This was found on a track that runs along by the river Wear. At the bridge at the bottom of Page Bank, the path is metalled with what seems to be rubble from old houses. There are tiles and bits of pottery, brick and plaster, the occasional door handle or tap washer. I always keep my eyes down in case, in a final bid for immortality, the past has sent something forwards in time to be found.
It was no surprise to find a battered teaspoon, then, but this one made me smile. As a gift from a demolished home, this was well chosen for me.
I like teaspoons: chatty little upstarts in the cutlery drawer. They have heard all the gossip in the world from their hiding places in sugar bowls, on saucers, on the kitchen sideboard, and they like to stir things up. Just as a junkie’s paraphernalia (often including a teaspoon) becomes comfortingly associated with the addiction, so teaspoons speak to me of the good pleasure in my life that is coffee. A good teaspoon has a little weight but not too much. It should nestle comfortably between thumb and forefinger and clink lightly against the cup when stirring. Holding it, one should feel inspired to gesticulate for emphasis and, possibly, to flirt.
She makes the sign of a teaspoon
He makes the sign of a wave
The poor boy changes clothes
And puts on after-shave
To compensate for his ordinary shoes
In specific, look at this little one. Stamped out from cheap, thin metal, like a paper doll, I’d say it was born in the leaner war years, giving its understated, sinuous decoration a note of defiance: “I will be pretty. I will be more than ‘just a spoon’.”
Does it have anything wise to say? I think so.
I’m reminded of the times I’ve chosen to eat desert with a teaspoon instead of with a fork or table spoon, taking smaller mouthfuls, savouring each of them, drawing the experience out.
I picked up this spoon at a moment when I felt overwhelmed by life. I realised I needed to go back to ‘eating’ with a teaspoon. Even if there’s a mountain to move, and just a teaspoon to do it with, the main thing is to make a start and to savour each small moment.
Some of Mevlana’s words came back to me. These have never failed to unlock a sense of presence and peace for me:
Take little sips of air for the rest of your life.
I’ve blogged previously about my ongoing battle with fountain pens. As a Scotsman I knew once said, “It’s a sair ficht.” While he was referring to the daily struggle between the ways of the flesh and the ways of the spirit, I feel, in microcosm, so is the Way of the Fountain Pen for me. I love the romantic icon of the fountain pen, but for as long as I can remember it has only loved to scratch holes in my paper and (somehow) put ink in and around my mouth.
Our most recent skirmish was held this morning in a local coffee shop as I tried to do some journaling. Thankfully, I was prepared with several squares of scrap paper on which to get the pen working before damaging my journal. Nevertheless, Stanley (yes, my pens do have names) was channelling Hermann Rorschach — so not much journaling was done. I obligingly embraced the opportunity to do a spot of coffee-shop psychoanalysis, folded the papers in half over Stanley’s leaked blobs to see what could be found. What do you see in these, I wonder?
(Add your answers in the comments – but don’t look there until you’ve decided what you see; and don’t overthink it!)
A couple of these are absolutely startling. to my mind (it’s that first one that blows me away). Of course the reason our minds are so quick to see things in these ink blots has something to do with the fact that they are fractal (so they inevitably resemble the forms that occur in nature) and the fact that we are fundamentally wired to try to interpret sensory input. That what we see varies from person to person, supposedly indicates differences in our state of mind, our habits of thought or perception.
Over the last couple of years, my way of processing life and pondering the world around me has increasingly been mediated through symbols. Writing systems, pictograms, allegories and icons are the currency of my imagination. With symbols I can do more than words allow. I have a developed a personal pictography, a kind of shorthand, drawing from many sources and referenced to particular meanings.
I’m well past making new year’s resolutions but I’ve always taken time to focus on taking stock of the passing year and feeling out the themes of the coming year round this time. In prayer and contemplation for 2015, it seemed three things and a fourth were being emphasised.
Having worked out glyphs for these emphases, I noticed that each of them had a common element – a cross – enabling me to combine them into a single form.
