The Great Unlocking

I started writing this on the morning of 5th November. 

Life took over with challenges in my professional role: in the 10 days that have passed, I dealt with an individual battling the burden of having taken a life, and another whose mind is a dark place of despair, with its own frail reality and fear of the world around them. 

The pandemic’s insidious journey is unrelenting.

As the clock struck midnight into a new day, a new lockdown began.
It was silent in my courtyard.
Carriages became pumpkins, and an urban fox – wild, resilient, wise – sat for a moment and then was gone. 
Did it see me at the window?

The next morning, for the first time in weeks, after a flurry of work emails, I found myself with a little window of quiet time.
Fog was hanging over the streets outside, and I stepped away from the view, cup of coffee in hand, seeking clarity.

Lockdown 2.0 is eerily familiar. 
This time there is solace in the knowledge that my daytime normal, evolved and evolving, has permitted a continuity that was previously lacking. 

In the race to protect ourselves and others from callous Covid, isolation has lost its splendour. 

The unlocking of communication pathways has never been more important than at this time, and I find myself constantly evaluating the relationship between value and values.

Later that week I caught up with an old friend; we had allowed time and circumstances to block what was previously a free flowing gateway and now we cleared a path once more and like Mary in The Secret Garden uncovered the door handle from under the overgrown ivy.

Doors are an obvious metaphor.

We talk about our door being open to someone in need or decisions taken behind closed doors. 

A way forward or a barrier.

Letting in or letting go.

A knock becomes a faceless sound and we forgo possibility. 

Sometimes we need to venture out: the call of the heart, even if on some interpretation viewed as irrational, should be followed without judgement and access allowed through a door left ajar…


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For granted

As northern hemisphere schools break for the summer I’ve been thinking back to my Singapore school days…

Long before it became hip to practice gratitude and mindfulness, in one ordinary school assembly morning, we were given a lesson that stayed with me.

Mr Bennett, a tall gangly Englishman, addressed us – excitable teenagers on the edge of adulthood – and talked about how fortunate we were to be able to take so much in our lives for granted.

We had safety.
We were nurtured.
We had knowledge.
We were inspired.
We had certainty.
We were loved.

In one form or another, there has always been some taking-for-granted strewn along my path.

Always there.
The safety.
The knowledge.
The certainty.

One microscopic being put paid to that.
One microscopic being shook us to the core.

In the weeks and months of lockdown there were moments when any sense of conviction about the road ahead was absent.
Palpably absent.

At a time when we are all encouraged to be kind.
It was sometimes difficult to practice
Self-kindness.
Self-care.

The self became a colour chart of emotion.
Grey.
Blue.
Green.
Yellow.

Moments of inhospitable solitude.
Our own four walls not a sanctuary but a prison.

Moments of reflection in every shade of the ocean –
Dark, choppy water.
Pale and calm to the horizon.

Moments of hope putting out shoots of renewal –
Gratitude to the amazing work of others.
Determined, committed, relentless.

Moments of sunshine.
Glimpses of beauty.
The words of those close to our heart.

At the weekend, after an afternoon of newness, I went back to the old.
Beaming smiles on my screen.

We raised glasses to offer our good wishes.

In my glass memories of gentle slopes rising above a dirt track, overlooking Lake Dunstan.
A man-made creation adopted by its surroundings.
The manufactured becoming second nature.

In my mind’s eye, I am drinking in the views around me.
There is sunshine and a gentle breeze.
Vines reaching out as though wanting to be touched.
The land is alive.

In my glass, another colour.
Red.
Shades of optimism, insistent and  celebrating the moment.
Light reflecting life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7/7

I wrote this exactly 5 years ago in pre-Brexit London.
Before the fault lines appeared.


Hard to process 7/7 happened 15 years ago.
In a faraway world. 

—————————-

7/7/2005 was going to be an ordinary Thursday.

The previous day I’d arranged to go shopping with a friend; we would both be out of court the next day. A summer’s day mooch and lunch seemed the perfect plan.

In the calm of my bedroom (coffee, laptop, crisp white bed linen) little did I know that by 10am the London of outside my window had become a very different place from that of the day before.

Olympics euphoria evaporated into shock.

Sirens tearing through the quiet of Marylebone, which almost miraculously remained for a while unknowing.
Ignorant of the devastation that lay on either side of her elegant streets.
The local fire station (now the celeb-spot Chiltern Firehouse) had closed down a mere 17 days earlier…

Then the calls started coming in; a friend on my landline “thank god you’ve picked up”.  A police officer in a case I was prosecuting at the time “I know you’re central – are you okay? stay home if you can.”

