Rites of Passage

31 03 2010

Firewalking is the least impressive spectacle I have ever seen.

I don’t mean to lessen the experience of those taking part. It wasn’t their fault that I was expecting, not unreasonably, a walk across fire. What I got was a step across embers.  Right foot, left foot, right foot (if you took very small strides) and then off. By no stretch of the imagination can a pace and a half be called a walk.

Credit where it’s due, the build up to the walk was incredible. The lead walker and firestarter made the fire, blue peter style, some time earlier in the day and gave regular updates on how it looked – the colours, the glow, the movement of shadows and flames across the coals. The characteristics of the fire were reported as reflecting the characteristic of the group who were going to fire-walk later that evening.

So why did a group of middle-aged women feel the need to break arrows and walk over fire? Why did they need to take a challenge completely alien to them, and of absolutely no practical value in their everyday lives?

Sometimes there are invisible barriers in our lives, something stopping us from progressing. An unspoken fear, an unresolved conflict and by creating artificial challenges, such as fire-walking, the real obstacle is overcome as we overcome the hurdle we have constructed for ourselves.

Expectations were built as the time to walk approached. The event was managed splendidly and finally the group were led outside to face the challenge of the walk. But then, one step, two step, done.  Not even long enough to chant “I’m doing this for my kids – or mum- or self”  or whatever other reason the “challenge” was being taken.

The task that was to prepare the walkers for the fire-walk was far more impressive. This ritual was, apparently, a polynesian rite of passage. Participants chose an arrow from a quiver and held the metal point against their throats. The feathered end is pressed against a board held firmly by a colleague. After three deep breaths, and to the sound of the rest of the group chanting to provide the extra courage, the particpant lunged firmly forwards. Rather than the windpipe being pierced, as everyone feared, the arrow shaft snapped.

The fact that this apparently dangerous act could be performed on a Saturday night with little training and without a doctor waiting nearby, suggests that there is no real chance of injury but it looked very impressive, none the less. Those that took part where unsurprisingly apprehensive with an arrow at their throat and then elated as they collected shards of shattered arrow from the floor. The question of whether the ritual was actually really dangerous or not is not important. It looked impressive to observers and clearly delivered a huge sense of achievement to those that broke the arrow – and isn’t that what ritual is about, overcoming fears to pass from one state to another.

In the secular UK we don’t really have rites of passage, unless you count the first hangover, and I’m not sure that we ever did. We celebrate 18th and 21st birthdays but nothing much changes from day minus 1 to day plus 1. Not like some societies where young boys have to display their strength, agility, courage and cunning in rituals that, once passed, allows them to take their place in the world of men.

And they are usually male rites of passage – displays of strength and courage mainly. I guess there is some equivalence in Britain in gang culture where prospective members are dared/challenged to commit an act, often an illegal act, before they can be accepted into the group. This is a different type of ritual though, one undertaken to gain acceptance by a group while rites of passage mark movement from one stage of life to another.

So why did a group of middle-aged women feel the need to break arrows and walk over fire? Why did they need to take a challenge completely alien to them, and absolutely no practical value in their everyday lives?

Sometimes there are invisible barriers in our own lives, something stopping us from progressing. An unspoken fear, an unresolved conflict, perhaps. By successfully overcoming the artificial hurdle we have constructed for ourselves, such as fire walking, the real obstacle is overcome in the process. Conquering one fear gives us the courage, gives us freedom, to overcome the real challenges in our lives. This is the real value of fire-walking.

You can read more from Karen and other fantastic entrepreneurs at the3rdi.co.uk

The wolf in my living room

22 03 2010

Has it ever occurred to you what an odd thing it is to keep a pet?

To give houseroom to another species. I have a dog and I wonder why they were domesticated in the first place. It makes sense that cattle and sheep were domesticated as an easily accessible food supply but who thought it was a good idea to tame a wolf – and why? Taming a wolf to protect a flock of sheep seems wholly counter-intuitive. I could look it up on-line but I’m not that bothered. If you look it up then please leave a comment so I’ll know next time my brain wanders in that direction.