So here is the glyph I mark upon the doorposts of 2015.
It’s component parts are thus:
This is the symbol for Saturn. In esoteric systems, Saturn has a very complex variety of correspondences. But, to keep it simple Saturn was the Greek god of agriculture and the symbol contains two elements: a cross (or sword) and a sickle. It can be taken to represent the harvest: things must die and come to an end but in that moment seeds are gathered for sowing in the next cycle.
Of course, to be saturnine is to be gloomy, but, to borrow from the Christian imagery of the cross, the words of the Son of God are appropriate.
“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop.” (John 12:24 HCSB)
I’ve noted that the last few years have been characterised by a lack of finishing. I enter 2015 with so many projects begun and not completed. An unfulfilled intention, a work half done, can become rotten. I need to put the sickle in and finish many things so that new life can come. 2015 is to be a year of finishing.
Encapsulated here in one of the many alchemical symbols for gold is something I need to bring back to the centre. Truth, like gold can be tested by fire, bears no combination with other elements and stays unchanged.
I’m a people pleaser. This means I all too easily try to give others the answer I think they want to hear. That’s not always realistic. I’ve a creeping habit of white lies: “Of course, it’s no problem.” “I’ll be there at six.” “It will be fine.” “I’ll be thinking of you.”
These are not loving, respectful interjections unless they are true. Even if it arises from the best will in the world, I need to curb my optimism at times and let my ‘yes’ actually mean ‘yes’.
“Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” (Leo Tolstoy)
This is a symbol I’ve invented to use for the concept of praxis – an antidote to inwardness. It depicts a sword, internally rooted but driving outwards to act externally. For me, Praxis doesn’t oppose contemplation but means something like a ‘contemplation by doing’ and it’s closely allied to the philosopher’s ‘techne’ – practical craft.
I owe this new emphasis to the lessons I’ve been studying in alchemy over recent months. The alchemist performs processes – burning, boiling, distilling – all the while observing diligently the transformation of substances without missing the correspondences with his own soul-work.
It’s surprising I never really took to science at school. I don’t think I ever made the connection between what we did in the classroom and the fact that my den in the garage hosted a fossil collection and pendulums that hung from the ceiling to study gravity and waves. I had exercise books full of notes and measurements of such things as the landing positions of sticks thrown at random. I tried to replicate the experiments of Mendel in my flower bed. I was just a little Issac Newton, but schooling cast me as an ‘arts person’.
I don’t think our education system encourages the formation of a renaissance mind, and more is the pity.
In 2015 the world and my self will be my laboratory. I want to do real stuff in the real world and watch it closely and learn all I can from it instead of from books.
And the fourth thing
Although not depicted, this underpins all of them. It’s ‘momentum‘.
I’m poor at keeping momentum. If things are going well, I cruise or put my attention elsewhere, so they grind to a halt. This goes for creative projects, relationships, work and home life. Things are not finished. Wishful thinking swallows up reality. Praxis collapses back into theoria.
It’s easier in the long run to keep the wheels turning with tactical doses of effort than to be repeatedly frustrated by inertia.
I think we could all learn a lot from the Double Rainbow Guy. If you’ve not seen and heard his now famous three and a half minutes of ecstasy, click and watch it NOW.
Listen carefully as he sobs: “What does it mean?”
Just like the rest of us walking upright on this planet with large brains, and suffering wisdom teeth and the threat of appendicitis, for Rainbow Guy (aka Yosemitebear) a rainbow is never just a rainbow. It has to mean something. Stories are fables, and planets are gods and goddesses, and homes are castles, and every picture tells a story, and a girl tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear actually fancies you.
Our tendency to attribute meaning makes life rich and it makes us human. We must allow ourselves to be in dialogue with everything our senses encounter. I think philosophy has big words for this kind of stuff: existential phenomenology, personal mythos, cosmogony… but let us be spared them as I unfold ‘the secret language of twigs’.
