Communities and friendships

Adulting, the book by Kelly Williams Brown, was published ten years ago.  Kathryn Jezer-Morton, commenting on it, says, “As a cultural document, Adulting sums up the anxiously self-reliant ethos of early-aughts millennials as accurately as the Whole Earth Catalog summed up the back-to-the-land fantasies of early 1970s boomers.”   I had a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog, and I harboured back-to-the-land fantasies (I still harbour them), being of that generation.  But I hadn’t heard of Adulting before I came across Jezer-Morton’s comment. 

I latched onto it because she’s saying that when it was written, there was an assumption that once people stopped being kids, and dependent on parents for care and nurturing then they became ‘independent’ and able to care for themselves.   That’s an expectation that I was brought up with.  When we were 18 we were expected, by my parents, to leave the family home and be self-reliant, financially, and generally.  (The three of us obeyed).

Jezer-Morton challenges this view, seeing it as unhelpful and inappropriate in current times. She says, “It feels like this definition of adulthood is wearing thin under the pressures of our times. Adults can survive independently, but should they? Is there really any historical precedent at all for fully independent adults … What if [adulthood] were understood completely differently? We define adulthood as a point at which you can leave a community behind and start out on your own. Imagine if, instead, it was a point at which a community could rely on you to show up for others?”

Showing up for others, I think is a wonderful phrase.  We saw it in action during the Covid-19 pandemic when mutual aid communities came into sharp focus, clearly highlighting the power and sustenance of the support that community members gave and received, during that two-plus years.   Now I wonder if the magic of it is dwindling, are people still ‘showing up for others’ in similar ways?  

Am I ‘showing up for others’?   I wondered about this as I pondered the ‘People care’ ethical principle of the permaculture community. (I am taking a permaculture course).  The principle urges us to ‘Take care of self, kin and community’, saying, ‘People Care begins with ourselves and expands to include our families, neighbours and wider communities. …  If we can recognise that a greater wisdom lies within a group of people, we can work with others to bring about the best outcomes for all involved.’

I think the plurality of ‘communities’ is useful in this principle.   It is rare, in my observations, that people belong only to ‘a community’.   They often belong to several.   The Covid-19 experience illustrated this.  Examples of types of communities generated during that period included neighbourhood communitiesvirtual running communities, singing communities – Carpe Diem’s Daily Antidote of Song is still going strong.   (I still love participating in this – me in one city and my daughter in another and both of us feeling part of a wider community enjoying singing together and, over time becoming enmeshed as a member of it.)  

The multiple communities idea reminded me of an article someone sent me a few weeks ago on friendships, ‘How many friends do you really need in adulthood?’   In it the author, Suzanne Degges-White, describes Aristotle’s three types of friendship:

  • Friendships of utility – are the friendships some of us would call “friendships of convenience. Typically, they are short-term arising out of a specific situation e.g. taking turns taking children to a club.
  • Friendships of pleasure or mutual interest that are all about simply enjoying one another’s company and having a good time together, these may or may not last over years e.g. a book club or knitting circle
  • Friendships of good, based on mutual respect, admiration, and appreciation for the qualities each of you brings to the relationship. These relationships endure and are fed by the mutuality of the esteem and appreciation between the true friends. 

It struck me that the several communities I belong to could easily be categorised similarly.   I belong to a couple I would put in the community of utility/convenience group for example, the nearby neighbours who put out/take in each other’s bins, or take in package deliveries, or water the next door’s garden if needed.  

Then I belong to several I categorised as community of pleasure – the local parkrun community, my book club, the community garden group, and the knitting circle. 

And I belong to a couple of communities that are friendships of good – my family members – immediate and extended, and some long-term friends (one I was at nursery school with 70 years ago) that have developed into a community.

The question about ‘showing up for others’ in the communities, bears reflection.  It seems to me that there are various types of ways of showing up, depending on the nature of your relationships with the people in the communities. Within the communities of utility, mutual interest and good that I belong to, I find that I have developed different types of friendships within each.

And on this, a different way of categorising friendships is helpful.  Suzanne Degges-White, in the article mentioned above, talks of friends in terms of acquaintances, casual friends, close friends, and intimate or “best” friends. 

  • Acquaintances are the people we see on a fairly regular basis that we “sort of know,” at least well enough to make idle small talk.
  • Casual friends are typically those with whom you spend time within shared activities or with whom you cross paths on a regular basis.
  • Close friends are those with whom you have enough mutual admiration and affinity that you share a little more of yourself, they share a little more about themselves, and you continue to enjoy getting to know one another and spending time together.
  • Intimate friends are the most intensely connected. These are the friends that you let into the inner sanctum of your heart and mind, who you trust with the deepest secrets, and who you know will never let you down or betray your trust.

The question of ‘Do I show up for others?’ doesn’t have a ‘yes or no’ answer.  Although my orientation is towards showing up, the answer on whether I do or not is nuanced.  It depends on factors including the nature of the community, the types of friendships I have with the people in the communities, and my time/resource/commitment ability to ‘show up’.  Sometimes I’d like to show up more than I do and feel neglectful of the community.  Other times I feel I am really pulling my weight.  On the whole, I think I’m able to keep a balance of giving to and receiving from other community members (one baby-sitting circle I once belonged to had a system of token exchange to ensure this), but it’s something I’m now going to be more conscious of.


The sit spot

It’s an optional assignment, on the permaculture course I’m taking, to locate a sit spot.  We’ve been told, ‘A sit spot is a space in nature that you return to on a regular basis – ideally once a day, but once or twice a week is better than not at all. You want to spend some quiet time in the spot, a sort of sensual meditation. The idea is that after a while, as you become familiar with the spot, the spot also becomes familiar with you; animals and other creatures will see you as a non-threatening part of it… it’s a spot where magic happens.’

It sounds an attractive thing to do.  Sit, observe, interact, and, in the words of Ladybug Earthcare ‘use our senses to become aware of how nature moves and acts around you.  It’s a meditative, grounding practice, with as much or as little purpose and direction as you wish to bring to it. Simply sitting, breathing and tuning into the natural world is good for body, mind and spirit!’

There are some obstacles I’m conjuring up that have, so far, prevented me from trying this out – even once, let alone on a regular basis.    

First off, is identifying the spot in nature.  Should it be the eucalyptus tree I can see out of my window when I lie on my bed?  I can’t get up close to this outside as it’s in a neighbour’s garden.  Or maybe the tree outside my kitchen window with the bird feeders on it.  Lots to observe there, but standing at my kitchen window.   Or maybe I could sit on a swing in the local park and see what I can see from there.  

