The shadow of life

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
~ R.D. Laing

Quite a mouthful that. Try saying it aloud. When I read it today, I immediately thought of shadows. Now, I am not at all sure where the association came from (and has that ever stopped be ruminating ….), but intangible though it was, it sent me searching through my photographs to confirm a deep-seated suspicion that alongside closed doors and flowers behind bars, I also seem to have an obsession of sorts with photographing shadows.

It’s not the objects themselves that interest me, but the way light interacts with them and distorts what might otherwise be a mirrored reflection. Although far less solid and far more ephemeral, it is the shadow that attracts me. This realisation then made me wonder even more because it would seem that much of my working life is spent dealing with tangibles – texts, words, plans, structures , budgets, people – and yet what I find most interesting is the effect they create, the influence they have, their reach.

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel reckons that most people think that shadows follow, precede, or surround beings or objects. The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses, and memories. The reach and influence of what we say and do, the shadow of our actions, if you will, can divide the indivisible. So often we have no idea of the signifance of a throw-away comment, a random act, a spontaneous decision. We see what’s solid, what’s real, and all too often fail to notice the shadow that realness creates. And yet, as Martin Luther King would have it, everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.

So if in noticing that failing to notice shapes my thoughts and deeds; if I see the shadows that surround my words and ideas; if I accept that everything is a shadow of what I do not see, then might I arrive at a meeting of minds with Frank Lloyd Wright and accept that  the present is the ever moving shadow that divides yesterday from tomorrow. In that lies hope.

While I attempt to figure it all out, I will still appreciate a shadow for what I believe it is – a glimpse of a parallel reality.

Where continuity has been broken

Until the 1980s, what is now Is-Simar wildlife sanctuary in Malta was a marshy area used as a dump. Back in 1995, BirdLife Malta took it under their wing (ahem!) and transformed this wasteland into a beautifully yet naturally sculpted wetland area where urban folk can come and enjoy the birds. It’s just a tad surreal. Within minutes of walking through the main gates, we were enveloped in greenery, completely hidden from the outside world.  Strolling along the pathway that encircles the sanctuary, our view of reality was shielded by bamboo fences  as birds and traffic vied for airtime.

Walking beneath the man-made arbors, the sounds of traffic filtered through the trees reminding us that we were in fact in an urban area, and not, as we might have thought, in the heart of the countryside. It took a little getting used to. Looking out through the narrow slits of windows in the hide, we watched the birds cavorting, oblivious to the fact that where they now lived was once a dump or that just yards from the edge of their world, life was moving at a different pace. Would all such areas be reclaimed.

Across the Atlantic, in the Portland/Vancouver area of Washington State, the Urban Greenspaces Insitute has as its motto: In livable cites is preservation of the wild. I am reminded of Budapest last year when local councils wanted to lob down trees to make room for more parking spaces. There’s something not quite right with that picture.

Instead of laying down an arbitrary design for a region, it might be in order to find a plan that nature has already laid down…a regional design of streams and valleys that provide superb natural connectors, into the very heart of the urban area. Where continuity has been broken, the pieces should be reclaimed wherever it is at all possible. ~ William H. Whyte, The Last Landscape, 1968

Grateful 49

How true the old adage is – you never really appreciate anything until it’s gone. So much is taken for granted and it’s only when something goes wrong that we fully realise how lucky and blessed we actually are.

Shortly before Christmas I discovered that I had a BRVO – a branch retinal vein occlusion – in my right eye (my good eye). The world became cloudy and every time I cried at a Christmas movie, I half expected to find blood pouring down my face. The photographs are amazing – modern medicine is amazing. It is amazing how far we have come and also how far we have yet to go. None of the doctors/specialists I’ve seen can tell me why it happened. The cause remains a mystery. Nor can they tell me if it is likely to happen again.

My vision acuity is 125%. I can see what I focus on – but everything around it is blurred. Reading text is like being followed by a moving wave… and the scary thing is that I’m getting used to it. The treatment is new – legalised last year – an IV injection of something that costs in the region of €1000 per ml. My specialist is reluctant to give it to me as technically I can see very well. Most frustrating but then, at that price, perhaps I’m just as well off.

