felt I knew you, although it seems I didn’t. You wrote back, directly and through less direct means. Then, when I met you, I realised I didn’t know you. You were not the person you presented yourself to be. We hardly exchanged a word. I was disappointed. I had had unrealised expectations – unrealised before we met because I was not fully aware of them, and unrealised afterwards because they were not met.

In time I let them go.

elenore abbott grimm's fairy tales

The way we know each other is in passing. Sometimes it seems we know each other best when there are simply moments of connection rather than regular interactions. How much time do we need to spend together to know each other? Sometimes, almost none at all. And sometimes, the more we spend the less we know. Again, sometimes, somehow the restrictions on the amount of time possible make the knowing clearer, cleaner, sharper and more intense.

I met an old friend recently when we coincided in the city where she lived to hear some music together. I say she is an old friend, when in fact I think we’d only met face-to-face a couple times before. We’d been on parallel yoga mats at a workshop and discovered we closely shared musical tastes, work interests and places to stay.

The corruption of expectations. Because you write a poem, some words, or a song and it speaks to me, I expect to be able to speak to you. Maybe I can only speak to it. You are not your words. And just because those words have come from you, does not mean that you are someone to whom I can speak. You’re not the problem. My expectations are the problem.

I went somewhere I work recently. There’s always a nice friendly woman at the front desk. Everyone knows her, she remembers small but important details about each person who works there and each person who visits. The last two times I’ve arrived though, she hasn’t been there.

So I asked about her and it turns out she’d been engaged in petty theft and fraud for a number of years. She’d been caught out by chance, was challenged and promptly confessed, so had to leave immediately. The story behind her surprising behaviour – at odds with the persona that greeted me and the world – was complicated, to do with family financial pressures and mishaps. It all made sense once she told her story.

She wasn’t the woman we all thought she was, and somehow that didn’t surprise me. It made me think how we only ever know the surface; and then I was taken back to the day my mother woke me up and said, ‘I’ve left the newspaper with your breakfast. There’s a story there you’ll want to read.’ Plastered on the front page of the Local Stories section within the state paper was a photo of our closest family friend. She had worked at a major bookstore for many years and was one of the key staff there. Everyone relied on her for guidance and support. She was always so welcoming to me as a child, arranging little treats and outings. Turns out she’d been stealing from the till for over a decade to fund her mysteriously comfortable lifestyle, and was hauled off to jail never to be seen again.

It was a terrible shock, I can still see the photo of her beaming face in my mind’s eye. So we never really knew her, just the face she showed the world. It was a powerful lesson burned deep.

So I know the stories you tell the world, the stories you tell me, and the stories I tell myself about you. It’s those last which are the hardest to give up. Maybe because they put a cleansing frame about the bits that are less comfortable, less pleasant, and that don’t fit in the frame so nicely. Maybe giving my stories up makes me feel I was wrong. My judgment was flawed, I was less good at putting the pieces together than I would like to be.

And maybe when I do give my stories about you up, I realise I don’t know you at all, I don’t presume to know much or anything about you. And yet I know you completely.

Henirich Vogeler

And so when I left that time – seeing you again, another you, the same you – who I could never speak to, standing right in front of me – we exchanged a glance and a word, and suddenly it was all alright. Just a meaningless exchange but I knew you well and you knew me too, in that moment. There could be a disappointment, a frustration, because we will never be able to talk, never know each other in that sense of regular interactions. But there would only be a disappointment if there were hope turned into expectation. And even if we walked side by side, little or nothing might be said. But the way we know each other is always there, and somehow that’s what matters.

Jan Gyong Gil

Posted in connections, dreams, friendships, internet life, Jung, writing, blogging, yoga | 5 Comments

Kaleidoscope – mirror, glass and stones

‘A kaleidoscope is a cylinder with mirrors containing loose, coloured objects such as beads or pebbles and bits of glass. As the viewer looks into one end, light entering the other creates a colourful pattern, due to the reflection off of the mirrors.’ – Wikipedia

‘Many people cannot refrain from picking up stones of a slightly unusual colour or shape and keeping them…Men have collected stones from the beginning of time and assumed that certain ones were the container for the life-force and all its mysteries.’ – Carl Jung

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Sometimes patterns from the past get stirred up. There might be one piece of a picture that comes up again in a new setting, like coloured glass in a kaleidoscope. It is so vivid – think of a bright blue or deep green – that its reappearance brings back the whole old picture. Even though, when you pause to think, it is just that one piece that is the same. The rest is new. So, can you not let the spectre of the past be stirred up? Can you not react in the old way?

