There are seagulls and crows having a shouting match just outside the shed today. We live quite close to Belfast Lough so the gulls are probably flying by the houses to say hello, before they go back to stealing peoples’ chips along the shore. I don’t know what the birds are saying to each other. Are these alarm calls? Greetings?
As I was making plans to learn more about birdsong I happened upon a news item that made me smile. A Dutch biologist, Auke-Florian Hiemstra, was recuperating in a Belgian hospital when he noticed an unusual nest clinging to a tree outside his window. Sure enough, it was covered in sharp objects. It seems that magpies all over Europe have been dismantling bird spikes from buildings to use them in their nests. Us humans think we’re so clever. Must keep our buildings (and heads) free from dirt, so we just need to glue a deterrent onto gutters and sills. That will sort the problem. Job done. It makes me laugh to picture men attaching fearsome-looking spikes as the magpie family watch, tilting their heads (and raising eyebrows if they had them) to plan their next move.
Corvids are famously clever – crows have also been found to remove deterrents. Maybe pigeons are getting there too? Years ago, we were trying to keep pigeons away from our van roof and placed a plastic owl nearby (it’s supposed to scare other birds away). Needless to say I looked out the window later that day to see a pigeon sitting calmly next to the owl, with a rather supercilious look on its face. It almost shook its weary head. Humans.
The smart magpie in her safe nest made me think. These clever birds have learned how to take something negative and turned it into something positive. Unpleasant spikes become beautiful nests. An attempt to keep them away, or even hurt them, has been reclaimed for their own purposes. It’s simple but brilliant. Their ability to use imagination and creativity is quite simply inspiring.
In fact, it’s art. This is what art can do. Where would we be without it?
I recently spent a few days in Liverpool to attend a work gathering – they’re called Think Days at The Reader (isn’t that a great name?) and we did lots of thinking, but also lots of reading and chatting and laughing. It was such a pleasure to be at a work event and feel like I wanted to be there. Getting paid to read poems in the garden? Yes please. Clearly, I’ve found my tribe.
Looking out at the sunset from the plane on the way home I started to think about how much this means. For so long I’ve been doing jobs in the voluntary sector that just didn’t sit all that comfortably with me. Square peg, round hole kind of thing. I did the work, sometimes working very hard, but it never clicked. I needed to find my people – somewhere I felt like I belonged and where my voice would be heard and where my skills made sense.
It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to unfurl and stand up to be counted. I tended to hide in the background, assuming it was safer, but it was lonely too. And then I had one of those lightbulb moments during an online coaching course that quite honestly opened my closed heart. I’m sure I’ve talked about Mel Wiggins before (find amazing stuff here) and this six week course was my attempt to shake off past fear and step into the light. Meeting for a few hours every week with a small group of amazing women was transformational. Maybe the fact that they were strangers to begin with allowed me to be myself? I didn’t have any preconceptions about how I should or should’t behave, or things I shouldn’t say. I could just be myself. It was very freeing.
And then on the last session something extraordinary happened.
Mel had asked us all to think of a phrase to say to one another as we went on our way into the future, almost like a blessing. Mine was relatively simple: ‘I wish for you bright hopes, deep breaths, hugs on dark days, and a sense that you matter and you belong.’ Sounds good, doesn’t it? We duly read them out to one another and they were received with grace and much gratitude. Then Mel asked us to read our own blessing out loud, but this time changing ‘you’ to ‘me’.
When it came to my turn I spoke as confidently as ever, but then suddenly on the words ‘matter’ and ‘belong’, I couldn’t speak. It was as if my mouth was physically clamped closed. Time slowed down as my fellow members raised their eyebrows and kindly waited for me to finish. It was excruciating. I could have closed my laptop and run away but I somehow found the courage to just sit with what was happening. Emotions bubbled up from somewhere (very deep down, I think) and after gentle coaxing I was finally able to whisper those two words to myself. I matter and I belong. A simple phrase that plumbed the depths for me that day three years ago. It’s one that I still hold onto. It’s personal, spiritual, emotional. And it’s a phrase worth repeating.
Say it with me (out loud if you dare). I matter and I belong.
Do you like the way you walk? I only ask because I recently noticed that my boots are more worn on the outside and therefore I may have a strange, tilting gait – like a car that needs a wheel alignment. Or maybe I’m striding along with such purpose that my boots can’t keep up?
