Northern Lights

I’ve just returned from an amazing campervan trip to the wilds of Scotland. It was stormy, windy, wet, sometimes sunny, and utterly gorgeous. ‘Summer’ holidays are best taken in September, I reckon. 

The NC500 tourist route around the tip of Scotland is one of the world’s must-drive roads and it’s easy to see why – misty mountains, bracing winds and wild seas. There’s not much in the way of mobile phone data (a relief in many ways) and most of the roads are single track with frequent passing places and, for the most part, obliging drivers. Terrifying nights on a cliff in gale force winds notwithstanding, I think it was one of the best van trips we’ve ever had. There were even Northern Lights on the Orkney Islands.

Apparently.

I lost count of the breathless social media stories of those dancing green lights in the night sky. I looked in wonder at the national news items that outlined, with absolute certainty, the dates and times and venues for The Lights to appear. So informed, I spent several nights endlessly scanning the night skies, opening and closing the van’s blinds, arranged into a standing position in the direction of the North Star. But it wasn’t to be. They were not in the mood to dance on the nights I watched. 

Instead, I saw the brightest stars sitting atop the Ring of Brodgar stone circle. I saw the Milky Way as a starry smudge streaked across the sky. I saw  constellations that looked as if they’d been drawn on by the gods; firm and clear. Neolithic people stood on this same spot and looked into this very sky, seeing pinpricks of light that are still shining. It was a haunting reminder that I am very small indeed.

I took the lesson and used it to shake off the self-righteous indignation that other people (just down the road!) got the see the Northern Lights and I didn’t. Mother Nature owes me nothing. In fact, it’s the other way around. So I thanked her for the gift of neolithic stars and stones, the gift of fearful gusts of wind, the gift of Highland wildness. 

And when I wasn’t even looking, we met a wonderful couple from Cornwall who’d just got the exact same van as ours. Cue much chat and laughter and sharing of stories. This was another gift. These unexpected treasures happen when we least expect them. And they’re all the better for it.

Who needs magical dancing green lights? My Scottish lesson: don’t try so hard.

Just a Number

This might sound strange but I have a favourite mirror in the house. It’s more flattering than any other (and don’t get me started on changing room mirrors – what were they thinking? Fluorescent tube lighting?) The bathroom mirror is beside the window and since it’s a small, dark room there’s only a little bit of natural light, so when I catch sight of my reflection it’s as if there’s a generous filter and (if I don’t squint too hard) I can’t even see too many wrinkles. Needless to say, this is the mirror I gravitate towards to fix my hair or makeup – it just makes sense.

But now and again I get a surprise when I catch sight of myself in another mirror, or when big birthdays arrive, or even when interacting with someone younger. I know that answering the question ‘how old do you feel’ is going to remind me of sore joints and grey hair and time ever-fading away. I’ll probably give a sad (and large) number in response. But how about this question: how old am I in my head? Not how old do I feel, but how old do I really think I am? It’s a great question. Think quickly and find your own answer. 

If you’re over forty, odds are that you’ve chosen a number that’s at least twenty per cent younger than your actual age. This is incredibly common in the western world. It’s a mixture of trying to stay young and the pressures of modern youth-oriented culture, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe a traumatic event has stalled us at a certain point in our minds. Or a moment in time that changed us forever. But there’s also a sense of optimism and hope involved in believing that you’re younger – life is ahead, you’ve lots left to give, all those inspiring things. Rather than admitting defeat and zooming in on grey hair and wrinkles, we can look inwards and find a fount of eternal youth that keeps us skipping along the path.

One word of caution though: social interactions can get weird. If you focus too much on that youthful number in your head, you’ll forget that you’re not the same age as your younger friends. So step carefully when taking part in things. For instance, I won’t be joining Adam and Sally on their wakeboarding trips, but I’ll be around on their return to sit by the fire and have a nice chat.

And for the record I’m thirty five.

Art is Life

I wish someone had told me at school that I’d never need to do quadratic equations ever again. Or know how to calculate the angles on an isosceles triangle. Instead, I sat in maths class and sweated and strained under those hideous numbers until nothing at all made sense. Luckily I avoided Mr McCart’s eraser missiles (other mates were not so fortunate – I’m looking at you, Louise) – an old-fashioned teaching technique that seemed to assume that terror, and a little bit of violence, would suddenly make the ‘maths light’ come on in our heads. All it achieved was chalk marks (I know, I’m a certain age) on our wool blazers and a sense of encroaching dread before and during class. On one memorable occasion my friend Karen was asked a mental arithmetic question and simply cried out “Seven? I don’t know!”, before slamming her head onto the desk and moaning loudly. We all sat with widened eyes as Mr McCart, for once, remained silent.

I’ve been thinking about those terrible classes recently because of the noise out there surrounding ‘useless’ degrees. You know, the ones that don’t lead to big-earning careers. I’m all for STEM education (and we need to get more women and girls onto these courses) but it’s making my heart sad to hear my beloved arts so maligned. Recent cuts to the arts are painful here in Northern Ireland. Of my two degrees (English Literature and Psychology) only one is a science and is now considered ‘useful’ but I haven’t gone on to earn big bucks as a psychologist. Instead, I studied the topic for the love of learning. Nonetheless I’ve used my new knowledge to great effect in my (charity) job working as a story teller with people in the criminal justice system. Both degrees have come together in the most unexpected way. It’s a small salary but the impact packs a punch. Who knows, it might even change the world. 

The arts not only change our hearts and minds but make the world go round. They speak truth to power. And there’s the rub – writers and artists are always feared by the establishment. It’s no surprise that dictators quickly go after artists and burn books. Art opens our minds to questions, philosophy, semantics, ideology and all things in between. Without William Shakespeare how could we know how to cope with grief, ambition, fear? Without Charles Dickens how could we know to question a society that leaves the vulnerable to starve? Without Margaret Atwood how could we get a glimpse of dystopia and the harm it can cause? Caravaggio showed us the divine. Van Gogh broke our hearts. Picasso opened our eyes. 

If we focus only on money and numbers, we humans will lose something very precious. Art, put simply, is life. 

The Birds

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.

Photo by Auke-Florian Hiemstra, The Atlantic

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?

Belonging

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’. 

Well.

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.