The Art of Life

I’ve been painting our garden fence and yesterday left a little blue handprint beside the paint pot. As I hunted for a cloth I remembered the cave paintings I’d visited with outlined hands that have been waving for thousands of years. Hands that were once alive, that made art, that simply said “I am here.”

In the Lascaux Caves in South-western France our Palaeolithic ancestors created thousands of beautiful images featuring bulls, horses, stags. Crowds of human figures who worshipped and fought and loved. Haunting to acknowledge how little our species has changed. I stood in front of those red-ochre handprints and fought the urge to press my palm on top, I wanted to reach across the centuries and tell those ancient people that I saw them, heard them, felt their human foibles and loved them anyway. Around 20,000 years separated us. 

“Science tells us we are merely beasts, but we don’t feel like that. We feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, forever craving transcendence.”

V.S. Ramachandran

Being human is quite the thing. And art seems to offer answers to the weight of consciousness, the pull of existentialism, the questions without answer. Creativity in music, writing, painting seeks to point out our humanity while remembering that our time is short. It seeks to shine a light on the dark places of our soul. No wonder dictatorships so fear the artist.

My blue fence looks nice, I suppose, but I feel the need to visit a gallery and stand motionless before a painting. The Ulster Museum is calling.

The Bees’ Knees

It’s World Bee Day tomorrow and appropriately enough I can hear buzzing from the shed today. Honeybees keep trying to squeeze in between the wooden slats and get frustrated before reversing back out. Bumble bees drift clumsily by as if learning how to fly for the first time, now and then knocking against the window. There’s also the odd wasp, but since they don’t yet have their own UN-designated day, they note our attention on their insect cousins and are probably preparing to attack in jealous retaliation.

So it’s all about the bees. Here’s a few fun facts plus a delectable Brian Bilston poem (beautifully handwritten on this card last year by my friend, Roberta).

1. They are under threat 
Bees and other pollinators, such as butterflies, bats and hummingbirds, are increasingly under threat from human activities. But we need them because…

2.  Bees pollinate one in three mouthfuls we eat 
Almost 90% of the world’s wild-flowering plant species depend on animal pollination, along with more than 75% of the world’s food crops and 35% of global agricultural land. Not only do pollinators contribute directly to food security, but they are key to conserving biodiversity. No wonder lots of sci-fi stories involve the end of bees and then the end of the world as we know it.
3. Honeybees live in 50,000-strong colonies 
This number falls to around 10,000 in the winter when the remaining members huddle together and shake to keep warm - a hive therefore resonates all year round. They perfect this ‘waggle dance’ throughout the year to alert one another to the best places to find food. Their social nature (not to mention propensity to dance) could teach us a thing or two about life.
4. Male bees do not sting 
Honeybee workers (female, of course) have a sting in the tail - they protect the nest, sometimes to the death. But don’t let your patriarchy loose just yet, remember the queen bee? She’s in charge of tens of thousands. At least in one animal arena there’s a female CEO.

5. Hives (not to mention honey) are things of wonder 
The geometric columns of hive hexagons are like mini Giant’s Causeways (and also, it should be said, like Blockbusters - remember the stress of the gold run?)

The natural world just can’t be beaten for beauty and inspiration. We love you bees – please keep buzzing.

Friends Forever

Friendship bracelets. Nothing like them.

I re-connected with an old friend recently. Stephanie and I were inseparable at college, sharing essay deadlines, ‘early’ lectures (at 10am, I know) and the particular skill involved in making a student grant stretch each term. We ate a lot of sausages and noodles, and wore all our clothes at once rather than put the heat on. We even shared a tiny room in a truly terrible rented flat (the kitchen ankle-deep in water most days, the decor a mix of sixties floral and seventies beige). Happy days. And now twenty five years have passed and here we are sitting in the garden.

As an adult it’s hard to make friends, yet close friendships are consistently linked to better physical and mental health. Asking the question “will you be my friend?” is fraught with potential humiliation and rejection, so we wait and see, hoping that closeness will happen of its own accord. Maybe we need to be a bit braver and take steps to move from acquaintance to friend.

Female friendships are especially strong. There’s nothing like the close bond that forms when we share secrets, giggle at the same jokes and run to each other at the drop of a hat when life hurts. Katy allowed me to lean on her (literally at one point) during my brother’s funeral. Sally frequently delivers little thoughtful gifts. Cara makes me laugh with her potty-mouthed stories. Julie writes me letters. 

And as the blessings are many so, too, is the pain when a friendship ends. There’s really nothing like the loss of a deep connection. Love affairs end in heartbreak and we find sympathy in the telling; friendships end and we have nowhere to go with the grief. Self-criticism and a sharp loss fill our minds as we wonder what happened. And then technology allows for ‘ghosting’ until it slowly dawns that it’s over.

I still miss my best friend. We were opposites but the connection was instant. She moved back to England after fifteen years and following a silly argument about birthdays we simply lost touch. I sent messages and cards and then had to accept that she was no longer in my life. 

Friends are friends forever. It’s just that sometimes they shift and change as life moves on. I’ve reconnected with an old friend, found some new ones and so it goes.

Where would we be without them? Friends are silver and gold. Treasure them.


What do you do when someone walks into you? If you’re anything like me you apologise profusely, full of guilt that you had the temerity to get in someone’s way. Why am I like this? Don’t I deserve to take up space too?

Saying sorry is not unusual in these scenarios but sometimes the perpetrator hasn’t a clue and carries on with their day, blissfully oblivious. I was at a market festival in The Netherlands a while back and watched as a man knocked over a huge ceramic vase and then looked down at the broken pieces as if they’d been caused by someone else. He shrugged a little and walked off. Such nonchalance! I watched him go and shook my head in admiration. The stall holder shrugged too, and went off to find a broom.

We don’t really say sorry anymore, not properly at any rate. Maybe it’s the fear of litigation. ‘Don’t apologise, it admits guilt,’ say the insurance adverts. But surely admitting guilt is a good thing. It shows wisdom, an ability to see how your behaviour has affected someone else. 

All too often an apology is shallow and even points the finger elsewhere; my Dutch friend might have said that the vase shouldn’t have been left so close to the edge. Not his fault it got broken. 

But a heartfelt apology can lead to amazing things and as sympathy grows, so too does the potential for forgiveness and reconciliation. Imagine if he’d shown remorse and even helped to sweep up.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. I hope I’ll soon be able to apologise when I have hurt someone and not just as a reflex when someone stands on my toes.