I think what’s holding me up on finding the spot is the phrase ‘in nature’.  I live in a densely built urban area.  ‘In nature’ takes on a different feeling in my urban world.  Is one plane tree, struggling with heavy pollarding, in its pavement location ‘in nature’?    My imaginative world thinks of ‘in nature’ as being woodland, open heath, wild moorlands, seascapes and sand dunes, all untouched by human hand.  It also requires me to be outdoors and not in a building.

Second, there’s the ‘return on a regular basis’ request.  So, the sit spot must be accessible in my day.  The various things I’ve read about sit spots all say they should be within 5-10 minutes’ walk, maximum.  The places I return to on a regular basis sometimes more than once a day, that are within 5 – 10 minutes’ walk are the supermarket, the bus stop, the schoolchildren’s drop-off/pickup point, and the kitchen sink.  These are not the places for ‘sensual meditation’ in my experience.  And they are not, what I would call, ‘in nature’.

My third obstacle is the ‘sit’ bit.  I don’t do much sitting.  I’d have to practice that.  I tend to stand (at my standing desk) or walk about.  I have a kneeling bench which I use occasionally.  I generally sit only to eat a meal, or when I’m on public transport (if there’s a seat available). 

The fourth obstacle is the ‘quiet time’.  Urban noise, particularly from road traffic is highly concerning.  An EU report rates it as ‘the second most harmful environmental stressor in Europe, behind air pollution’.   I’d be hard-pressed to find a relatively quiet spot, where I live. at the intersection of two major inter-city roads, close to train and tube lines, and under an airport flight path. 

The fifth obstacle is the possibility that I am succumbing to what Maria Popova calls ‘ the Western pathology of cynicism, our flawed self-protection mechanism that readily dismisses anything sincere and true as simplistic or naïve — even if, or precisely because, we know that all real truth and sincerity are simple by virtue of being true and sincere.’ And am not willing to consider there might, in a sit spot actually be magic, or something close to it.

Because I like the idea of finding a spot where ‘magic happens’ and looking again at the five obstacles, maybe I am over-egging them.  There are many ways to find a way round them, in order to get to the magic.  

For example, I’m heartened to read in one piece on sit spots that ‘the more natural diversity around you the better. A combination of open meadow, some shrubs, brambles, and/or bushes, some trees, and a water element (i.e., creek, pond) are ideal. Obviously, most people won’t have this.  It’s ok! I promise that even if you have a single rose bush and a concrete patio, your sit spot ritual will be transformational for you!’ 

Good, my tiny urban garden, is good enough.  There is a tree, I have two hanging bird feeders, there is a small patch of grass, and the start of what I’m hoping will become a mixed variety hedge, (mixed hedging whips, planted last spring).   

It’s close to home (obviously) and this meeting the easy access with 5-minutes requirement.   

Sitting I’m not so sure about, but my kneeling stool is portable and comfortable enough for ten minutes at a time. 

The traffic noise thing I could cancel by wearing my ear-defenders, these are much ridiculed by my family members, but I find them great when I’m walking down the main road, or when I’m on a commuter train – they cut out loud mobile phone conversations. But if I wore ear defenders in my sit spot then I wouldn’t hear ‘nature’.  Perhaps simply visually observing is sufficient to conjure the magic.

My latent cynicism is addressable simply by trying out sitting (kneeling) in a sit spot and giving it a go.  I’ve decided to do so for 7 days and see what happens.   

I’ll follow the go wild instructions: 

  • Settle into yourself – get comfortable, breathe deeply, relax your body, greet yourself with kindness
  • Set an intention to connect with the natural world around you – let go of distractions
  • Turn your attention to what you smell, hear, see, feel – really experience the sounds of the birds, the temperature of the air on your skin, the smell of the plants growing around you
  • Get curious, wonder about things, and let it be ok to not have to know anything – this is about connection not information or knowledge
  • Towards the end of your time, take a moment to review. You might like to draw, write a poem, or gather a few eye-catching objects to deepen your connection to your sit spot and to give you a reminder of your experience.
  • Finally, acknowledge and thank your sit spot— by pausing to enjoy it for a few more moments, by offering water to a plant or tree, or leaving a bit of food for the animals

I wonder what I’ll learn from the experience.

Image: Austin Nature and Science Center

Why I read novels

Monday’s meeting is our last book club meeting of 2022.  There’s only four of us in total, but we’ve met over a number of years, first off face-to-face and since March 2020 via Zoom. In our last meeting someone asked why we read novels.  It’s a good question, that I’ve been thinking about.  Then today I was helped in this by reading a piece by George Saunders in which he was musing on one of the assumptions that writers of fiction make:  “that it [the fiction] is a representation of the world as we’ve found it, basically to scale (reasonable, realistic), the point of which is to somehow show what we believe or know: to represent a position that we are sure of before we began, or to put forth some theme, or stake out some position.”

He then offers the idea “But what if, instead, the idea was to make, well…something, in prose, but we don’t know what it is.  Something whose purpose is to compel and surprise and delight the reader and ourselves in the process, that may, in fact, say something about life and our feelings about life – but almost incidentally; something that, until we’d written the piece, we didn’t know, something that is not easily reducible?”

That’s when I recognised that part of what makes a novel work for me are the following:

  • It compels, surprises, or delights me.
  • It says something about life and challenges my feelings about life (as Saunders says, ‘almost incidentally’)
  • The fiction is exploratory not expositional
  • The prose is memorable, Saunders suggests it should be ‘a jarring, persuasive, original surface.  Revealing a new voice.’
  • The voice should also be interesting, taking the reader from the commonplace to the ‘strangeness of the world’ – challenging and extending perspectives.

During 2022 I’ve been keeping a list of the novels I’ve read. They are 24, up to 18 December.  I may fit a final one in before 31 December.   The first 8 on the list are the book club choices.