I’m not an uninterested observer of pet owners, as I have said I do own a dog. We take a tiny pup away from it’s mother and then train it not to make a mess in the house. In exchange for not crapping everywhere we then have to walk it at least four times a day and I have the delightful job of “clearing up” after my dog on at least two of these outings!

And it’s not like we are sharing a walk when we head off outside. True, we are in the same place at the same time at opposite ends of a piece of rope but we inhabit completely different worlds. I walk along looking up at the birds, the trees and wrapped up against the elements while the dog walks head down, navigating her world by smell.

During this winter the snow has allowed me a glimpse into her world – it has allowed me to see what she smells. Tracks in the snow left by other dogs, deer and rabbits. Trickles of yellow across the snow; droppings of largely unknown animals and, thanks to owners who don’t feel the need to do the “clearing up” thing,  other dogs. Most often when we walk  I stride out and Lola follows, with me giving a quick tug when she stops too long in on place but sometimes I go at her pace. She mooches about in the undergrowth at the side of the track and I stop when she stops and move off when she trots off towards a new smell. It is fascinating to watch her and, in a small way, share her walk.

We recognise people and places mainly by sight. Lola’s world is dominated by smell and I wonder what her mental image of the world is (although image is itself the wrong word as it suggests the visual). The nearest I can imagine is a scent gradient, like us following the smell of freshly cooked bread as it intensifies through the supermarket from front door to the bakery department. Does her smell gradient allow her to identify particular dogs? I recognise the mad labrador Scott ahead of us on the path, I can see him.  Does Lola know he has been on the path before us? Can she smell Scott or just know that another unidentified dog has been along the path.

I guess that her knowledge of what has happened in the past is better than mine. If Scott had been further up the road then I wouldn’t have seen him and he wouldn’t have left a visual clue behind him (apart from the obvious and his owner is a responsible dog owner!) but Lola would know that a dog had passed that way. Smell is a more persistent sensory marker. I can see by the small pockets of snow still hugging the contours of the golf course that it snowed recently but that is the limit of my knowledge of what has gone before.

And the food that they eat. I’ve blogged about this before – http://bit.ly/dfHIMF. I am not one of those dog owners who feeds their pet prime steak but even on dried meal keeping a dog is less environmentally friendly than running an SUV! And with thousands starving across the world I chose to feed a dog. With thousands homeless I choose to house a dog.

So I’m left wondering why I keep a dog? It’s environmentally unfriendly, diverts resources from people and I could just as easily wander through the golf course myself. In fact it would be easier as I wouldn’t have to stick to the paths or carry poop bags!  As I finish this she is lying at the other side of the room spreadeagled in a thin shaft of sunlight as the sun moves round to shine through my office window. I’m really busy today but will have to head out soon so that she can relieve herself!

I don’t have an answer so feel free to comment!

You can read more from Karen and other fantastic entrepreneurs at the3rdi.co.uk

Forgetting by not re-visiting

12 03 2010

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I usually work in twos.

That is two events need to happen in order for me to decide that a topic is interesting enough to me for me to write about and I usually have two things to say in a “…and another thing” kind of style.

This reinforcement is itself the theme of this blog and it does follow my rule of twos!

As an adherent of the Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment I follow the path of “letting go”. This is summed up by a line I read a couple of days ago, “If we choose to forget the wrongs of the past they will lose their significance”. Essentially if you don’t remember something it can’t bother you.

It made me think about the act of forgetting. I passed 50 a couple of weeks ago and forgetting things is becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life. Just ask my son!

This was my first nudge towards the blog.

The second nudge to write came when I was tidying the walk in cupboard in my office. When I say tidying I was moving stuff about in order to find some papers that I knew had been ‘filed safely’ somewhere in there. As a consequence ofthis random moving of boxes the cupboard was tidier when I left that it was when I entered. I didn’t find the papers but I did find my wedding album.