I need to wait about two months and hope that the blood is reabsorbed into my system and the bruising disappears. It could take as long as a year. My initial fear on diagnosis gave way to irritation and frustration at seeing the world through a foggy lens, and is now settling down to the stark realisation that I have little other choice but to adapt. And it could be a lot worse – at least I can still see. On the days that it doesn’t bother me as much, I have a new appreciation for my sight. And on the days when I can’t see very well at all, I have a new appreciation for my sight.

This week, out of all the things I’m grateful for, I’m grateful that I can still see.

The power of words

‘Knowledge, it has been said, is power. And rhetoric is what gives words power. So a knowledge of rhetoric equips [me], as a citizen, both to exercise power and to resist it.’ So says Sam Leith, author of You Talking to Me?

Exercising power

Those who do not appreciate the finer nuances of language often underestimate the power of words; they think them merely words. No more, no less. Certainly, words are what we use to convey our meaning, but it is how we use them that matters: how we sew them together; how we weave them into an eloquent pattern; how we deliver them. Give two people the same text and see how one can use voice, tone, rhythm, volume, speed, and inflection to turn the text into a weapon while the other robs it of all but its essential meaning.

Coleridge supposedly defined language as ‘the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests’. Rhetoric, the art of using language, of structuring it, is what gives words their power, what arms them. From alliteration to zeugma, rhetorical devices can be employed to persuade and influence. The influence of anadiplosis should not be understated, or epanalepsis decried for lack of influence.

Telling stories

History is littered with great orators; men and women who have taken the stage and waxed lyrical about their passions and in so doing, ignited a passion in their listeners: John F. Kennedy, Adolf Hitler, Sojourner Truth, Winston Churchill, Emmeline Pankhurst, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King…need I go on? More recently, US President Barack Obama is credited with bringing back the art of storytelling to the public domain, although there are those who think that his storytelling doesn’t have the requisite heroes and villains to which we are predisposed and is much weaker for it. If we stop for a moment and think about it, our civilisation is, in fact, one big story. We have our history (stories of the past), our news (stories of the present), and our dreams (stories of our future) and those who have the ability to spin a good yarn or tell a good tale are the ones who, for better or worse, get our attention, wield power, and effect change.

Leaving an impression

It is ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ that opening lines of great novels linger in our memory long after we lay them down. This imprint is equally visible in a simple survey of our daily chatter, which reveals how much power those who excel at rhetoric have – I was talked into it; I was swayed by his words; she touched a chord; that resonated with me; I could listen to her for hours; I wish I’d said that. Yes, those who know how, those who know rhetoric, certainly wield great power.

Resisting power

But to those who know the rules, to those who understand the game, to those who themselves revel in rhetoric, this power is resistible. Those who understand hypotaxis know that they ask questions because they are curious; those who engage in parataxis may hear the words and recognise their meaning and remain steadfast in their opinion.

Simplifying matters

Our language teachers tell us to pronounce a word, syllable by syllable, and then to sum up the parts and create a magical whole. Once we know how magicians work their magic, we then admire their skill rather than claim it is impossible. And we can achieve the seemingly impossible by taking one small step after the other. The key lies in knowing, in knowledge. As Sir Francis Bacon claimed back in 1597, ‘knowledge is power’. We are frightened of what we do not understand; we fear what we do not know. Our gullibility and impressionability turn us into putty in the hands of eloquent potters who know how to shape and mould our thoughts and coax us gently into submission. And yet if we know what to expect, we can resist. If we know what is around the corner, we can prepare.

When we understand rhetoric, and are skilled at using it ourselves; when we fully realise the affect it has on others; and when we learn to appreciate the beauty of words while consciously navigating their message, then we can also see the affect that rhetoric can have on us. We can, as Leith says, both exercise power and resist it.