Book titleAuthor
PandoraSusan Stokes-Chapman
A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianMarina Lewycka
The Island of Missing TreesElif Shafuk
The Morning GiftEva Ibbotson
The Beekeeper of AleppoChristy Leferti
DelphiClare Pollard
WidowlandC J Carey
A Net for Small FishesLucy Jago
SourdoughRobin Sloan
A Single ThreadTracy Chevalier
Machines Like MeIan McEwan
The Course of LoveAlain de Botton
Transient DesiresDonna Leon
Journey to the River SeaEva Ibbotson
The DiddakoiRumer Godden
The EveryDave Eggers
NutshellIan McEwan
Fake AccountsLauren Oyler
How Not to DieMichael Greger
The SongbirdsChristy Leferti
The RulesTracy Darnton
Unsettled GroundClare Fuller
SightJesse Greengrass
Unnatural CausesP D James

I wondered how many of them matched what I’ve now discovered make a good novel for me.  Five of the 24 stand out as ‘working’ for me: 

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was utterly delightful.  It made me laugh out loud in parts, and sigh with empathy as the eccentricities of the elderly father, very similar to my eccentric father, were detailed.  The writing is vivid – the descriptions of the veg garden, the pantry and the voluptuous Valentina – are as colourful as Keith Haring’s paintings.  Yet it has undertones of sadness and reality – being an immigrant into the UK, having one’s country invaded – that forced my thinking.  There are historical trails in the book that I started to find out more about.  They prompted my curiosity.   The book is a clever blend of humour and sadness, as an interviewer says, ‘The defining feature of Lewycka’s writing is to treat serious themes – age, family conflict, the back story of war and grief and separation – in a comic way. Life’s a nightmare, but a hellishly funny one.’

Sight is memorable in a very different way.  It’s not humorous at all.  It is tightly and densely written in a beautiful ruminative style.   The story is woven in a way that allows the inclusion of historical figures – Wilhelm Rontgen, Sigmund Freud, and John Hunter, among others – to develop the narrative around the central character who is “a nameless young woman who, pregnant with her second child, meditates on her mother’s death and its aftermath, her relationship with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and how difficult it was to decide to have her first baby.” (Lauren Elkin).  It’s one of a very few books I would happily read again.

Three of the books on the list are different slants on tech.  Unlike my grandchildren, I didn’t grow up in a digital world and am many decades from being born a digital native.   I’m intrigued by the possibilities for good and ill that it brings. 

The Every, is the one I have recommended to several people and one I instantly sent to my tech savvy (software engineer) brother.  It satirises everything you suspect about major tech companies and the way “toxic technologies become normalized” (Evan Selinger).  The book is over 600 pages long (with an explanation of why that length) and thoroughly worth reading every word.  It’s a horrifying, but humorously toned, forecast of world we are already perhaps immersed in, if only we could see it.

It’s the world of “iterative strategies for normalizing disturbing technologies …. “[that] set people up, step by step, to accept situations that earlier versions of themselves would have rejected, whether it’s informing someone about the death of a close family member over an emoji-infused text message or embracing AI-infused devices that monitor our conversations at home for signs of hostility and notify the police if we use the wrong words or speak in the wrong tones. In other words, Eggers reveals something most of us can’t perceive in real time when we start using a new gadget promoted by a Big Tech company: the big picture and the likely endgame.” (Evan Selinger). 

I don’t have any social media accounts and go along with Jaron Lanier’s reasons why.  The question is – will I be able to put the case against the persuasive and pervasive technologies to my grand-children and have them be interested in it?  And will they be able to differentiate toxic technologies from enabling technologies?  

 ‘The Island of Missing Trees’ tells a powerful story of Cyprus and of persecution, displacement, secrets and belonging with the brilliant, tragic, and almost central figure of the fig tree as narrator.     In a similar vein, The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells of flight from the Syrian war, devastating journeys to hostile ‘safety’.

Both novels are haunting in their telling and deeply careful in showing the wounds – physical and emotional – that people making these migration journeys suffer. For some, the wounds can be healed, leaving scars that bear witness but can be lived with. For others the wounds go too deep and and living is no longer the chosen path.

Look for patterns

‘Keep an eye out for the natural patterns that surround you, whether they are obvious, such as the spiral that the snail carries around, or less obvious such as subtle changes in vegetation on the lawns or in the parks you visit.’

Why do that? I wondered when we were given our permaculture course assignment last week.  It has proved to be a useful exercise – taking a lot longer than the 30 minutes our instructor suggested for it. 

It took me first to a book, Christopher Alexander’s, A Pattern Language,  that I used a lot in a past career.  Alexander developed this pattern language, comprising 253 patterns, for use in designing towns and buildings.  He describes a pattern as something which occurs repeatedly in our environment.  Others describe a pattern as a non-randomised,  His approach demonstrates that each pattern is connected to other patterns, and can create an infinite number of combinations for use in the design of houses, other buildings, and towns.  The patterns can then be used to guide construction. 

Holmgren’s permaculture principle #7 is ‘Design from patterns to details’.  This principle is echoed in Alexander’s book ‘A Pattern Language’ where he says, ‘The patterns are ordered beginning with the very largest for regions and towns, then working down through neighbourhoods, clusters of buildings, buildings, rooms and alcoves, ending finally with details of construction.  … Each pattern is connected to certain ‘larger’ patterns which come above it in the language; and to certain ‘smaller’ patterns which come below it in the language.  … No pattern is an isolated entity.  … This is a fundamental view of the world’.

Looking at this book and trying to apply the thinking to the ‘natural patterns’ that surround me, reminded me of the Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Pied Beauty which is a wonderful evocation of patterns.  Verse 1:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

 And this led me to remember Louis MacNeice’s poem, Snow

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

(Poetry was part of another career I had).  Both poems hint at the idea of ordered patterns that begin with the largest (tangerine, for example) and work down to the detail (pips).  A single tangerine is, of course, part of a larger pattern – being one of the many fruits of a single tree, while the tree is part of a larger pattern of an orchard, and so on.

Going back to my initial question of why do the exercise?  Once I’d spent some time on it, I found it useful on several counts:

Building knowledge of types of basic underlying patterns that occur in nature:  I found these include the overbeck jet, scattered, concentric, spiral, dendritic, meanders, waves, foams, tessellations, cracks, stripes, and fractals.  Some I already knew, and some were new to me.  I enjoyed the ‘stylised tree’ as an illustration of ‘a key point to understand about patterns. No pattern is isolated in nature. All patterns fit together in some way, especially when you view them from a different perspective. For example, seen from above, a tree’s crown may present a scattered pattern; from the side, a dendritic or branching one; and viewed over time, a kind of overbeck jet. So, in a way, all patterns can fit into other patterns’.

Showing a different lens for looking through – giving a different perspective:  I hadn’t thought about looking at patterns as giving the ability to see the world differently.  It took me into browsing articles on biophilic design, something I’d been peripherally aware of in my prior design work.  Biophilic design links the human-designed environment to forms found in nature –  something that researchers find enhances emotional and physiological well-being.  The report 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design elaborates on this specifically in the section Biomorphic Forms and Patterns – ‘symbolic references to contoured, patterned, textured or numerical arrangements that persist in nature.’