I was 22 when i got married and had met my husband when I was a few months past my 17th birthday. Two things (again two things) struck me; firstly we were just children and secondly how much in love we were. I know this to be true but for all practical purposes I have forgotten about it.

Because we are no longer together I have no-one to talk to about shared events. The wedding album is in the back of a cupboard and while I do have a few photographs in a tin of holidays in Venice and Dunbrovnik and the like I seldom think of them and don’t talk to anyone else about them as they ae of no interest to anyone except me. Have you ever met anyone who is interested in holiday snaps other than the people in them? Had we still been together then there would have been lots of conversations starting “remember when….?”

My point is that the act of returning to past events reinforces the memory; gives it significance. It is not that I have made a conscious decision to erase thoughts from my memory but the fact of not returning to them, not reinforcing them, has caused them to vanish.

In fact I was watching a film the other evening (Jumper-it’s terrible, don’t bother) which had a scene set in the Coliseum. I know that I have visited there, I probably have photographs somewhere, but I have no real memory of it other than I know I have been. You can put part of that down to my age but I’m sure that the greater reason is that I haven’t had that ” remember when…?” conversation about this trip to Rome.

The non-attachement I practice includes the act of ‘letting go’ of past wrongs as a way to leave behind emotional baggage. I can now see that actively choosing to forget allows events to lose their significance but also failing to reinforce them has the same effect.

Revisiting old memories reinforces their significance. The act of not returning-not picking at old wounds, if you like-also strips them of their significance. And once an event becomes meaningless it will be forgotten.

You can read more from Karen and other fantastic entrepreneurs at the3rdi.co.uk

Scotland is just like Rome

12 03 2010

I remember being hugely impressed when I first visited Rome
Around every corner there was something interesting and unexpected.

Scotland is like Rome only bigger!

I’m writing this from the train travelling between Edinburgh and Stirling.
First of all is the splendour of Waverley Station. It’s not like any other station I’ve ever seen. It’s just as if someone has put a roof over part of the city. there are roads snaking through and tracks all over the place with small retail towns between the platforms.

Then out to Haymarket with the massive Murrayfield Stadium preparing itself for this weekends Calcutta Cup. As an Englishwoman it is a very strange experience to stand alongside your son as he belts out Flower of Scotland along with what seems like millions of his fellow countrymen!

And next pulling into a very ordinary looking station with a very ordinary looking town to the right of the train but a glance left and there is a huge palace with the most amazing structure on top of the tower. Linlithgow Palace sits just on the edge of the town, looking completely out of place and perfectly at home. It sits oddly against the new town but perfectly in the wider landscape.

On leaving Falkirk – a thoroughly unimpressive place with it’s cooling towers, chimneys, football stadium, tower blocks, supermarkets and concrete factory, there is the surreal structure that is the Falkirk Wheel. Six nodding wheels that lift boats in a wonderfully extravagant fashion up the canal. It is fantastic to see that there is still the capacity to create a wonderful aesthetic in a functional structure. A simple boat lift would have done the job as efficiently but not as splendidly as the Falkirk Wheel. It raises my spirit to think that modern architecture isn’t all glassy office blocks or disposable domes.

(Image reproduced under Creative Commons License – http://www.bookshelfboyfriend.com)

Approaching Stirling and it is not the castle that catches the eye – although that is a magnificent site sitting as it does upon a single hill looking across the surrounding plains – but the folly that is The Wallace Monument. This huge needle totally dominates the landscape. A single pillar rising up against the backdrop of The Ochils as a permanent reminder not only of William Wallace but of the Victorian love of the spectacular.

And all this on a train journey that has lasted less than an hour and crossed a tiny part of east/central Scotland. And when you also consider that most of the journey afforded views, albeit distant and somewhat spoiled in the foreground by the squat commuter towns of Polmont and Larbert, of snowcapped mountains and is it any wonder that I don’t consider a commute to Edinburgh as work!