So, if I understand all this, why am I finding it so difficult to decipher what I’m reading in the news about Hungary? Why is it so hard to figure out what the real story actually is? Why are so many credible sources apparently contradicting each other? Will the real Hungary please stand up!

First published in the Budapest Times  26 January 2012

Mulling it over

I sat down to lunch the other day, at home, in my flat, on my own. And I automatically reached for a book. It seems that it’s not enough for me to spend time eating – I need to multitask and get some reading in as well. That started me thinking. Back in the days when my world included television, it also included knitting needles. Back when I was gymming it, I was also listening to audio books. When I was driving long distances in Alaska, I was also practising public speaking and recitations. But until the other day, I’d never really realised how programmed I am to maximise my time.

I like to walk – I could walk around the city all day, if I have an errand to run, someone to meet, places to see… but I rarely wander aimlessly any more. I need to have a destination. This surprises me as my life plan is to live my life without planning. I used to think that I’m in Budapest doing what I do as a result of a whim. But now I wonder.

I had a frightening experience in Malta last summer – I was there working and decided to take one day off – a Saturday. No computer, no Internet, no phone. Just me and my book and the water. There was a time in my life when I could do this for 14 days non-stop without once feeling restless or anxious. But I couldn’t even manage two hours. I couldn’t relax – the feeling that I should be doing something constructive robbed me of the pleasure I would usually get from reading. I couldn’t get comfortable on the sun lounge – I had forgotten how to relax.

So far, although we’re just 24 days into it, 2012 is proving itself as a year of tranformational change for some people I know – and I have a feeling that I’ll be joining their ranks in the not too distant future. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I know, deep down, that this rate of activity and multitasking is not sustainable. There is more to life. I need to somehow recapture that sense of achievement I used to get from doing one thing at a time and doing it well. I need to learn how to switch off.

Grateful 50

High up there on my list of New Year’s resolutions is to stop being so preoccupied with age … and in particular, my age. For too many years now, I’ve been using it as some sort of yardstick – a measurement of how I should be, when really all I want to be is who I am. One of the beauties of moving around so much and re-inventing my life over and over again was the mental process of rebirth I went through each time I moved to a new city or country.

Those I count amongst my friends range in age from 23 to 95 and yet, although I have no problem with other people’s age, I find myself regularly joking about my own: about increasing the average age in the room when I enter or pointing out that I’m old enough to be someone’s mother. What have I been missing? A recent (and extremely painful) visit to my accupuncturist fixed some loose wiring in my psyche to the point that I no longer ask someone’s age and no longer offer mine unless directly challenged.

Out for drinks this week after a very successful Gift of the Gab, that broad hunk of British, KF, stated in no uncertain terms that he was older than me. I can’t quite remember how it came up in conversation but I sensed that he, like me, is regularly thought to be younger than we actually are. He had that tell-tale certainty about his assertion. Not one to resist a challenge, I asked him how much he cared to wager that he was not. Others around the table told me I’d lose – they said he was older than he looked – way older. I handed over my driver’s licence and suffice to say that my favourite charity is now 10,000 huf richer. I was highly amused at people’s idea of old and how relative that is. And I was gratified that everyone showed just the right amount of shock and horror at their poor judgment.

As this week draws to a close and I struggle to decipher the mess that Hungary finds itself in and get a handle on the work that’s been piling up all week, I’m grateful to those who keep me out until the small hours of the morning and make me laugh and keep me young. I could be run over by a bus tomorrow… and then it wouldn’t matter how old I was.

And as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: The age of a woman doesn’t mean a thing. The best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles.


Spread the (Balkan) love

To say Geneva is expensive is a little like saying that Sultan Kösen is tall. It’s just a hair’s breadth from being a massive understatement. Having paid 34 CHF (about €28) for four very ordinary sandwiches, I was still suffering from shock three hours later. To pay €200 per night for a very, very, very ordinary hotel room (ordinary to the point of being that same hair’s breadth from a hostel dorm room) didn’t hurt as much, as I wasn’t picking up the bill.