Especially when you recognise a parent’s voice in the present picture. You hear your mother’s voice of hurt, impatience, frustration, the spoiled child – hiding her head under the sheets and retreating for what seems like weeks even if it is only overnight.

So once you see then, and become once again the child that observed the parent-child, can you also see now? – the rest of the picture is not the same. And you are no longer that child. You have different choices. You can be, just be. Be an observer of beautiful forms, standing back.

And yet, still, in a very deep place inside, those feelings are stirred up. This is life, this is normal. No, it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be.

The piece of kaleidoscopic wonder is a piece of glass with a sharp edge. It cuts, you wince. It is said you can remove a thorn with a thorn. So something is needed to cut deep beyond that level of helpless feeling.

2

‘She lives with little joy or fear.
Over the water, running near,
The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
Before her hangs a mirror clear,
Reflecting towered Camelot.’ (The Lady of Shalott – Tennyson, 1833 version)

‘And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot.’ ((The Lady of Shalott – Tennyson, 1842 version)

Contemplating what images to put on your Wall, you quickly become aware of your image. The internet is a wonderful mirror.

Wish this was how women viewed themselves - Imgur

You may get lost in a sea of posts. The voices in your mind as you read them down your Wall: ‘that’s superficial’, ‘that’s beautiful’, ‘that’s blowing his own trumpet’, ‘that’s very long’, that’s nice’, ‘that sounds pompous’, ‘that sounds fake’, ‘that’s so well-expressed’, ‘a victim’, ‘ a rant!’, ‘how sad’, ‘how can they think that?’…

The endless flow of observations turning into judgments in the mind. Shadows of the world appear. The mirror is no longer clear once the mind gets a hold of it.

You can turn the mirror back on yourself and see how you are in that world of illusion.

It’s like a journey back in time. Retrace your steps to see what makes you comfortable, and uncomfortable, in the presence of others – invisible others.

Photo from Elephant Journal April 2013<

‘What do they see?’ ‘What will they think of me?’ How will they respond?’ ‘What should I say?’ ‘What shouldn’t I say?’ ‘Will they agree?’ ‘ Will we have an argument?’ ‘Should I like it?’ 'Is that ego?'

The list goes on and on. In a way, it’s like slowing down action in real time so that you can consider, make a choice, before you let your buttons be pushed, and push the ‘like’ or ‘share’ button to respond. That’s the luxury of remoteness, so often belittled as a bad thing. Actually it lets us see ourselves in action, in slow motion, and create a gap between the prompt to act and the action itself, so that we may become less attached to the result.

The kaleidoscopic patterns unfold, they repeat themselves.

If you look clearly without judgment or endorsement, then maybe you can see yourself a little more in focus, in the mirror; and maybe you can consider changing your reflection.

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girl with stars in her lap from Ocean of Compassion, Facebook

The thoughts and feelings I have float away from me, out to you, and float down to me. I find them in the mirror that is a river of flowing images. They are moments snatched from the flow offered to you. You may or may not see them. It doesn’t matter. It is also no matter whether I am here or not. I am still here whether or not you see me, just as you are here too in your absence.

I can use a subtle tone when I speak to you, you may miss it completely if you’re not listening. A small action is sometimes a kernel of a larger feeling.

So with a gaze. My glance fell upon the most beautiful camellias in a vase on a table, when I was talking to someone the other day. I observed my gaze deepen and become softer and more subtle, not grasping just receiving. I felt how different it was from the more careless active movements of looking, moving, grasping, talking that happen during so much of life.

Anything can be a mirror if we choose to let it be. Any moment, movement, look, thought, feeling, action. Everything can be a mirror and we can stop and reflect even as we act, without the reflection getting in the way; with reflection informing the action, so the action is performed with more skill and perhaps received with more care and more feeling consideration, which is love.