Images on Sky News.
The never ending loop of reporting.
A bellyful of fear.
An acrid mouthful of it.
Obsessive compulsive viewing.

By late afternoon silence descended.

Grief, his wings spread above the city, enfolded London in a tight, painfully tight embrace.
Londoners became one, united in loss.
A crash course in humanity.

A decade later, the legacy of the atrocities of that day remains that sense of oneness.
A London bigger whole than the sum of its parts.

It is impossible to quantify the gratitude I feel to those who have given of themselves.
Those whose journey has made into guardians of freedom.
I remain in awe of them and the unwavering resilience of this great place I am immensely fortunate to be able to call home.

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100 days

Last weekend, in a garden full of roses and rosemary and set with tables laden with bowls of goodness glowing in the pink and gold of a summer’s sunset, I was fortunate enough to be in company that allowed for an evening in which time, if only for a few hours, gently took us into what felt like a bygone era where glasses shone with the optimism of champagne and conversation sparkled.

There was talk of art and travel, food and wine and experiences
The past but not the future.

100 days have passed since lockdown began.
The number came up in a news headline earlier this week. *
100 days.

100 days ago
It was spring.
The parks bursting with bloom.
Green shoots unfurling.
Daffodils and lonely clouds.

Now it’s summer.
I walk on land that’s grown weary under the sun.
The squawk of hungry seagulls.
Roses and heady scents.

Lockdown life is the transit lounge to the new normal.
It’s that moment in travel when you walk through an airport in bewildered unreality with no sense of place or time; it could be JFK or Changi, Santiago or Auckland, 5am or 5pm.
We follow signs that will take us to the ‘here’ we seek.

The new normal is made up of numbers, statistics and charts.

Death became a number greater than I am able to perceive.

I studied statistics at university.
The course was titled ‘statistics and methodology’.
We learnt the tools that allowed us to construct [visual] realities.

Now the stats are shape-shifters; making offerings at the altar of R.

R is the number we fear.

In an article full of psychobabble I once came across an acronym for fear –
False Evidence Appearing Real.

In real life I am forensic to a fault.
The evidence is real.
Its appearance – unscrambling my thoughts – seems not false, but difficult to process.

As we struggle to make sense of it the numbers take hold.

Stay away (2) **
Be good (R<1)

Be bad (R>1)
Deal with it (43,906) ***
Shrink (20) ****
Affirm life (6) *****

The old normal came at me in waves this week.
Moments of familiarity washing over before breaking into a million bubbles on the shoreline of my memory and retreating into the sea.

And in those moments, one hundred days evaporated, once again we were all as one.

————————-

* Lockdown was announced in the UK on 23rd March 2020.

** 2 metres is the recommended social distance between people

*** Official number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the UK as at 1.7.20

**** Percentage by which the UK GDP is estimated to have shrunk as at 12.6.20

***** The number of people permitted to gather as at 27.6.20

 

Artwork ‘R is the magic number’ by Simon Thompson

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10,000 Steps

10,000 Steps

As I walk through the park I become aware of the sound of my steps, the soft persistence of my trainers, so different to the clip clop of my heels in my other life.
The life before lockdown.
When my steps carried a sense of urgency; the here and now of the moment.
The here and now of the spoken word.
The here and now that defines my professional life – embellished with costume and a sense of purpose.

Today and now are different.
A hush has fallen over the city.
A quietude broken by the sound of helicopters overhead.
I think of Orwell’s 1984 and the Newspeak of 2020:
Super spreader.
Social distancing.
Self isolation.

The park is alive with its carpet of green and white and yellow.
The grass is lush and the daisies fresh.
Pablo Neruda’s words echo: ‘They can cut all the flowers but they can’t stop the Spring from coming’.
And I think of Hockney’s The Arrival of Spring at a Royal Academy exhibition in 2012…. the colours bold and engaging.
Some museum visits stay with you.
This one involved a good friend, endless conversation and one of those days when London, my London, sparkled.

Today’s news media speak of more deaths.
The cutting short of lives.
In a different forum I learn of another death.
The cutting short of a life.
T was an old school friend.
In the halcyon days of our teens, she was a ray of sunshine.
She had come from a country that at the time was still in the shadow of the Iron Curtain and her enthusiasm for all that our hugely privileged expatriate life offered was joyous.
Now she is gone.
Illness staked a claim on T for months and finally won.
I watch ripples on the water as swans and ducks and geese dive and surface, take off and land, and I think of my friend.