Reluctant to throw myself at the mercy of travel advisors, tourist advertisments or concierge recommendations when it came to have dinner last night, I was happy enough to be guided by some Serbian friends who like their food. When it comes to networking while living abroad, the Irish have nothing on those who hail from the Balkans – it seems as if everyone knows someone who knows someone and this particular someone owns/manages/runs La Sixieme Heure  at No. 6 Place des Philosophes close to the Plainpalais (Tram No. 15 from the station) in Geneva.

Once we’d made ourselves known (i.e. as having been sent by the boys), what was already promising to be a good experience took a turn for the sublime. The place itself is furnished with a random selection of mismatched chairs and tables and sofas that transport you to just about anywhere you’d like to be. There’s plenty of room between tables so no eavesdropping to distract from the food. The menus, printed on simple, white sheets of A4 were written in French (of which I have enough to spot an artichoke from 10 yards out). I opted for tagliatelle with artichokes, sunblushed tomatoes and mushrooms topped with oodles of freshly shaved parmesan while PC indulged his taste for truffles and chanced an interesting combination of feta cheese, truffle oil and ruccola with his tagliatelle. The ‘on-the-house’ New Year’s aperitifs of white wine with apricot kirsch led nicely into a Swiss Sauvingnon Blanc for me and a Rioja for himself.

Having already talked at length about replacing ‘want’ with ‘need’ in my life’s vocabulary, I couldn’t justify ordering the warm chocolate tarte so I declined… for both of us – a decision which was promptly ignored by our man from the Balkans. And was I glad. It was just about as ‘to-die-for’ as he is! Add a couple of digestifs and some coffee to the mix and there was little change from 100 CHF (€85 / $120).

It’s been a long time since I shelled out €50 for a main course and some wine and it’s been equally long since I’ve enjoyed a meal as much. I’ve had good food with good company in good settings before – and this was no exception. But what made it so different and so special was that Balkan hospitality. I know I’ve written about  the restaurants and the music in Belgrade and about Serbs and their passion for life and for living and yet I still can’t quite put my finger on where that passion comes from and why it’s so tangible. Just knowing someone who knows someone seems enough to unlock the door to a hospitable world where the Irish céad míle fáilte and the Latino mi casa, su casa combine to create an exquisite sense of welcome that makes you forget to go home.

If you find yourself at a loose end in Geneva and are in need of some soul-warming sustenance that will restore your faith in human nature, you could do a lot worse than drop by La Sixieme Heure. In fact, I’d recommend that you go out of your way to drop by…

Grateful 51

Earlier this week, I sent out an e-mail to my North American friends, those living within the USA and those living without. I included a link to American author Jake Lamar’s video on why he’s not disappointed with President Obama. I was quite taken with it as a piece of rhetoric, even if his eye contact leaves a lot to be desired. It’s also just a tad on the lengthy side. Semantically, it was pleasing, convincing, and passionate. But I wanted to know about the content. And, as I’m not in a position to judge, not living in the States myself, and being a trifle more concerned about what’s been going on here of late, I asked my friends, each of whom I trust and whose opinion I value, to comment.

Predictably, some really liked it, thought it made sense. They voted for Obama and will vote for him again. Others had mixed feelings – Lamar got some issues right, and others wrong – they’d voted for Obama and would consider voting for him again but their vote isn’t in the bag. And then there were those who didn’t vote for him and won’t vote for him and think he’s the worst thing ever to happen to America.

The whys and the wherefores are neither here not there. I don’t intend this to be a discussion on whether Obama is the man or not. What I’m grateful for is that I have a diversity of friends who are educated, passionate, and up to date with what’s going on in their world. They shared their opinions and experiences with me, pointed me in new directions (e.g. what’s happening with SB1070 in Arizona;  and is it really 1963 in America again), and gave valid arguments for their reasoning.

The net result is that I now know more than I did on Monday and am a lot clearer about what I’d do were I in the USA and voting. Consensus is not important. I don’t have to agree with my friends for them to be my friends. In being able to challenge their opinions and likewise to have to stand beside my own, is a very valuable exercise. Diversity is key… diversity of opinion, of taste, of reasoning. Surrounding ourselves by like-minded people while wallowing in the same type of information will simply serve to narrow our perspectives and make us more insular.