And all of Scotland id like this. A mosaic of small towns, a few cities and most with a story revealed by castles, palaces, gardens and monuments.

History around every corner. Scotland is just like Rome only bigger!

You can read more from Karen and other fantastic entrepreneurs at the3rdi.co.uk

Choosing to be inspired

5 03 2010

A couple of weeks ago I spent several hours indoors while the winter sun shone on Scotland.

Those of you who know me will be wondering why I wasn’t out there tramping through the Perthshire countryside with the dog taking photographs and enjoying the clear air. Well there was, as indeed there must have been, a very good reason.

It was the last weekend of the BP Portrait Exhibition at the Deans Gallery in Edinburgh and I ws determined not to miss it so, despite the perfect weather at home,  and the railstrike that meant I had to take the car rather than the train, I headed south to the city.

The portraits were, without exception, stunning. The styles varied from primitive to photoreal; in fact there were as many styles as there were portraits. The photorealistic portraits were the most remarkable. No matter how close I stood I couldn’t see any signs of brushstrokes. Every pore, every hair, every wrinke, every fibre of clothing was rendered with absolute precision.  From distance and from close up the portraits could not be distinguished from a photograph. The technical skill required to produce this effect is absolutely amazing.

The absence of brushstrokes, however, meant that there was no sign of the artist. There was no real clue to what the artist was thinking. The photoreal portrait was a perfect rendition of the sitter. So perfect that it could have been a photograph. There was expression in the faces depicted, as an accomplished portrait photographer can reveal the character of the subject. In some ways this is fine. The portrait should allow us to see the person, allow us to connect with the person in a way that reveals their life, thoughts and emotions.

For me the real skill of the portrait painter is on two levels; yes we get to see what the sitter actually looks like but we should also get to see the artist, to see what the artist thinks about the sitter. The paint itself, the texture, the way it is applied, can reveal what the artist thinks and feels. The technique reveals an intimacy that cannot be captured in a photograph or by photorealism. Paint quickly and roughly applied may represent a chaotic aspect in the life of the sitter. Bringing more detail to the eyes than to the rest of the face invites us to look into the mind of the sitter.  Making the hands stand out from the rest of the portrait may hint at a manual occupation. Blue tones applied to the skin in a portrait of a cancer patient hints at death in a way that a photograph couldn’t.

As a child I drew – it was more of an obsession than a hobby.  Burying myself in art saw me through most of the traumas of my teenage years. And I mainly drew portraits, children of friends, footballers copied from cards and magazines and images copied from the works of famous artists.

I also spent a lot of time in galleries. This can affect people in two ways. Either they are inspired to go on and paint and it becomes a life absorbing passion or they are intimidated by the greatness of others and the impossible task of reaching those standards.

I confess to being the latter and while I have continued to draw and paint throughout my life, even paying my way through college by selling my artwork, drawing ceased to be an obsession. Even when I took time out from my career to concentrate on artwork I turned to sculpture and not fine art.

So I intend to use my visit to the portrait exhibition in a way that I should have done years ago. I am going to choose to be inspired by greatness and not intimidated by it.

And I’m going to draw and rediscover my passion for portraits and you can follow my progess on FLICKR

First Try:

A plea for perspective

1 03 2010

I recently wrote a blog on the tyranny of happy people.

In it I argued that pretending that everyone can get what they want so long as they believe in it enough is not only nonsense but potentially damaging as it absolves us from addressing, and taking responsibility for, the flaws in society that make it almost impossible for some people to lead a happy life.

In February, as with every other month forever, there were many national catastrophes around the world and tales of individual suffering. Yet if you look at Facebook it is full of vacuous soundbites.

“Today I am creating a better world for myself and everyone around me”

“You are here on this Earth to have an amazing life!”