The blossom is endless and I’m showered in petals.
My hay fever brings watery eyes and tears.
Nature demands evidence of my grief.
Hidden behind dark glasses I can cry.
Seen and unseen.

I walk on.
In the past 10 days, my daily 10,000 steps have become a ritual.
These are steps I have taken countless times, passed shop fronts and houses, street signs and lampposts, across the road and into the park.
Now they are different.
My daily opportunity to go beyond the confines of the safety of the familiar and look up and around.
Taking in the world around me as if anew.
Slowing down to catch a glimpse of beauty – of colour and light and shape and sound.
A leaf, a bud, a tile on a step to a house, bird song.

Only a few weeks ago I addressed a jury about perception.
It was in the context of suggesting witnesses were mistaken in interpreting an act they saw.
In my notes I wrote ‘…we try to make sense of the world around us and our natural inclination is to try and make sense of what we’ve seen, heard or experienced.
The problem that sometimes arises is that we haven’t seen all the evidence, we are not aware of all the circumstances and that may mean the conclusions we may have drawn may be faulty…’

In my professional world I look for doubt.
Reasonable doubt.
Something that would allow for uncertainty.
Something that would allow a jury to find that things may not be as they seem.

In the lockdown world I look for certainty.
For reassurance.
Something that will allow me to comprehend, to process, to perceive of how the world has changed, is changing, will change.

I have no answers yet, and maybe won’t ever.
So for now
Each breath is a gift.
Each step is a journey.

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New second

A new year
A new decade
A new start

We like to punctuate life with full stops.
1.1.

The first of the first is the place we are conditioned to accept as ‘right’ for fresh beginnings, and as the clock strikes midnight we wish our pumpkin to become a carriage that will magically provide transport to the better us.

New year’s day began on the road. On the other side of the world to where I was last year.

Last year it was a journey home from the West Country after a week that would lead to the loss of a friend.

It came back to me through a veil of yellowing sadness as I drove back from my usual Christmas home-for-the-holidays a week ago, the roads carrying memories more visceral than I expected.

Memories of *that* week in which I drove on that road almost daily, on each outbound trip my heart would look for signs of hope and on every return it would be quiet with despair.

I was reminded of wise Gandalf’s words in JR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings ‘I will not say: do not weep for not all tears are an evil’.
I wrote of the loss of my friend previously and in the months that passed since their passing there were tears.
Not all evil; sometimes there were smiles too when memories would catch me unawares.

This year the road is a new, unknown one; stretching ahead and framed in fields of green and the flat track of land from Christchurch to Oamaru on New Zealand’s South Island.
A part of this magical land that I did not get to on my last trip here.

This trip has been a long time in the planning – it was early spring, the time when the light changes, the days grow longer and I grow restless with longing to experience, to explore, to wander.

Today’s journey takes us into a small seaside town; Timaru is full of old world facades copied in the new world and permitted to stand still, sun bleached and faded. The sky is an eerie other worldly sepia. It takes a moment to process that it is smoke carried over the Tasman sea from Australia where fires rage.

When we reach further south to Oamaru the smell is persistent, acrid and heart breaking for it signals devastation beyond comprehension.

Then the rain like darkness falls.

The first of the first becomes the second.

Jet lag means my sleep is still fractured and I am awake while night gives way to morning and I give my mind a chance to contemplate in a space of quietude.

Reflecting on the past year and the loss that shaped so much of its start, yet encouraged acceptance, adjustment and expansion.

Reconnecting with old friends wrapped layers of love and comfort and healing around me.

A random foundation brought a group of people into my life and changed six degrees of separation into a closeness that I know is a lasting one; my wine whãnau is now a wonderful part of my world.

I learnt a new skill: lessons in bread baking from another great (new) friend – reminding me of the importance of breaking bread with those who matter and sharing it with those who we might recognise need nourishment in all its guises.

There were other lessons too – about value and worth, giving to and holding space for others, and as always
I come back to gratitude.

So much to be grateful for.
For the past.
For the now.
For the future.

Here’s to a happy second and third and after.

 

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Just giving

This week had me thinking about gratitude.

Some will know that the loss of a friend, just as this year was unfurling from a festivities-fuelled chrysalis into the full spectacle of life, brought with it a strengthened sense of connection with my friend’s legacy, her son Olly.

Rapidly turning from the boy I would read and feed inordinate amounts of sweets to, into a young man whose grief is
still raw.
Still palpable.
Still uncomprehending.

It was Olly’s wish that there should be a memorial to his mother; a bench at Inner Temple Gardens – a carefully tended patch of green and quiet in the midst of the idiosyncratic little enclave of history where Allie and I took our first steps into the legal profession, the Bar, that brought us into each other’s world.