Reinforcing and extending some applications of systems theory:  over the years I’ve taken many courses on systems theory as it applies to organisational behaviours and structures.  Transferring that application into permaculture is a fascinating shift.   It’s taken up in two delightful articles by Christopher Chase Rediscovering Nature’s Paradigm, Part 1,  and  Nature’s Paradigm: The Core Ideas of Systems Theory  In part 1 he says:  ‘there seem to be certain patterns and processes which occur in natural systems everywhere, guiding the development of individuals and galaxies alike.

The ideas in systems theory are based on careful observations of natural phenomena. They tell us how nature works, how all things fit together into larger systems and communities. Its concepts refer as much to cells and solar systems as to nations, corporations and basketball teams.’

And in part 2 ‘the many different parts that make up a system arrange themselves into coherent structures, patterns, activities and forms. This applies to living as well as non-living systems…. [For example] weather patterns dissipate energy and carry water over land in consistent seasonal patterns.’

Leading me to several other resources and info sites on patterns and on permaculture:  One of my behavioural patterns is to delve for info on a topic.  The idea of writing about the permaculture design principle ‘look for patterns’, headed me off in that direction too.  I discovered a trove of stuff – more than I’ve mentioned in this piece and more than enough to confirm what I discover whenever I enter a new field – it is only new to me.  I’m always astounded by the wealth of views, expertise, research and observations on whatever it is I’m looking at. 

And it also demonstrated that I am my own resource and info site.  On this one task we were asked to ‘Keep an eye out for the natural patterns that surround you’.  That meant actually looking, living the experience – not just reading about it.

Out on a short walk I saw the intricate patterns of frosted spiders’ webs, the branched patterns of the bare trees, drifting cloud patterns, the V-shape pattern of a flock of geese flying in formation, the patterns of pheasants’ colouring.  Everywhere I looked I could see patterns of one type or another.    

Thus, I learned: ‘Nature offers us a living library of wisdom to learn from, a world that often “speaks” to us, if we listen carefully. As one Native American leader put it, “You know, if you take all your books, lay them out under the sun, and let the snow and rain and insects work on them for a while, there will be nothing left. But the Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity for study in nature’s university, the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and the animals which include us.”  (Nature’s Paradigm: The Core Ideas of Systems Theory)

Developing a Culture Strategy

“A song, a dance, a recipe passed down through the ages – these are the things that define cultures, make us who we are. And this week more such treasures were added to Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list, among them Hungarian folk music, the French baguette and Cuba’s rum knowledge.” I read this with delight in this week’s Positive News.

Finding out about this list comes during this week, of end November, when I’ve been asked to outline a culture strategy for the area I live in, and also answer, for a permaculture assignment, the questions, ‘What does a healthy social landscape look like?  What are 3 ways that you can contribute to the creation of healthy social landscapes?’

The information about intangible cultures helps with both tasks.  UNESCO defines cultural heritage as ‘traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.’   There I have a start-point on what elements could be included in an arts and culture strategy.

Etienne Wenger defines a social landscape as ‘the texture of the social world. It is constituted by social practices, social systems, and social relationships, as well as the boundaries between them. It is the raw material of social learning, shaping, and in turn being shaped by, our learning.

Wenger talks about three interrelated types of structuring forces that configure the social landscape:

  • Systems: sets of interacting systems, including natural environmental systems, political systems, human-designed and built systems (e.g. road, cities, waterways) etc.
  • Practices: what people actually do and the competences and approaches they have developed to do what they do within the systems they find themselves
  • Relationships: people or groups of people who are bound by commitments, friendships, similar experiences, labels, or other ties

It is easy to see how intangible cultural heritages are shaped by (and, in turn, shape) social landscapes. For example, the Alheda’a, oral traditions of calling camel flocks, has just been added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.  This practice has arisen from the specific desert environment where camels thrive, where they are herded, where herders need to control the herd, where community members help each other with their herds.  The description notes that ‘the practice creates a strong bond between the camels and their herders, as well as among the herders themselves. It is transmitted within families and communities.’

In this, example, you can see aspects of what constitutes a healthy social landscape.  And it is explained in the guide ‘Cultural Strategy in a Box’.  A healthy social landscape is one that, ‘builds upon the heritage of the area; that builds a shared vision and identity for the area that is steeped in history and has a wealth of cultural assets; that builds the local economy particularly in the context of tourism and creative industries; that improves the local quality of life and encourages engagement in community activities; and that provides new ways of tackling challenges around health and well-being.’

Although I don’t live in the desert, I’ve also now got a start-point on a healthy social landscape.  The next step is to consider how to use these start points in the context of my local authority area (ward).  It’s a busy urban/city environment, with considerable construction work going on.

The ward currently has a population of about 20k.  The demographic profile (from Local Insight) of the ward hints at the breadth of cultural heritages – 59% of the population was born outside the UK, 53% of households in the ward have English as the main language.  Of those born outside of the UK 24% are from Middle East/Asia, 10% African countries, 12% EU countries and the remainder other geographic locations.  Religions represented are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and a small number of ‘other’.

The ward is bisected by a main road that has lower income house on one side, and higher income on the other.  Other aspects of the demographic profile of each side speaks to the way built systems impact the social landscape.   The construction work mentioned earlier – predominantly blocks of high-rise flats, in the currently lower-income neighbourhood, will increase the ward population considerably, and will likely change the income distribution too as several of the constructions are ‘luxury’, albeit with a bit of social housing in the mix.

The challenges in developing a culture strategy for the ward are several.  They include:

  • Identifying the different intangible cultural heritages of the different constituents of the ward.  (Including the people who have lived in the ward all their lives, and remember a very different look and feel to it now compared with when they were growing up 50 years ago).   
  • Valuing, maintaining, and sustaining the wards current cultural diversity, in order to foster intercultural dialogue between the different micro-communities and encourage mutual respect for other ways of life.  As UNESCO reports, ‘The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next.’  
  • Integrating incoming cultures and cultural heritages as the high-rise flats are populated in the next few years.
  • Observing/assessing the current health of the social landscape and building into the strategy paths for developing or maintaining a good level of health.
  • Ensuring that the cultural strategy recognises traditional, contemporary, and emerging cultures representative of all constituents of the ward.
  • Remembering that having a culture strategy is not the end point. The desired outcome is its on-going operation and renewal.
  • Finding the ‘guiding coalition’ who will mobilise the energy, resources, commitment, motivation, and will power to keep the ward’s cultural heritage and emerging culture healthy and obvious in the daily lives of constituents.

Reading the above I wonder what the next steps are.  I’ve reminded myself of two of Herb Shepard’s rules, ‘Start where the system is’, and ‘light many fires’.   In terms of strategy, by the first rule, he meant don’t try and graft on or impose top-down stuff, and by the second rule he meant do lots of experiments to see what works and build a strategy from the ground up.   