“We are not here to find ourselves but to create ourselves.”

These took me less than two minutes to find – facebook is full of them. These inspirational quotes are fine, we all need a boost sometimes, but the people who post such pieces seem to operate in a vacuum.

Analogy: I am/was a microbiologist. Bacteria are remarkable organisms, not least because of their ability to rapidly develop immunity to antibiotics. No matter how well they adapt they will always be killed by bleach.

And my point is? I suspect that had I been indoors in Haiti’s capital on the morning of the earthquake no amount of positive thinking could have prevented the roof from falling in on top of me.

Yes, we can affect those around us by acting and thinking positively but we should also look beyond our middle-class, middle-Britain lives and see the bigger picture.

In the3rdi magazine this month is a feature about the event Funny Women are mounting on International Womens Day.  Box office proceeds raised on the night will be donated to V-Day UK which is hosted by Tender, a charity that aims to prevent domestic abuse and sexual violence.  In 2010 V-Day’s spotlight is on the appalling sexual violence being used as a weapon in an economic war against women and girls of all ages across Eastern Congo (hundreds of thousands have been brutalised).  Shockingly a woman or girl is being raped every half an hour in the Congo.

We need to use our priveleged position, one of relative comfort, plenty and security to allow us to look outwards to other people and other places who may not have our advantages. Positivity and uplifting quotations are all well and good, I use them myself, but they are better when linked to an action and not just repeated as a mantra.

A plea for balance

1 03 2010

I would like to make a plea for balance.

One of the cornerstones of the magazine is to promote positive work/life balance. By that I mean a balance that allows both men and women to be fulfilled at work and at home; in their work life and family life.

Towards the end of last week a report was published which showed that a huge number of workers in the UK are racking up thousands of hours of unpaid overtime. Despite advances in contracts,  terms and conditions of employment, European working time directive and the like, thousands of us feel compelled to work beyond our agreed hours for zero pay. So what about a fair days work for a fair days pay?

Radio 5live chose to interview ex-Apprentice Katie Hopkins who set out to defend this situation. She pointed out that if you walked past Canary Wharf on any evening lights would be on in most of the offices as employees worked well beyond 6 o clock as a matter of routine. She argued that this was essential in these difficult times to work as long as it took to ensure that the company you worked for made a profit; that if the company didn’t make a profit there would be no jobs.  Leaving aside companies making huge profits at the expense of their workforce and the fact that it took me all my time not to shout “Show Me The Money Katie” in  Jerry Maguire style at the radio, surely the issue is one of balance.

Her argument went on the suggest that in the private sector workers were not contracted to work for a number of hours but rather contracted to produce an agreed outcome – to meet a performance target. If that took 10 hours per day to achieve, then so be it.

A story: At 28 I was Marketing manager for a multinational medical company.  Under my management the division I headed was the most successful in the company and sales were growing year on year in what was a static market.  After about a year of working with the company my boss called me into his office and told me that it had been “noticed” that I was leaving the office at around 6 o’ clock, which was always earlier than my (male) colleagues. Resisting the temptation to lose my temper I simply asked had he got any problems with my work? Answer, no. Were there any jobs left undone that should have been completed? Answer, no? Was there anything extra that he would like me to do that could increase the effectiveness of my division? Answer, no? With that I smiled and left his office. After that I left each day on the stroke of 5! In fact my male colleagues were staying late not because they had lots of work to do but  because they were frightened to be seen to be the first to leave. They didn’t work after 5 o’clock, rather they sat in each others offices and chatted until they felt able to leave.

Thought: If I had been able to complete all of my job by 2pm every afternoon would the company have thought it OK for me to leave early? Surely if private sector workers are contracted to a performance then leaving at early should be as commonplace as working late. If it is expected that a job can, on average, be completed in 5 x 7 hour days, as is in most peoples terms of contract, then leaving early sometimes should balance out leaving late. I don’t see many workers wandering home at 4 o’clock, do you?