So, at the end of this, the second week of 2012, I am truly grateful for my friends and their continuous edification; for opening new doors and beckoning me through.

Something to consider about being insular

There’s a little old lady who walks around the balcony of the fourth floor of my building. She could be sixty-six, she could be seventy-seven, she could be eighty-eight: it’s hard to tell. Her face has none of the delicacy one might expect from a cosseted, salon type who has had the benefit of a gentrified life. Hers is more the weather-beaten look, a testimony to years spent out of doors, with little or no moisturizer separating her from the elements. The lines etched into her skin might well be laughter lines; and indeed she smiles quite a lot. They might equally be the sum of all her worries.  I suspect that they say more about tough times and tenacity than tinsel town and tripping the light fantastic but then again, I could be wrong.

Circumnavigating her globe

She speaks to me of gloves, of swimming, of life in the country, modeling her concise, terse style on Hemmingway’s famous short story – For sale: baby shoes, never worn. She is economical in her speech perhaps because she knows that I understand her in words and phrases rather than in complete sentences. She talks to me as if talking to a child. When I smile at something I’ve misinterpreted as humorous, I can see her wondering why I don’t speak Hungarian. She asks me where I’ve been just been and where I’m going next. I answer as best I can. Were I, in turn, to ask her just one question, it would be: When did you last leave the building?

Three times a day, she does two circuits of the balcony. In the colder months, or when it’s wet, she is accompanied by her granddaughter, her daughter, or one of the neighbor ladies. They walk closely behind her, ready to catch her should she fall. In the summer, she might brave it on her own, moving one short step at a time, hanging on to the balcony railing as she, in regal fashion, slowly circumnavigates her globe. Sometimes other neighbors come out and greet her and the procession takes on a festive air; other times she walks undisturbed, as if on a pilgrimage.

His kingdom is a cot

During the summer of last year, I met a young man in his early thirties who spends his days in a 4 x 6 cot in an orphanage outside Budapest. His life, too, is limited to his immediate surrounds. He is comfortable with what he knows and hates having anything changed – his clothes, his bed linen, his routine are fine just as they are, thank you very much. It’s impossible to judge if he is happy or content – I doubt he even knows what these words mean. He watches the goings-on in his world with a strange fascination that is measured in seconds rather than minutes. Communicating with grunts and gestures, he uses a language that his carers understand. Like my old lady, he, too, has as series of minders who look out for his welfare.

Measuring the mood

In my world, travel is an inherent part of how I live. I can’t begin to imagine life without the monthly, bi-monthly, or even weekly ritual of packing, unpacking, washing, ironing, and repacking. My perspective is governed by the global view of world politics that I read, listen to, and hear of second-hand. My barometer of how the world is feeling measures the mood in the street, in the shops, and in the pubs. I need that interaction with the outside world to give me some sense of what it going on; to help me make sense of the multitude of different stories that assault me each time I switch on my laptop or open a newspaper. I have blogged recently of my concern about where Hungary is heading, and I’ve been told that I’m overreacting. My barometer tells me otherwise.

In a strange way, I envy my little old lady and my young man; I envy them their apparent contentment. Her life is punctuated by journeys around the balcony, accompanied or alone. His life is punctuated by changing TV programs and the occasional visitor. Their immediate surrounds rarely change. They enjoy a regimen of sameness. No surprises. Each is cared for, looked after, never alone. Each smiles a knowing smile that says they’ve seen so much that I could never understand.