With this in mind, I think I’m going to propose that rather than write a strategy we a) assess what intangible cultural assets are already within the ward and how they manifest, possibly using the UNESCO domains as a template   b) do several smallish things within the next 6 months that will test the ground for writing an ambitious and longer-term strategy, e.g. hold some seasonal events that recognise the different ways people celebrate winter,  or organise a food festival with dishes from the various cultures and geographies we have represented in the ward.   

Image:  Michael James

Child, Adult, Child, Adult, Child …

When do we really become an adult?   The question has come up in various ways this week –in a conversation I was having with someone whose mother recently died – leaving her an adult orphan,  in an incident with my daughters when I suddenly felt I had become their child, in acknowledging my own (deceased) mother’s birthday and the tangled child-adult relationship I had with her both throughout our relationship, and more pointedly,  as I became her last years’ carer, and in the novel, Sight by Jessie Greengrass which I happen to be reading this week – snatched from the library shelf as I was waiting for someone.

These brushes with different facets of adultness are making me think that adultness is a rather shifting concept.  It’s not completely defined by age, or legal status, or knowledge and experience, or social attributes of responsibility like property or dependents.  It’s also defined by a state of mind and emotion that comes into play in interactions with others.  I have the legal and social status of an adult, yet sometimes I feel authoritative, decisive, adult and ‘in-charge’ and other times I feel a child-like dependence on others – with emotions much as I remember feeling when I was in primary school.

A New Scientist article, by Moya Sarner,  What age do you really become an adult? Discussed the question from various angles and quoted a US-based research study by Jeffrey Arnett who offered three core elements that constitute adulthood  – the capability to take care of oneself, being able to make one’s own decisions and having financial independence.  He repeated the study in China and found the same three elements but with a slightly different focus. 

There, the “big three” criteria of adulthood were orientated more around taking responsibility for others, rather than for oneself. They included learning to care for parents, settling into a long-term career and feeling capable of caring for children.  Sarner, a psychodynamic psychotherapist in the NHS., suggests that this is not enough, ‘the big three criteria from these studies paint only a partial picture. You could argue that being an adult is also about how we tolerate and make sense of our emotions.’

This aspect came into play in the letters to the New Scientist that followed publication of Sarner’s article.  One person offering:  ‘adulthood is a matter of attaining several traits: being less selfish to people around you (though this often atrophies later), good risk evaluation skills and abandoning childhood fancies.’  Another, ‘when you find yourself owning your first lawnmower, your youth is a thing of the past.’  And a third, ‘The four criteria required to meet adulthood for an animal are listed as: “staying safe, navigating social hierarchies, sexual communication and leaving the nest to care for itself”. I would suggest that engineers (I am one) often fail that definition on at least two of those criteria!’

Arnett’s research offers the term ‘emerging adulthood’, finding that regardless of country people felt they were adult (i.e. had emerged into adulthood), around the age of 29.  The idea of ‘emerging adulthood’, offers hints of ‘fading adulthood’.  And it is this aspect that comes across in the Greengrass novel, Sight.  The protagonist talks about her mother’s path towards death – ‘She started to need help moving about the house, climbing steps and manoeuvring herself in and out of chairs and, when her left arm began to weaken, with cutting up her food and washing her face; and so our lives began to fold in around one another, tangling, contracting, her need for me forcing into reverse that inevitable process of separation which was the work of adolescence.’

As my mother aged, I gradually took on a caring role for her.  She slowly lost aspects of all three of Arnett’s criteria of adulthood – the capability to take care of herself, being able to make her own decisions and having financial independence.   (I think it’s interesting that ‘being able to make own decisions is a criterion of adulthood.   I see almost continuous evidence that my 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren are able to make their own decisions – though often adults disagree with these!)

Yet, on the day of her birthday – she would have been 106 – I found myself remembering her as my childhood mother, encouraging me to learn to cook, reading bedtime stories, fostering my ability to be independent, teaching me to ride my bicycle. …  She found being a (single) mother hard, difficult work, yet here we are – financially independent, able to take care of ourselves (at the moment) and making our own decisions. 

Now my own role is changing.  Watching my daughter encouraging my grandchildren to clean their teeth and helping them put their shoes on, this morning, I wondered how soon we may find she is doing similarly for me.  Already there are signs that my children are becoming my parents.  For example, when they quiz me about my diet.  But maybe that’s not parental, although I feel it as such, maybe that’s a concern that anyone could have for someone else?  (Equally they resist me doing similarly to them – in my Mum role).

It seems that almost throughout our lives we’re in shifting adult/child patterns with ourselves and others.   This is illustrated in the term ‘adult orphan’.  In one respect I think it is an oxymoron.  Only children are orphaned.  Adults expect their parents to die at some point.  But then the article I read on being an adult orphan outlines the 40-year-old writer, Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s experience, ‘I feel like a piece of space trash since my mother died, errant and signalless. I’m an only child — in an adult’s body — and having no living parents causes severe vertigo sometimes.’ Her experience was mirrored in what my friend was telling me about the recent death of her mother.  

But it is not only people who have children who feel the shifting patterns of childness and adultness.  Those without children have had parents and been children and experience a similarly shifting patterns.  As  Jezer-Morton goes on to say, ‘The death of a parent makes you a child again, but also an elder, and you keep going back and forth between those two states, possibly until you yourself die.’

Incidentally, I was amused to note that last year, aged 70+, I became the owner of my first lawnmower.   On that criterion I am now, finally, an adult!

Illustration: Jackie Parsons for the Guardian

Equanimity & property dealings

Today the sale of my flat completed.  It’s been a journey getting to this destination.  Several stops and starts, some stuff that the agent called ‘sticky patches’, and some tricky decisions – mainly on whether, and how much by, to drop the original sales price. 

I had a first attempt at selling it two years ago and failed. This was my second attempt to sell it. Between the first and second attempts, I came across the concept of ‘equanimity’.   It’s in one of the Smiling Mind meditations that I’m using to control migraine.  

A simple definition of “equanimity,” is the capacity to not get attached to a specific (desired) outcome.  Instead, to let go of that attachment.  So, in the case of selling my flat – if I had equanimity I would not be caught up in the stress, fear, doubt and tension that accompanies trying to sell a property in a difficult market.  I would take the view that maybe it will sell/maybe it won’t sell and feel relaxed about the process and confident to cope with how things would turn out. 