A small action, like a stone of a slightly unusual colour or shape, is a container for the life-force and all its mysteries. Hold on to it.

‘Modern kaleidoscopes are made of brass tubes, stained glass, wood, steel, gourds or almost any material an artist can use. The part containing objects to be viewed is called the 'object chamber' or 'object cell'. Object cells may contain almost any material. Sometimes the object cell is filled with a liquid so the items float and move through the object cell in response to a slight movement from the viewer.’ – Wikipedia

Posted in connections, dreams, internet life, Jung, yoga | 6 Comments

Uprooting illusions

In the flow of life that is Facebook, a quotation recently caught my eye.  It might have been this one: 

‘Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.’ – Mark Twain

Picture from Ocean of Compassion Facebook page

Or it may have been someone else saying something similar.  It doesn’t really matter.  What Mark Twain says is said in many other ways and is embedded in the fabric of our upbringing.  The conversation underneath the quote was in strong agreement with its sentiments; expressing a belief that somehow illusions are a good thing, they make us human, they give us hope. 

Certainly illusions are often a source of energy, drive, ambition and creativity.  An illusion, sometimes accompanied with the hope of realisation other times not, is what fires us to be active.  Or a disbelief in the possibility of realising our illusions can create an intensity of longing, disappointment or despair that leads to a creative act.

Illusions ensnare us, they have a subtle power that we might recognise intellectually so creating an air of detachment from them, but at a far deeper emotional and psychological level we remain tied up in their web.

Mark Twain says we can exist without illusions but not live.  Embodied in this statement is that romantic belief about living, feeling passionately, being carried away, towards something, just out of reach. Just another illusion about illusions.

Can we live without illusions?  Yes, in a much freer way.  But maybe that is scary because our identities are so bound up in our illusions.  In fact, if it is not a step too far for many readers, maybe our identities are themselves illusions and the idea of an identity is itself an illusion.

In my brief search for the quotation I stumbled across on Facebook, I found hundreds of quotations about illusions.  This one challenges Mark Twain and is much more aligned with what I’m saying here:

‘Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.’

Language gets in the way often, and I stumble a little over what Simone Weil means by ‘reality’ here.  However, I do agree that attachment is both the fabricator of illusions and the consequence of illusions. 

We become attached to our illusions.  They are part of us – part of what makes me ‘me’.  If I give up illusions, who am I?

I would like to substitute ‘freedom’ for ‘reality’.  We become free by separating ourselves from our illusions. The deepest-rooted ones are still there and like any plant, they can start to grow again.  But if we can walk by them rather than getting drawn in by their seductive fragrance, there is freedom – maybe just for a moment.

These thoughts are not original or new.  But when you are in the grip of a particularly strong illusion – like bindweed – which smothers and entraps, it’s interesting to observe the pattern and effects.

Even when your observing mind is pointing out the defects and flaws of your illusion, even when your discerning intelligence and intuition is continuously punctuating your experience with challenges, ‘aha!’ moments and discernment, still the bindweed illusion persistently hangs on and holds you there, as if entranced.

Stepping back in the moment of such experience is hard.  The persistent ‘me’ does not want to step back from your illusion.  You want to hold on to it – for dear life.  You do not want merely to exist, Mr Twain tells you.

So even over the peace of distance from your illusion, you choose – repeatedly – the pain of disappointment.  Even with each piece of accumulating evidence that your meticulous mind collects, polishes and connects with the other pieces, you turn your back on your inner wisdom.

Why is that?  Is it because you have been trained as a child to believe in the beauty of illusion over the simple state of how things are?  It is just a deeply engrained habit and one that can be substituted or replaced, even if its seeds are always there to be scattered by a gusty spring wind.

 

spring in bloom Olaf Hajek

Posted in connections, dreams, yoga | 8 Comments

The tip of the iceberg, the roots of the tree….

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Listening to some incredible tales the other day – so incredible they could have been material for a seventh novel in Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series about the Church of England in the 20th century – I was reminded of that saying, ‘The tip of the iceberg’. ‘The earliest, most obvious, or most superficial manifestation of some phenomenon’ (Webster’s Dictionary).

