Regarding Beauty

21 06 2020


At the far end of Teignmouth, the town where I live in Devon, there is a large park with three names. Eastcliff, the Rowdens and Mules Park combine to make up what is a magical space of grass meadow, woodland path, shady pond, walled garden, community orchard and flower border. Cherry, ancient oak and chestnut trees are in full leaf right now. Nonetheless, it was the poppies that stopped me in my tracks.

Abundant ruffles of pink, crimson, scarlet, violet and white sprawled across the bank. I whipped out my phone to capture them before they took wing in the wind. I wondered who had planted them so cleverly, knowing with a sure gardener’s eye that their dizzying display would one day stop people in their tracks. Who took the trouble to do this? And why?

Community gardens are one of the loveliest things I can imagine. No gardener myself (I make do with a few pots) I appreciate the work that goes into creating something so naturally beautiful it looks effortless. As I roamed my eye over the bank, and saw the little pathways woven through the display, I felt a surge of admiration for the mind that thought this through. No tribute was needed except my appreciation.

img_1464  Reading Annie Dillard’s slim volume: The Writing Life, I came across this quote from Plato, which asks the ultimate ‘what if’ question. What if we could see beauty without having to judge it? Without having to compare it to something else? Without metaphor or comparison or concept? What if, we could just stand before beauty, and allow it to show its true face. What then?

Children know how to do this. Living closer to a state of wonder than jaded adults, who have seen too many extravagant bouquets to be moved, a child sees the universal in a delicious new buttercup or dandelion clock. As adults, we’re a bit more picky. We prefer peonies to poppies, roses to ragwort (those pesky weeds!) and congratulate ourselves on our discernment. We know what we like. We admire good taste. Whereas, Beauty Itself, Pure Beauty is nowhere to be found in our carefully cultivated consciousness.

I know formal gardens do not move my imagination in the way a bank of poppies tripping all over themselves with brightness makes me want to party with them, soak up their spirited splendour, their casual look-at-me I haven’t really bothered to dress up vibe. Perhaps it’s because stripped of all pretension, the poppy is a humble flower, which doesn’t need much looking after, which in its low-key way creates a sense of freedom and possibility.

The ephemeral beauty of the poppy is, of course, why we have turned them into symbols of hope. The poppy flings its seed into the hardest, saddest and most painful places on earth. The poppy flourishes on grit. Out of this dark grittiness, emerges the idea of Beauty Itself which does not care what has occurred or whether its presence is welcomed or even noticed.

After Warsaw was ground down to dust during the final acts of destruction from the occupying forces, the local women waited for silence before they emerged with tiny pots of plants or flowers, carefully nurtured during the darkest time in Polish history. The women arranged the plants on doorsteps of homes that were now piles of rubble. While the ruined city heaved under the onslaught, the flowers showed their faces to the sun. What this taught me was that Beauty does not acknowledge brutality. Beauty surpasses pain or grief or torture. Beauty endures and cannot be destroyed.

What if we could be as carelessly unconcerned as simple plants in offering to the world our own unalloyed beauty? What if we could turn our faces to the light without stopping to consider who might be admiring us? What if we could drop our vanity and know that our own moral beauty needs nothing except a few rocky places on which to sow its seed?

Walking to Work

18 06 2020

When I have something to work through, I walk. I’ve always done this. There’s something about the natural rhythm of walking that slows down my hectic thoughts and allows me some breathing space. In my experience, there’s no problem a walk won’t help.

Going on walks to work something out nearly always leads me to a different place. Today I thought about all the passing conversations I’ve had with other walkers over the past few weeks. People have spoken warmly and openly. I’ve learned honest, true things from these conversations which cannot be called consequential.

I don’t walk far. Indeed when my head is painfully pounding, I find long walks exhausting. Instead I wander. I slow down so that I can look up into the trees and I tune into the birds. Their pure music pierces through the muddle in my mind. Today I heard a woodpecker drumming his beat like a practice garage musician. It made me listen longer and for a moment as I became absorbed in the pattern of the sound, I forgot why I had come.

Some people I have met on my walks I have got to know by name and as we walk we share our stories. We share why we’re here, what we feel and what we dream of. These simple elements form the narrative of our encounters. I realise that everyone I meet is looking for a way to share something of their life with others. I see that shining from people now in a lovely untarnished innocence that was not so apparent to me before.

I know that people say they have more time for each other now. I have said the same. I do feel more curious and open. I wonder, though, if it truly is time that has shifted my perception of others, people I might have walked past before without acknowledgement? Does lack of time really make us rude?

It’s common to think so. It’s common to think along the lines of: if I had more time I might be less busy and stressed out and therefore nicer to be around. But time can’t change our inclinations towards one another. Time only acts as an influence when we decide we can’t be bothered to make the effort to be pleasant. We so often make lack of time the villain in our lives. Now it feels to me like a very worn-out excuse for mean mindedness.

My walks teach me the true value of time which is that time is created. As I walk, time is made up moment by moment. It is not a large stick with which I need to beat myself or others. it is not some abstract empty space into which I pour my life. Time is unfolding as I walk step by step. If I slow down enough, sometimes I can feel it pulsing through me like a cool stream.

My walks place me back in time. In true time. In walking rhythm time when I see that my fears about lack of time have no value in my life. I lure myself with promises of more time and see these promises for the falsehoods they truly are. The trees remind me to stop wasting time thinking I have the answers to the conundrum of time itself. They tell me to stop chasing my tail and look up to the leaf canopy instead.

They tell me to stay tall and true and rooted. This is all.

Ten Top Tips on Being Human

6 06 2020

Since adopting my young hound, I’ve dived into various schools of dog training. I thought I might find a few helpful hints on how to help your dog feel less anxious when you leave him on his own and how to get your dog to stop playfully chasing children – (Teio’s current work-in-progress) and while there has been much that has been useful, some of what I’ve found has been eye-opening.