The thing is, developing the capacity for equanimity takes practice, perhaps years – or a lifetime – of practice,  and I was nowhere near it the first time I put the flat on the market.  I felt frustrated and disappointed by its failure to sell.   I decided to rent it out.  I rented a place in the location I had been intending to buy a place in.   Taking those actions felt like making the best of an unwanted outcome.  I’d definitely felt attached to the ‘sell my flat’ and ‘buy-somewhere-else’ outcome. 

I began a slow path to trying to cultivate equanimity, beginning with some useful quick tips on where to start.

In the event, the renting out worked well.  The tenant was superb. The place I rented for myself is fine.  I’ve had two years to live in the neighbourhood to work out whether it is right for me and my situation, and where, specifically, I might want to buy somewhere, if I eventually sold the flat. 

So maybe if on my first attempt to sell the flat, two years ago,  I had been more capable of equanimity I wouldn’t have felt so downcast by the failure to achieve a sale.

A more complex definition of equanimity is ‘an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their origin or their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral).’   This extends the idea of equanimity as being more than a lack of attachment to outcomes and more a way of life. 

Mindfulness practitioners and Buddhist adherents make conscious effort to cultivate equanimity,  Rev Grace Song describes it as ‘one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice, is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill-will.”

Another practitioner notes that ‘Equanimity contains the complete willingness to behold the pleasant and the painful events of life equally. It points to a deep balance in which you are not pushed and pulled between the coercive energies of desire and aversion.’

The urge to try having a second go at selling it was precipitated by my landlady initially saying she wanted to terminate my tenancy agreement at the end of the 2-year term, and then changing her mind saying I could stay another six months.  

Because it is important that I live in my current neighbourhood, I began to feel the precarity of renting – would the landlord change her mind again on my staying 6 more months, would the rent go up exponentially, would the reported, and necessary, gutter repairs get done, etc?  I found myself a long way from equanimity on this.   I felt stressed and anxious. 

Buoyed by the research  I found that says ‘equanimity captures potentially the most important psychological element in the improvement of well-being,’   I decided that my well-being would be improved if I sold my flat and bought a property in my current neighbourhood.   But I knew this might not happen and I would have to take a route to equanimity on it. I recalibrated and as the process of selling the flat (second time round) took hold, so did my intention to deepen my practice of equanimity. 

I am delighted that the sale finally went through, and I was attached to that outcome. However, I knew that there were many other possible outcomes and I could make the best of them. 

To reassure myself, I wrote a list of them.  Any one of them would have been ok:  carrying on renting my flat out and staying in the place I am renting – this assumed my landlord changed her mind about terminating my tenancy,  carrying on renting my flat out and finding another place in the locality to rent, winning lots on the Premium Bonds giving me the ability to both buy somewhere and carry on renting out my non-sellable flat (a long shot),  giving up on renting a place myself and going back to live in my original flat, selling my flat to a  ‘we buy any property’ company, putting it up for auction, organising a raffle to sell it through, getting the council to buy it via their buy-back scheme.   

Although selling the flat was an outcome mattered to me, I took note of Leo Babauta’s point.  He says if the outcome matters, ‘you should do the actions that are most likely going to get you that outcome … plan out the steps, then do the steps … but as you’re doing each of the steps themselves, you don’t have to be attached to the outcome.’  He offers four ways of taking the steps, towards an outcome, without focusing on it:

“Focus on the intention:  what I hope to bring to the task rather than what I hope to get out of it.

Focus on the effort. Instead of worrying about how things will turn out, pay attention instead to how focused you are on it, how much effort you’re putting into it, how mindful you are as you do it.

Focus on the process. The outcome is a result of the process — if you’re not getting the outcome you want, focus on improving the process. How much care are you taking as you do it? How can you step up your game? Don’t worry about the outcome as much as you pay attention to how you’re doing things.

Focus on the moment: What is beautiful about this particular moment, as you do the action? What can you notice? Can you be curious as you do the act, instead of having a fixed mindset?”

So now the flat is sold, and I’ve made an offer to buy a property which meets my location specification (100 meters from my rented place).   How will my equanimity show up in this next phase of the property roller-coaster – will it deepen and develop?  Maybe it will/maybe it won’t.

Produce no waste

Almost every other day I empty the cardboard box I have beside the sink.  It’s my ‘Put things to recycle in here’ box.  I live by myself.  Why am I generating 3 or 4 boxes a week of recyclable materials?  

This is apart from the recyclable materials I keep for various things – jam jars for when I make jam, bottles that serve as vases or for water, juice boxes for germinating seeds in. 

One of Holmgren’s 12 permaculture principles is ‘Produce no waste’.  The explanation on it reads: 

“Permaculture aims to connect inputs and outputs so that different elements meet each other’s needs. For example, if I save my kitchen waste and put it into a compost bin, I can make compost that can then be used to grow crops which I can then eat. I have saved waste (kitchen scraps that produce methane in landfill sites, and need transport to get it there), reduced external inputs (I don’t need to buy compost) and increased yields (better soil, more crops, more worms.)

Careful maintenance and investing in good quality long lasting products can also help reduce waste and overall consumption levels.  As they say “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle”. “

I think of myself as re-cycle aware but maybe I’m not aware enough.   Reading the principle, made me wonder whether recycling and ‘producing no waste’ are the same thing.  Maybe recycling is a method of dealing with household ‘waste’ – something that I think is inevitable, and a normal part of my city life of going to the supermarket, ordering products online, and occasionally eating out and carrying home my leftovers in a recyclable container.

My household waste that goes into the landfill bin is much less than goes into the recycle bin.  Most weeks it is one small pedal bin bag.  But even that, I’m now thinking about.  I’ve just read an article by someone who aims to live generating no household waste – she excludes recyclable materials from her definition of waste though.

To my mind, recycling is a form of “waste diversion”.  It is a bit of a reduction in the waste stream, but, as one writer said, it doesn’t call into question the very concept of waste.    And it isn’t a  complete method, because dealing with recycling itself incurs various costs which may or may not out outweigh the environmental benefits.  On this, see for example, the book The Zero Waste Solution, which, “exposes the greenwashing behind renewed efforts to promote waste incinerators as safe, nontoxic energy suppliers, and gives detailed information on how communities can battle incineration projects that, even at their best, emit dangerous particles into the atmosphere, many of which remain unregulated or poorly regulated.”

On an anecdotal level, stories abound – I don’t know whether they’re true or not – that recycling is a waste of time.  (What is wasted time a by-product of?)

Holmgren’s principle of ‘produce no waste’ is, I think, drawn from the notion that nature produces no waste.   But Justin McGuirk makes the challenging point that, ‘Waste is precisely what dissolves the distinction between nature and culture. … Nature and waste have fused at both planetary and microbiological scales. Similarly, waste is not merely a by-product of culture: it is culture. We have produced a culture of waste.’  He argues, ‘If waste is the mesh that entangles nature and culture, it’s necessarily the defining material of our time.’