We only see a little piece of what others present to us, their persona, and can but surmise about the greater depths beneath the presenting surface.  The stories we tell ourselves and the world are at the tip of our iceberg, their deeper roots and truths concealed.

In our ignorance, like a ship at sea, we may crash into the hidden berg beneath the surface, and both or one of the two colliding beings may be hurt and damaged. 

How easy it is for us to become wrapped up in our own stories and those we hear from others….to the point where it becomes difficult to know what to believe and what to question.  Sitting there listening to these stories really drove that point home to me, always easier to see with someone else.

Someone else’s fantasy becomes our drama or feeds our drama, and acquires a reality of its own, like a floating iceberg cut off from the greater mass to which it belongs.  We need to find our way back to land.

Generally when we think of ‘the tip of the iceberg’, there is a feeling that everything beneath the surface, what is invisible, has huge power and importance, and is often very difficult – maybe mostly because it is unseen.  There is a sense of foreboding.  When a ship meets the iceberg beneath the surface, the ship’s fate is usually not a happy one. Think of the Titanic.  Very few sailors contemplate meeting a hidden iceberg with joy and excitement – unless they have a death wish.  We tiptoe around other people’s hidden depths, feeling our way and expecting to encounter problems there rather than joy.  At best we are neutral.

And then, while mulling over these reflections, I saw this picture.

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The roots of the tree turn the iceberg on its head.  The tree stripped of leaves, in an autumnal or wintry setting, has spring sprouting beneath its surface in full glory and just starting to wrap around its bare, exposed trunk, like a second skin. Instead of shedding its skin, this tree is growing one, even out to its furthest extremities, its fingertips.  All of this life is there waiting to burst forth when the time is right.  Just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  The surface doesn’t tell the whole story, but in this version what’s hidden is wonderful not full of foreboding. 

So often we feel a frustration with life.  Despite our best efforts nothing is happening.  There is a sense of time standing still, incubating.  We can trust in this process or not.

So when we see the wintry tree, do we imagine a a dark mass of knotted roots beneath the surface, something to hack away at; or do we think of this dynamic living force at work, invisible and glorious, waiting to arrive?  I guess it’s a little like the ‘glass half empty’/’glass half full’ choice.

What about just – a glass?

You can see the tendencies, inclinations and habits of a personality grown up over a lifetime as dark, hidden and formidable.  Or you can see something more positive, if sometimes tangled and confused, at the heart of a person’s tendencies, inclinations and habits. You can get caught up in, and be entranced by, the stories the personality tells itself and the world, the way it reacts, its pleasures and irritations.

So I can choose how I see….

The tip of the iceberg, the roots of the tree…

Sometimes I want to believe so strongly in those hidden flowers that I am shocked by the discovery of some ice there too. I have expectations. I can get traumatised by the iceberg beneath the surface which I sense, maybe graze against or even collide with from time to time. I can be waylaid luxuriating in the flowers in the underground garden.

Somehow I need to welcome both the frost and the flowers without hoping for one and hoping against the other – stepping away from expectations, towards something.

snow flowers

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Who am I?

Opera of the Moon - Jacqueli - from Ocean of Compassion website

Opera of the Moon – Jacqueli – from Ocean of Compassion website

Last year on my birthday one of my oldest, long-lost friends sent me an e-mail out of the blue.  It was affirming to be back in contact and illuminating – if a little uncomfortable – to re-establish how and why we’d fallen out of touch, and put the past to bed. 

People often have different versions of what’s happened, differing stories. She thought I’d rejected her while I remembered we’d gradually grown apart.  My version was kinder to both of us, certainly kinder about me.  Who knows which was true – er?

Anyway, my friend had kept the stash of letters I’d sent her during our four- or five-year friendship, from the end of junior high school through to university. We arranged to meet, after all these years and the plan was to re-read the letters together, recapturing lost time.

I was looking forward to it, not with any conscious expectations really, certainly no excessive overlay, but with interest.  I didn’t know what I expected, and as so often is the case, it was only afterwards that I knew what I hadn’t expected and kind of had a sense of what I was looking for.