Dog training is vicious! The various schools really like to bark and snarl at each other across the great divide of who knows best.

Now as a conscientious canine custodian, I find this alarming, but not really that surprising. In any area of training, whether it’s schooling horses, educating children or fitness routines for adults, there will be impassioned debates on the ‘best way.’ Internet marketing so often presents this holy grail of successful training as ‘five easy tips’ or ‘ten fool-proof ways’ to achieve perfect abs or a good night’s sleep or a trim waist. I wish I weren’t such a sucker for top tips, but something in my reptilian brain is secretly searching for the shortcut.  And it is the word ‘secret’ that usually does it for me. If I spot something like “Seven Secrets to Training Your Super Dog that only Special People in the Universe Know” then straight-away I’m signing up for the free masterclass and ignoring the common sense voice that warns: your inbox will be swamped with offers costing hundreds of dollars the minute you give your email address. DON’T DO IT!!!

But I want to believe in the hype. Sucker that I am, I want to find the holy grail of dog training even when I know perfectly well that there is no such thing. So in order to distract myself from the menace of marketing, I’m reading different kinds of books about dogs – books that help me to think clearly about what I need to consider for my young dog’s future and I’ve found John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs to be scholarly, insightful and delightfully readable.

Bradshaw, a biologist who directs the Anthrozoology Institute, based at the University of Bristol, has studied the behaviour of domestic dogs and their owners for more than twenty-five years, and his work is helping to change the ways dogs are viewed and understood. He presents his arguments based on sound science in cool and friendly tones, a welcome contrast to some of the competitive high-pitch promotion from various dog trainers. Bradshaw’s approach is to demolish myths about dogs and their training by first inviting you to rigorously question your own ideas and assumptions. 

“Despite all the evidence indicating that dogs and wolves organize their social lives quite differently, many people still cling to their misguided and outdated comparisons between dogs and wolves. The question therefore has to be asked once again: does the behaviour of the wolf have anything useful to tell us about the behaviour of pet dogs?” 

Studies show that dogs may be genetically linked to wolves, but that does not mean they must be like wolves in their behaviour. Because dogs have evolved closely alongside mankind, they are far more inclined to form friendships with humans than they are with their own kind. Dogs have no inclination to form anything like a wolf pack and, most importantly, dogs are able to become friends with dogs they are not related to. Every morning during our runs in the park, I observe this strong affiliative behaviour with young Teio as he offers the play bow to dog after dog, extending greetings also to each new person he encounters. If he truly were a wolf inside a whippet skin, he would not show this confidence to strangers. But does it really matter that he is not a wolf in disguise? When it comes down to training him, the distinction is crucial, Bradshaw argues.

“The misconception that dogs behave like wolves might not matter if it did not seriously misconstrue the dog’s motivations for establishing social relationships. The most pervasive – and pernicious – idea informing modern dog-training techniques is that the dog is driven to set up a dominance hierarchy wherever it finds itself. This idea has led to massive misconceptions about their social relationships, both those between dogs within a household, and those between dogs and their owners.

“Every dog, conventional wisdom holds, feels an overwhelming need to dominate and control all its social partners. Indeed, the word ‘dominance’ is used widely in descriptions of dog behaviour. Dogs that attack people they know well are still universally referred to as suffering from ‘dominance aggression.’ The term is sometimes even used – incorrectly – to describe a dog’s personality.” John Bradshaw. In Defence of Dogs. (Penguin 2012)

From my outings to the park and casual conversations with dog owners, I see how prevalent is this idea of ‘dominance’ and along the way I have received some well-meaning warnings about not allowing young T to become ‘top dog’ in my own household. I am so grateful to Bradshaw’s illuminating work which has helped me to see that what is most important is a well-socialised dog and a dog who wants to build a real relationship with me because it is rewarding for him as a social animal. So I don’t yell at Teio when he makes a mistake, which because he is young and learning, is pretty much every day. I don’t expect him to be obedient and know what I want because – well, he is a dog who thinks very differently to me – and when he’s relaxing at home, I let him sleep where he is most comfortable. He has to move sometimes, but I always ask him politely and he always complies. I’m clear with him and kind. I treat him how I would like to be treated if I were a dog.

This is not how many dog trainers say it should be. But I’m not training him. I’m not interested in a dog who obeys me as his pack leader. I’m interested in developing a supportive and rewarding relationship with him in which we both feel happy and secure. 

As social animals, we instinctively understand deep down how important secure relationships are to our own well-being, perhaps never more true than now as we emerge into a new social landscape. Nevertheless, the idea of ‘dominance’ of seeing others as a ‘threat’ to our well-being is just as pernicious in the human world. Listen to any conversation and there will be some version of ‘us’ and ‘them’ being thrown around in the air like an old bone; some political division or sense of separateness being gnawed at. Just tune into any live news online and this is what we will hear and what many of us will believe: there are people out there who are trying to take over and they need to be muzzled.

The language of dominance is everywhere; it’s another type of reptilian shortcut. It’s far easier to condemn, to snap at someone who gets in your way, to snarl and show your teeth than to try to understand them. This language of dominance belongs to a very, very tired human story. Times of change call for new narratives, new ideas of defining ourselves. If dogs may be defended against an out-moded hierarchy of aggression and be seen as the social beings they really are, then why not humans? Is it not time to stop portraying humans as competitive chimps, fighting over whatever entitlements we think are important? Is now not the time to truly question our old and worn-out confrontational ways of being and find other answers?

It can start with the very next conversation, the very next person who crosses your path. Ask yourself: am I wagging my tail or curling my lip?



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