A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye; Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heaven espy. (George Herbert)
At first I noticed how different species have distinctive ways of growing that give rise to endless variations within the parameters of their genes. The elder speaks with one set of forms, and the beech with another. And then, a whole world opened up to me that means walking in the woods will never be the same again.
Divided Way – The most common and fundamental form of branch. Growth divides and divides again to the left and right. Even choosing not to make a choice is itself a choice.
A choice! Do you, my listener, know how to express in a single word anything more magnificent? Do you realize, even if you were to discuss year in and year out how you could mention nothing more awesome than a choice, what it is to have choice! For though it is certainly true that the ultimate blessing is to choose rightly, yet the faculty of choice itself is still the glorious prerequisite. (Soren Kierkegaard)
The top of a wayfarer’s staff often has a fork in it; how many times must a traveller decide between two paths?
Flip it over and you have a confluence of two ways. I’m more aware of divergence than confluence in life. The latter happens so quietly but suddenly you find that someone else is with you, or two creative ideas have joined to make a third.
The Third Way – lest we forget that choices are not always ‘either/or’. If I find myself trying to decide between two things, the question I often forget to ask is: “Is there a third way?”
I don’t mean a ‘middle way’, but there’s almost always another option that evades us when we are double bound and damned if we do or don’t do one thing or another.
Other people often present us with an either/or, forestalling our capacity to step back and think creatively whether there’s a potential we’ve missed. That third way may even be to do nothing.
We also have here the footprint of a bird, a creature of the air that has come down to feed on a creature of the earth (a worm). Earth is marked by its feet in a way that air is never marked by its wings … ponder this.
The Bow – sacred in human culture from our hunter-gatherer ancestors onward and right across the face of the earth: for hunting, making war and making music.
In the Bible, when God attributes meaning to the rainbow, the original language refers to her ‘battle bow’.
I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:13)
It foretells the hope that the instruments of war will be beaten into plowshares and become tools for nurture instead of destruction.
In numerous mythologies, the heavenly bow is a bridge between the sphere of mortal struggle and the paradise of rest and peace. In Bantu cosmology, it is created by the dance of seven snakes. So, once again, Yosemitebear is not such a fool.
Fe – the first rune of the ancient scandanavian ‘futhark’, signifying wealth and plenty.
‘Wealth’ meant something very different to the inventors of the runic alphabets. It was probably quantifiable in cattle. While we owe a lot of our letter shapes and sounds to these forebears, we may have lost their understanding of wealth. Mine is a number on a screen that pops up after I’ve typed a few passwords and memorable numbers on a keyboard.
When this twig cracked under my foot it seemed to shout in twig-speak: “We are wealth! We are woods, and water, and weather! Wait and listen!” So I did. And all I could hear in the the trees was this: “Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff…” – a continuous whisper of plenty.
Vav – the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, whose pictographic meaning is ‘hook’ or peg. Curiously its equivalent in our alphabet is also … ‘F’ – both in sound and numerical value.
As the very simplest single stroke of a pen or brush, this letter shape has been associated with one-ness and, as a sinuous curve from top to bottom, it has also been taken to represent the flow of revelation from heaven to earth.
Without needing to go down a kabbalist rabbit hole, I’ve found this form deeply appealing since the moment I tried to create it perfectly with a calligraphy pen several months ago.
I think the idea of ‘unity’ encompasses its meaning very well: flowing together, once again, between air and earth, my feet of clay and my wings of aether. All that I do belongs to flying or digging and the art of living is to do both at once: to pray as I work.
Tau – 19th letter of the Greek alphabet, final letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Saint Francis used this (the Tau cross) as his signature and it is fitting that this little alder twig should say his name to us, because he called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister and was mindful of all living things.
For this reason I have a slight preference for this as a sign of Christ’s cross over the traditional form (which all too readily becomes a sword). This is the final letter, the end of present tyranny and the reconciliation of the whole created order.
The Dancer – let the trees of the field clap their hands!
Not only did I find this exultant shape in the woods but it also looks very similar to the lines on my left palm, where I recently discovered the stick figures of two dancing people.