It was this wish, expressed at a time of tears, that resonated with me.
The loss of the presence of a spirit leading to the longing for a physical reminder.

Giving
Just giving
Justgiving.com in fact
Was the route.

Crowdfunding.
Nothing novel about it, but although I have been involved in fundraising for a big charity before, it involved ball gowns and glamour.
This was different.

The request written.
Posted.
Shared.
Then, I waited.

The willingness of the many
To help
To give
To encourage
Brought warmth to the cold of the
aftermath of pain.

I would look at my page after every notification email arrived.
Generosity came from all quarters;
Those who knew Allie,
Those who didn’t.
Those who chose to write a few words.
Those who stayed silent.
Anonymous and silent.

As I tried to thank all those I could,  I began to think not only of the gratitude of the recipient, when something is given to them, but also of the giving itself and what giving brings.

As ever, language fascinates me; different languages allow for different emotions to attach to an act.
‘Welcome’, the standard English response to being thanked, acknowledges the act of the giver.
The German ‘gerne’ – gladly, willingly, goes a little further perhaps to appreciate how rewarding giving can be.
I’ve always liked the Spanish ‘de nada’ – ‘for nothing’.
The giver releases that which they gave.
It is no longer a part of them.
They have let go.
The thing that was given – an effort, an object, time, emotion, concern, a physical touch – has been passed to another.
In the great cycle that makes all things one.

My target was tripled in days.
And my heart,
swollen in grief,
exhaled with relief.

Unending thanks to all, known and unknown, who gave to make Olly’s wish a reality.

As of this week, Allie’s bench is in its place.
It’s been placed in the west side of the gardens,
where daily it will be kissed good night by the sun on its evening
journey to rest.

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Ketchup

Ketch-up

Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction – where Mia and Vincent are at dinner and she tells him about the pilot she did (Fox Force Five) and the joke she had to tell; ‘Three tomatoes are walking down the street…papa tomato, mama tomato and baby tomato. Baby tomato starts laggin’ behind and papa tomato gets really angry, goes back and squishes him and says ‘catch up!’’….?

It made me laugh and it made me cry.

It’s 3 months today since a close friend has passed.
Allie.
Alison.
3 months  of unexpected flashes of memories.
Little sparklers that burst in my mind when my heart holds a match to them; sharp, cold, white heat.
Here/not here.

Last Christmas.
The last Christmas.
Allie gave me a Christmas present.
A first and last.
We’d always given each other gifts.
Birthdays – yes;
I-saw-this-and-thought-of-you gifts – yes.
Christmas – somehow never.

Now there were two boxes in my hand.
One which I may in time be able to share, the second, a little foodie present made by the Halen Môn, the Welsh salt people.

There was salt – the symbolism of it now painful.
From the never-ending sea.
Ebb and tide.
Salt on the open wound of grief.

And there were bottles of ketchup; black garlic and Bloody Mary.
They have sat in my cupboard since Christmas.
Little glass bottles.
Holding a familiar texture.
Sealing unknown flavour.

Ketchup
Catch up

So often we talk of catching up.
With work
With our friends
With life.

Catch up implies falling behind.
We see falls as failures.
We become conditioned to aspire to be ahead.
To abandon the now for the ideal of the future.

In years of friendship the passing of
time was of little consequence.
Conversation came like the sea
Ebb and tide
Waves
Sometimes of comforting silence.
We’ve watched sunset and
Welcomed sunrise.

Allie loved good food.
Loved my cooking.
‘Tasty’ was an Allie word:
‘This is really tasty Boz’ she would say
(And the only person to call me that)
One of so many words.

So many echoes of kitchen table chats.
The gift of nurturing.

I opened one of those bottles today.
Black garlic seemed apt.
The colour is
Dark.
Sombre.
The flavour is
Deep.
Sweet.
Warming.

In my story, Papa Tomato takes on the guise of Time in Alice through the Looking Glass.

Forever beyond my reach.

Catching my breath and catching up with the here and now of three months on.

Ketchup.

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Insomnia

Waking up from a dream in which I tell my father about things that happened since his passing – it is a hot summer’s day, my father is wearing a white vest.
Old fashioned. He always wore them under his shirts.

In my dream I know while I am speaking with him that he is no longer of this life, but also know that he is present and having left my mother’s house, I turn on my heel and go back to speak to him.
It is important that I speak to him.
We sit in a room that is unfamiliar.
My father at a large desk, and me on an upholstered stool.