It’s more likely that I just need new boots. But it got me thinking about how I take up space in the world. For a while now I’ve been carrying out an experiment when I walk along pavements, especially in the city centre. When others approach in the opposite direction I used to get out of the way (often even toppling into the road to avoid bumping into them, usually while apologising) but now I’m standing my ground. I make a conscious decision to hold the line and even tilt my head up slightly and give a polite smile as I approach. And you know what? It works. It might take a while but generally the others (sometimes two or three in a line) notice that I’m there and step out of the way to allow me to carry on. There have been one or two shoulder bumps but it’s a price worth paying.
This sounds like a small thing but it’s been kind of profound. It’s as if I’ve suddenly decided that I’m allowed to be here too. And now I walk with a spring in my step. Move aside people, I’m on my way!
Here’s another annoying thing about growing older – your teeth start to crumble. The other day I was happily flossing (and therefore, I assumed, being smart) when a corner of one of my front teeth CAME OFF. It felt weird so I looked in the mirror and, sure enough, there was a little triangular gap. I wasn’t even eating crunchy food or biting confidently into an apple at the time. The injustice.
Since it was the weekend I put up with it, and hoped no-one would notice until I could get to see my dentist. It wasn’t sore thankfully, it just felt strange and I had to eat soft food very slowly and carefully. But the most annoying aspect was the odd noise I made when trying to say ‘pstpst’ to the cats. They gave me funny looks which is disappointing, though not unexpected – a pet dog might have been more compassionate. I spent the weekend smiling less, or less fulsomely at any rate, but Chris assures me that it was impossible to tell. Friends only noticed when I pointed it out (while looking for sympathy).
I also spent the weekend actively looking at other people’s teeth (sorry). And I noticed that very few of us have bright white rows of little chopping instruments in our mouths. We’ve got snaggle-teeth (usually the vampiric incisors), gaps and all sorts of little twists. It makes me a bit sad that cosmetic dentistry is taking over and these interesting smiles might soon be a thing of the past. I like how different we all are and I want to embrace our quirks and twists.
Having said that, I did go to my talented dentist in the end and she fixed it in less than twenty minutes. It’s as if the gap was never there. The rest of my teeth are still a bit wonky (and I’ve no idea what my ‘wisdom’ teeth are doing) but that’s okay. They work when I’m eating and they work when I smile. And that’s good enough for me.
What’s your favourite phobia? Spiders? Heights? How about a human being in big shoes with a red nose and an unceasing capacity to fall over and laugh uproariously? If you’re feeling nervous already, you’re not alone. Fear of clowns, or coulrophobia to give its official name, is very common – more common, even, than fear of heights.
I was being shown round an office recently and for reasons unknown there was a small puppet clown on a filing cabinet who would shriek hysterically whenever someone passed by. It was truly horrible (and don’t get me started on how creepy puppets are – ventriloquists’ dummies might be my number one phobia). The office manager barely noticed this little monster’s existence and continued to sit at her desk looking bored while the gentleman in charge of the tour seemed to be at pains to point out how it worked. He even ran off to get more batteries. I stood very still and tried to ignore the creature’s staring eyes and manic grin, jittery that it might cackle and jump up at any moment. I remain unconvinced about my reasons for being there (a freelance job that didn’t work out, I’ll blame the clown) and haven’t set foot in it since.
Surely it’s all just a bit of fun? Laughter is the best medicine, after all, but science has a lot to say about this. Researchers at the University of South Wales asked hundreds of people to fill in a questionnaire about this odd fear and came up with several identifying factors. It turns out that clowns’ exaggerated movements are unpredictable, so we feel unnerved in their presence. Then there’s the makeup. It masks emotional cues and makes them look slightly inhuman – the ‘uncanny valley’ fear response when something is almost, but not quite, human. A classic case of fear-inducement if you ask me. And the big shoes and overly demonstrative acting and terrible jokes? Fearful in another way. Just stop it. It’s all a bit much.
Stephen King was onto something with his seminal work ‘It’. Clowns are terrifying and are probably lying in wait in the sewers to pounce on unsuspecting passersby. If anyone needs me I’ll be in the corner, avoiding all carnivals and children’s parties.