We decided to meet at Starbucks.  I was sitting there waiting with a cup of coffee when a couple of people came in, a man and woman. They had their life’s belongings with them and seemed unsure of themselves, especially the woman. They had clearly fallen on hard times. They chose a table right next to me and settled in for a chat. 

I wasn’t really paying attention but all of a sudden I heard two names I recognised, two high school teachers from days gone by, right back to the time of the letters I was waiting to read.  My ears pricked up and the woman talked at length about one of them, the one I remembered better, saying he had helped her pass English and get into college.  I was wondering why after all these years she was talking to this man so animatedly about a high school teacher. I couldn’t really follow what she was saying, and the man also seemed a little perplexed.  It seemed strange – here they were at this much later stage in their lives, pretty much the same age as me, and she seemed so preoccupied with this high school teacher I hadn’t thought of for decades.  I was struck by the different courses of our lives, I heard her say something about almost getting thrown out of home during high school, and I thought how true it is that our early life can shape us and set us on a path.  I felt grateful for my start in life, as I looked at them, the man with a huge lump in or on his forehead – had he been punched or was it some deformity that had always been there or had grown up in the course of life?

I was tempted to join in and say, ‘I knew that teacher too, he taught me.’  But something held me back.  And when my friend came, I told her as we walked to her car, and she like me hovered at the prospect of going back in and telling them, ‘we went to that school too, we knew those teachers.’  Something held us back.  Was it self-protection or fear?  We told ourselves it was a practical decision, it would have eaten up our precious time. These were people we might have known, maybe we did know them, they were unrecognisable as their lives had made them physically alien to us.  Maybe we were unrecognisable too. Maybe we’d had lunch together on the playground.  They could have been us, and we could have been them.  I felt connected to them, and curious – but something in me held back. In rejecting them, was I rejecting a part of myself, or was I just being myself?

And remember, we had a job to do. 

So we went to read my letters.  And lo and behold, one of the key figures in all those early letters was that same teacher I remembered but hadn’t thought about for decades!  Endless references to him of the most inane sort.  I could hardly remember the man, but there he was on every page.  I had mocked him, unkindly, we both had with adolescent insensitivity and no malicious intent.

And I saw in these early letters a person I didn’t recognise but a person I knew, a person I had never seen so clearly before – as I stood back from my earlier self.  I looked at the reams of stream-of-consciousness….  Boys, gossip, food, clothes, pop stars, petty jealousies and insecurities, stuff….  None of it was wholly at odds with my memories, but the words on paper in familiar handwriting had the effect of bursting the bubble of my sense of past self.   It was a surprise, moderated slightly by the glimmers of someone I knew better emerging in the later more reflective letters from university, these still swamped by an adolescent neo-Romantic drama queenish melancholia.  I was a little disappointed – letting go the illusion – and it made me think.

The experience of reading these letters was oddly empty and insubstantial – like eating a Starbucks pastry that looks so tasty and leaves you feeling a little light-headed because of the high sugar content.

And then a couple days later coming back to England, getting off the plane and hearing the high-pitched shrieks and gigles of it must have been towards 1,000 adolescent schoolgirls all with their crushes on The Janoskians: ‘Just a group of hopeless kids with no future taking on the streets of Melbourne.’ ‘The Janoskians (Just Another Name Of Silly Kids In Another Nation) are a YouTube comedy group, pranksters, singers, entertainers, and stunt performers, based in Melbourne, Australia.’ (Wikipedia) The Janoskians were arriving on the same flight, in fact they’d been in the row behind, and all these girls were hanging on desperate to see them.  Police were holding them back.  It was surreal to walk through the entry doors at Heathrow Airport and be greeted by this huge crowd of barely controlled emotion.

And only afterwards did I reflect these were the schoolgirls inside of me let loose – this was the excess of emotion run riot in those letters, magnified and ramped way up the scale.  I could not reject that girl who was me just as I could not deny the connection with the street people, my old classmates, at the table nearby.  Walk by, turn away, that’s what we did as we walked down through Duty Free with no goods to declare into the airport, along the demarcated space with those pulsating schoolgirls pressing in on us – no, life would not let me off the hook.

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