If I had the opportunity to shut myself off from the world, the media, the noise of daily living, would I do it? It sounds tempting, but as we face into 2012, a year which augurs untold transformation and change, it will be more important than ever to keep tabs on that barometer, to keep measuring the mood of the nations, to keep in touch with what is going on. As a pilot friend of mine might say, I need to continue my forays into the world, to ‘check my levels’ so that I can avoid the ‘leans’.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 Janauary 2012

Introducing Grateful 52

Big worlds

Yet another year is over, ready to be classified and filed away for future reference, destined for history books and memoirs of the famous and not-so famous. The first domino to fall as a result of the Arab Spring was Tunisia in January – a momentous occasion sparked 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi who had set himself on fire in December because he was refused permission to sell his vegetables – refused permission to make a living. Egypt followed suit in February while in March, the world watched as Japan was hit by a powerful earthquake and brought to its knees by the resultant tsunami, killing more than 15,000 people and leaving nearly 4000 missing. In April, two billion people watched as Prince William tied the knot with the lovely Kate Middleton – perhaps desperate for a ray of sunshine in what had started out to be a year from hell. In May, Osama bin Laden met his death while the Bosnian Serb Ratko Mladić was finally arrested for genocide. In June, both Syria and Yemen felt the tendrils of the Arab Spring which continued well into summer, unabated. Norway got a taste of terrorism in July as 76 people were killed in twin terrorist attacks.  In August, NASA captured photographic evidence of possible water on Mars and I couldn’t help but wonder if this is something I should be getting excited about? September brought another round of casualties – 240 people died when a ferry sank off the coast of Zanzibar while 100 Kenyans died when a pipeline exploded near Nairobi. In October, the global population reached over 7 billion, minus one Muammar Gaddafi. In November, yet another Martian exploration vehicle (the Curiosity) was launched. December saw a spate of civil demonstrations in Budapest. The complete omission of anything relating to the euro or the EU is deliberate…I just can’t bring myself to go there.


French Peacocks

Little lives
In the midst of all these global events, our lives have trundled along as normal, the routine broken by weddings, births, deaths, mortgages, and graduations. Friendships were made and broken. Many relationships limped along while others caved to pressures they were not strong enough to withstand. We’ve loved and laughed, loathed and languished. We’ve cried tears of rage, of helplessness, of sorrow, and of joy. We’ve watched our elected leaders lead us down the road to nowhere. We’ve witnessed rising crime, racism, intolerance, and hatred. And, understandably, few of us have remembered to take the time to stop, amidst all this chaos, and say a quiet ‘thank you’ for what we have and what we hold dear.

Many years ago I worked with this very bubbly young American girl whom I avoided like the plague in the mornings. I just couldn’t handle her effervescence; I liked mine soluble, in tablet form. Working late one evening, we were chatting about whatever, when she told me that every night, before she went to sleep, she tried to think of ten things that had happened that day for which she could be thankful. And some nights she fell asleep before she reached No. 10.

She challenged me to try it. I was sure that I’d have no trouble finding ten things to be thankful for. And I’ve been doing it every night for the last eight years because it keeps me focused and it keeps me positive…well, sort of positive 🙂

It’s way too easy to let go and submerge myself in the daily horrors of 21st century living. It’s far too convenient to spend my days worrying about global problems that I cannot hope to fix or even effect and in doing so miss out on today. It’s really not all that difficult to lose sight of what’s important – and who’s important – as I spend my time moaning about what might have been. My nightly lists will never be published in a miscellany. David Letterman is unlikely to ask to borrow them for his Top 10. But ranging as they do from the ridiculous (I am grateful that I noticed my skirt was tucked into my tights before I walked out on to the street) to the sublime (I am grateful to Árpád at Kadarka wine bar on Kiraly utca for introducing me to Fecsegő ), chalking them up each night has become a ritual and as close to meditation as I can get.

I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if more people took the time to give thanks – to themselves and to others. Thanks for the little things that make life worth living. Thanks for the people in our lives who keep us sane. And thanks for karma – who, will, at the end of the day, make sure that all wrongs are righted.

Inspired by the inimitable Biddy McD in Australia who has kept the world amused by her photo album Grateful 365 and posted a pic a day of something she and her two sons are grateful for, I’ve decided to be less adventurous but equally committed and focus each week on something I’m grateful for. Introducing Grateful 52.