The principle to produce no waste, is laudable but, I think, isn’t strong enough to deal with the reality McGuirk writes of, for example,  ‘What does it mean to say that, by 2050, as much as 12 billion tonnes of plastic will have accumulated in landfills or the natural environment? What does it mean to observe that more than a million plastic bags are consumed every minute globally, and that this amounts to between 500 billion and 5 trillion a year? Such numbers present a seemingly precise quantification yet one that’s utterly ungraspable.’

Looking out of my window I can see ‘nature’ in the form of birds, trees, vegetation, blue sky, and I can see blue and grey plastic dustbins lined up along the street, litter of all types lining the gutters, cars parked nose to tail in every available space, houses with gas central heating vapour pulsing from the vent pipes.  An Amazon delivery van is pulling up to a neighbour’s, and so on.  The rightness of McGuirk’s idea that we are in a culture of waste is in plain sight.

Making ‘produce no waste’ more than a laudable principle, that preoccupies well-intentioned, perhaps, fringe groups as they try to act on it in their work and lives does not come close to reorienting 8 billion (soon to be 10 billion) people across the globe to degrowth societies that mean shrinking rather than growing economies, to use less of the world’s dwindling resources.

I note though, that one of Holmgren’s other principles is ‘Use edges and value the marginal’.  This is explained as, ‘The place where two eco-systems or habitats meet (e.g. woodland and meadow) is generally more productive and richer in the variety of species present than either habitat on its own…. Marginal could be ideas, views, unusual plants, wild animals or people at the ‘edge’ of society.’

Suppose we consider the permaculture movement as an edge or marginal movement to the Culture of Waste, described by McGuirk, then what can we use or value from it that would productively foster the ‘produce no waste’ principle?

There are some tiny signs of a shifting of design approaches that may generate a tipping point favouring no waste.  McGuirk reminds us that ‘Design has been a driving forces behind our prodigious waste streams in the past century. As the handmaidens of commerce, designers have been complicit in the throwaway economy: manufacturing planned obsolescence, promoting convenience culture, entombing products in layers of seductive packaging.’

It could fall to designers, then to reverse their thinking and approaches and become a driving force towards now waste.  Encouragingly he points out, ‘Shorn of blissful ignorance and only too alert to the mounting crisis around us, designers are reinventing themselves as material researchers, waste-stream investigators and students of global economic flows.’ 

He continues with more on the possibilities and necessities of reversing.  I wonder if this will come about?  I wonder how far it is possible. Is it a never to be achieved aspiration rather than a real human possibility?  There are vested interests, geo-politics, and forces working against reversing a culture of waste (read Kim Stanley Robinson’s book The Ministry for the Future) but there are also those working alongside Holmgren and others, towards principles complementary to Holmgren’s.  One I hold dear is, “The decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.” – The Seventh Generation Principle . Maybe, it is not too pie in the sky to hope that the movement will morph into a global mandate to produce no waste.

Observing flow

According to an ancient Zen koan, ‘your face before your parents were born’ is your original face.  

With this tradition in mind, Ruth Ozeki challenged herself to spend three hours gazing at her own reflection in a mirror, “recording her thoughts, and noticing every possible detail. Those solitary hours open up a lifetime’s worth of meditations on race, aging, family, death, the body, self doubt, and, finally, acceptance.”  The three hours are recorded in her book, ‘The Face:  A Time Code’.  I first read the book earlier this year.   It’s now become a well-thumbed copy that I frequently dip into.  Although short, it’s deep, original, and sends my thinking into new directions.  

Ozeki credits the idea of spending three hours gazing at her face, to Jennifer Roberts,  a Harvard professor of art history. 

Roberts writes: “… The first thing I ask [my students] to do in the research process is to spend a painfully long time looking … Say a student wanted to explore the work popularly known as Boy with a Squirrel, … by John Singleton Copley. Before doing any research in books or online, the student would first be expected to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, where it hangs, and spend three full hours looking at the painting, noting down his or her evolving observations as well as the questions and speculations that arise from those observations. The time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive. Also crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which removes the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions.”

Spending time ‘just observing’, takes skill, patience, and discipline.  It’s something that intrigued me as I read Oziki’s book, and then learned about Roberts’s assignment.  I don’t know that I could do that.  This week, however, the test of my ability has been called on.

The permaculture intro course I’ve just started has set an observation task as a first assignment.  It’s much shorter than Roberts’s.  It’s a 30-minute observation choosing one approach from Starhawk’s 9 ways of observing.  The instruction is to ‘spend some time in nature (or in your home) observing the world around you with that particular [observation] lens on. What do you? Where does it take you? What could be the benefits of using this particular lens if you want to become a [permaculture] designer?’ 

Yesterday, I looked more at the nine ways.  The headline for each is:

  • I wonder…
  • Observing energy
  • Observing flow
  • Observing communities
  • Observing patterns
  • Observing edges
  • Observing limits
  • Observing from stillness
  • Observing past and future

Whether or not Oziki knew about these 9 lenses when she was looking at her face, I don’t know, but each of them is there, in her book.  

Now, today, this minute in fact, (14:00) I am beginning the task.  I am looking out of my upstairs window.  It’s raining a bit and grey.  I just took a photo (above) of what I am looking at.  I’m observing flow of all kinds. Some ideas from Starhawk on this lens include ‘How does water move through this system? How do wind and airflow affect the area? What intercepts the flows? What marks do they leave of their passage? What is the source of these flows? How is that source replenished?’

I am facing NW.  Directly ahead, I see wind flow, through the two cherry trees, the mahonia bush, the London plane.  Each is at a different stage of leaf shed, and their different leaf shapes and textures are responding to the wind in varied movement patterns.  The bare twigs and branches of the cherry that has lost most of its leaves barely seem to be moving at all, while the London plane is in flurried dance.

Looking down a bit I see the bamboo waving and arcing gracefully.  Intercepting its flow is the fence which it’s growing next to.  According to the Met Office, the wind here and now is from SSW and blowing at a mean wind speed of 10 mph. 

But wind is not the only flow.  There are birds flying – forming their own air flows.  Starlings, magpies, seagulls and crows predominate.  The seagulls are high – gliding expertly in the airflows. I know there are bluetits and dunnocks, but I can’t see them from my current observation point.   The bluetits are closer to ground level not gliding but winging. 