Maybe I’ll show them to you one day. But I’d like to end this epistle of the woods and hedgerows with a few words from the bard himself:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, Hath not old custom made this life more sweet Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods More free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, The seasons’ difference; as, the icy fang And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, Which, when it bites and blows upon my body, Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say ‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors That feelingly persuade me what I am.’ Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in every thing. I would not change it. (As You Like It, Act 2 Scene I)
If you enjoyed this, you might like to read more of my ‘Wisdom of Things Found’ posts:
I’ve caved in to blogging expectations and decided to publish a New Year post. This is actually slightly recycled from my Analog Photog Blog (which is in currently in the doldrums) and relates to an ongoing photographic project.
I have a question for you, dear reader: As you look ahead into 2014, and the year stretches before you, which of these paths best represents what you see ahead?
What will it be?
Just for the record, If you were to ask me, I’d probably say “All of the above.”
I speculate that the only thing I have in common with Napoleon Bonaparte is a fascination for a Chinese puzzle called the “Tangram“. If I persist with this growing obsession, will I also become a charismatic leader and a brilliant tactician, or will I spiral into eccentric neuroses?
This game was imported from the Orient to Europe in the early 1800s and quickly became a craze across the continent – it was the “Angry Birds” of its time, I suppose. I see no reason to debunk the exotic myths around the origins of the Tangram. When I am manipulating the seven geometric shapes to produce a seemingly infinite array of shapes and figures, the feeling that I’m dabbling in an ancient secret like the i-Ching is a big part of the thrill. I am ever expectant that cracking some combination of shapes will unlock another dimension of geometric reality. Perhaps this explains why tipping the black tiles out onto a table or looking at a new problem gives me the same feeling of comfortable anticipation that I used to get from pulling a cigarette out of a packet.
To “play” the Tangram (literally known as the “seven boards of wisdom” in Chinese), you need a set of seven flat puzzle pieces that are cut from a square. They consist of five right-angled isosceles triangles (two large, two small and one medium) a trapezoid and a square. The “problems” to be solved come in the form of silhouetted shapes that the player must form using all the pieces. It is often more difficult than it looks. It becomes slightly easier after about the 100th puzzle has been solved, once the player has a feel for the ways in which the shapes can combine. However, it is still fiendishly challenging at times and there are “advanced” levels of problems that require no further upgrades, subscriptions or downloads – just the same seven pieces.
It is the very simplicity of these seven basic shapes and the infinite complexity of the shapes they can create by recombination that first appealed to me and drew me in.
As the infection of Tangramicitis spread through my neurons, I found it particularly satisfying that the conflict between my two inner aesthetes (the recalcitrant one that loves symmetry and the boisterous one that loves asymmetry) was amicably settled. Even completing a symmetrical outline with the shapes requires that they be placed asymmetrically in relation to each other – and this is where the mind needs to scuttle sideways and look for the less obvious answer.
Outlines of symmetrical shapes, that have asymmetrical solutions are just one of the types of Tangram problem, however. Two other types of problem have their own appeal.
Firstly, the pieces can be combined to make the outlines of birds, animals, characters in various poses, faces in profile, household objects, boats, buildings … virtually anything. Sometimes the sense of character or dynamic movement that these outlines seem to have is surprising and particularly delightful.
The Tangram has, not surprisingly, influenced architecture, furniture design, graphics and mathematics and I feel there is mysterious potential here for the writer in me, too – if only I could get to the nub of it. One of the many stories about the origins of the game tells of a man long ago called Tan who was carrying a beautiful ceramic tile as a gift to his emperor. According to the story, he tripped and dropped the tile, and it smashed into seven pieces. His dismay turned to joy as he picked them up and saw that they could be used to make beautiful shapes of birds in flight. Other creation myths suggest a connection between the Tangram and ancient Egypt. Maybe it was a gift from our ancient alien ancestors? Who knows …
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a broken tile and have promised myself that I may solve one more problem before lights out.