My heart is beating fast when I wake.
Torn from my conversation mid-sentence and now tearful.
The knowledge that this conversation will never be concluded brings back a pain that I thought previously subsided.

It is 3am. Again.

3am is the hour of the soul.
I can no longer recall when I first heard that, but there is something about wakefulness at this time that makes it so.

The little light coming into my bedroom emphasises the dark.
We see things in monochrome in the dark.
Unadorned reality.
A multitude of greys and shapes and a layer of soft silence.

The body had been at rest.

Like those first moments after shavasana in yoga.
There are no distractions and no deprivation.
The senses are tuned in to the un-sensed, to the things we have grown to take for granted in sleep and thus block from our perception; the feel of fabric on skin, a little mint in the mouth still from a bedtime ritual, faint lavender on a pillow.

I have lived with it for many years,
and in my mind Insomnia is personified.

She is a frenemy.
The one who comes to check up on you but whose motives, you suspect, are not fuelled by care but thrive on spite.
The one who stirs the ceaseless whirring of brain and mind.
Sometimes bringing a burst of clarity, sometimes blurring vision.

In my flying lessons’ days, I once flew to the Isle of Wight.
We had left Berkshire on a bright morning but shortly after take-off the sky clouded over.
Under the watchful eye of my instructor, and off syllabus, I flew on instruments for a little time.
Thrilling, instinctive.

I think of those moments of insomnia as the instrument flying of the mind; but with no thrills, no assurance that any emotion is to be trusted and no-one to oversee a safe landing.

Over time I have learned to try and deal with it; there are old kundalini mantras that can bring comfort, that tell you that through every block there is a way; that your best is good enough.
There are forms of breath that bring stillness.

Sometimes Insomnia sits quietly – for weeks or months – as Morpheus stakes his claim next to me.
She watches intently with obvious incomprehension; surely wakefulness, a state of consciousness is preferable to the vulnerability of dream-time, she asks silently, strangely almost echoing Hamlet’s quandary.

The darkest hour comes just before day-break, I tell her.
My soul, my mind, my body reunited for another day.

She sighs and on seeing Morpheus has gone too, fades away.

 

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Winds of Change

Saturday thoughts and gratitude for a week of serendipity, many hugs (and many doughnuts!).

Clear blue early spring light this morning and a wind, more insistent than playful, outside my window.

After the stillness brought by last week’s snow, the wind speaks of motion.

It reminds us that even when we are away from it – watching from behind the safety our fortress – glass windows silencing the outside world – it is about change.

Actions don’t always speak louder than words.

Sometimes words are the action.

Words that can set off a train of motion or stop us dead in our tracks.

I was thinking about words, about communication, this week.

In a world of instant imagery, we often accept a picture as being ‘worth a thousand words’ and miss the true meaning of perhaps just a few chosen ones.

In a letter I treasure, sent while still I was still at university, my father gently reminded me that I hadn’t written home for a week or two. 

‘The telephone is a wonderful modern means of communication for the 20th century’ he said, ‘but it doesn’t replace the written word’

Today I am off to see Olly – Allie’s son. 

A thoughtful, perceptive boy with a lively inquiring mind. 

Over the years I have attempted to answer his many questions. 

Today I know there will be more. 

I arrive just before the rain.

Everything’s different but everything’s the same.

I have driven this road dozens of times, but never tire of the view onto the fields. I park the car, as always. 

I walk over to the gate and take a picture, as always.

The ‘always’ will never be the same again.

I know.

And my friend’s absence is palpable at this moment.

The house is subdued, quiet. 

Allie’s desk has been tidied. The coffee table is clear. 

The fireplace is clean and cold.

Some things remain; Olly and I have a movie-going ritual. 

Today is no different. 

For a couple of hours we will lose ourselves in an animated world. 

In the car we talk about music and travel.

Olly wants to hear about my trip to Chile from 2 years ago.

We sing along together to Toto’s ‘Africa’.

‘I want to go to Tanzania and play this song when I’m there’ Olly says.

Later, thanks to the wonderful generosity of so many, Olly, his grandmother and I sit together in his grandmother’s house.

I show them the messages left with the donations we’ve had. 

Messages of love.

The fire is lit and a cat is luxuriating in the warmth.

We talk about the plaque that will be placed on Allie’s memorial bench.

Olly asks that we put Churchill’s words on it ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’. 

I hold back emotion. 

It encapsulates so much of his mother’s spirit.

In words.

Not many, just enough.

Enough to remember a spirit and her determination.

Enough to remember the unending motion, not just of the wind, but of us.

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