There are traffic flows.  Cars and van predominantly but also cyclists, people on scooters, mopeds and motorbikes.  Their flows are ahead and to the right of the green I am looking out onto.  They intercept each other as they turn left or right or keep going straight, sometimes faster, sometimes creeping along as their drivers look for a rare parking space.

Pedestrians are fewer today (raining) but their flow is intercepted by the cars parked along the pavement, and the bins left out following yesterday’s bin collection.  They’re weaving through these obstacles.  I see that those with children are stopping at the enticing puddles and piles of wet leaves – perfect for jumping into.

The rain is a flow – I can hear it gurgling down the drainpipe closest to me, and into the water butt.  There are water flows I can see along the street – most houses have paved front gardens so the water runs off into the street gutters. 

Not right now, but morning and evening, people exercise their dogs on the green, so the flow of dogs is one I frequently see (and cats and squirrels). Then I hear the flow of conversations between the dog walkers as they chat to each other.  

As I stand here, I can’t see visible evidence of other flows that I know are present – the flows of water and nutrients in the vascular system of the trees, plants and mycorrhizal networks, for example.   What I can see are some signs of where these have been intercepted by the drought earlier in the year.  Some of the plants in my sightline have died.  One of the cherry trees is looking the worse for wear – I wonder if it will succumb to disease or death resulting from drought stress.

Now I am at the end of the 30 minutes.  What could be the benefits of using this particular lens if I want to become a [permaculture] designer?   I’ll have to hazard a guess, as I’m a complete beginner on this journey.  But I think some knowledge of the interactions of flows (water, wind movement, people’s activity, plant viability) and the factors that cause these to be beneficial or less beneficial interactions within a particular landscape must be of value to a permaculture designer – observing the various flows can help guide decisions and actions that enable working with nature rather than against nature.   Going back to the Zen tradition I mentioned at the start, the observation of flows helps enable us to see the face of the land before it became as it is now. 

Pablo Picasso’s, Minotaur in the Labyrinth  – a reinterpretation

“Who was it who suggested that I dance with a horse?  It began ok.  The woman with the veil smiled as we waltzed, the two hands clapped as we progressed through the labyrinth.  It wasn’t the easiest of dances, my human feet were capable – but trying to hold the horse so she could to dance on her back legs taxed my arms.  And, of course, she – though expertly trained in dressage at the Royal Andalusian School, and highly skilled at it – wasn’t used to a prolonged hind-leg only piece.

But we managed the two and a half minutes of the first dance without a hitch.  In fact, we did it well.  I held her round her girth, she rested her forelegs on my shoulders and nuzzled my ears.  We moved in sync.  It all felt good. 

The language barrier meant we couldn’t talk – me being Ancient Greek speaking and she Castilian Spanish, but some-how we were in tune, that first dance. 

I felt confident enough to propose – through gesture – that we try something else, a polka, or a foxtrot, or maybe a tango?  She seemed to get what I meant.   The woman in the veil nodded approval at the choice of tango and the two hands gave a thumbs-up. 

The 8-count basic tango seemed about the right level.  I didn’t know how much she’d been schooled in tango, but she started off on the right hoof, and we got going.  I think things started to go wrong when I embarked on more advanced moves.  She couldn’t keep up as well and I found my arms beginning to flag as the speed and complexity of the dance increased. 

She really was pretty hefty.  But we managed a few of the giros – you know that move that happens each time the woman goes around the man.  It was a back sacada that did it – I don’t have to tell you that the man does this with his right leg which is much more tricky due to the asymmetrical tango embrace. 

Somehow, I got tangled up with her.  My arms gave way, she collapsed on the floor, panting.  It was a terrible sight.  The woman in the veil screamed and the two hands flapped wildly for assistance. 

The big hand hurtled in but mistakenly headed for the screaming woman.  That left me to pick up the fallen horse, draping her over my arm and heading towards the helping hand, using my other arm to hold up the sky which mysteriously seemed about to fall. “


That piece above I wrote during a summer school creative writing programme.  We were set an exercise to choose from one of 3 pictures presented and write 500 words on the picture.   I don’t remember what the other two pictures were, but I chose that one of Picasso’s Minotaur in the Labyrinth.   At the end of each day of the course we were given an assignment that had to be ready for presentation, and critique, the following morning to classmates.   

It was, however, my second attempt.  The first piece that I set to and wrote was ok, but not great.  It felt stilted, and not expressive of anything that came across so vibrantly in the painting.  I gave up on it and went off for a walk.   As I was walking, I was mulling over the legend of the Minotaur and how he got to be in the labyrinth.   There’s nothing I could find that’s told from the Minotaur’s perspective.  What was it like being kept in a labyrinth? What agency did he have?  What other sides to his personality, other than the ‘terrifying’?   I wondered if the Minotaur has been lopsidedly portrayed in myth and legend.

Out of this, another idea on the painting struck me, and I came back and wrote the above.  It made me laugh as I was writing it.  I felt I’d captured something possible but unrecognised in the Minotaur’s character, something that comes across in the amused and bemused expression on his face as Picasso painted it.

I took the piece to the class next day and, when my turn came, read it out.  Classmates loved it and laughed as much as I’d wondered if they would.  All but one, who was Spanish and felt I had completely misunderstood the period of Spanish history in which Picasso was painting, and didn’t get the symbolism in the painting of strength, rebellion, power, and so on.    

This was a writing exercise I found fun to do.   I’ve taken other writing courses which give similar open-ended assignments, for example, ‘Describe a moment of arrival’, another ‘Write about a personal landmark’.    They’re often time bounded: ‘In the next 10 minutes write about the colour green’.  One teacher recommended a book, Writing Down the Bones, that I found I had on my shelf – it had been given to me years ago by a journalist friend, but I’d never got around to reading it.  When I did, I found it was a marvellous and helpful guide.   

What I enjoyed about my response to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth painting was the inkling it gave me that perhaps I could be a creative writer, or a flash fiction writer or something more colourful than a ploddingly grey recorder of things that happened during my day.

I think I need more practice.   I need exercises that will goad my inner workings into creative inspiration.   Just writing every day is ok but it is like just running every day.  To get better at running you need to train – speed, intervals, track, fartlek, etc – over different distances and different terrains.  I do a lot of this type of running training.  And I keep a running goal in mind – I want to be able to run 10k at 87% age graded.  I’m getting closer to achieving that and the training is a large part of getting there.

I’m not sure why I don’t take a similar approach to writing.  It’s not that I don’t do writing training, I just do it sporadically and not consistently, and I do it with no specific goal in mind.   Maybe if I set myself the goal of getting a piece of flash fiction published and then trained with that goal in mind – there are umpteen flash fictions courses available – I could become the creative writer that I may have lying latent within me.