Sunday, 5 January 2014


I take photographs because I have always found life to be a ravishing affair.  I am fascinated by people; I am entranced by the things that people imagine and produce and build, by that which  people have forever found beautiful.  I am in constant wonder at the sheer scale and scope and mystery of our natural world.  There, in every moment, is a world of sublime beauty and, for whatever reason, mankind has always, it seems, been impelled to freeze, to hold, to suspend, that beauty for the ever-eager eye and soul to gaze upon.  We need not know why we are this way, I suppose.  I think we glimpse aspects of our own, sometimes neglected and dishonoured, souls when we respond to art in whatever form.  Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci asked what must have been a rhetorical question.  “Do you know that our soul is composed of harmony?”

Often our response to life is intuitive, emotional even, and therefore we can sometimes find ourselves lost for a way in which to express our recognition, acknowledgement and appreciation of what may seem, at the same time, to be an utterly new experience.  Helen Levitt, known primarily as a “street photographer” said, “Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.”  And one of my great heroes, Andre Kertesz said, “Seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph.”  I feel that the greatest danger to the soul is indifference; art, in whatever form, can propel us back into the maelstrom of life and feeling, into an excited remembrance of things that have perhaps been misplaced, but assuredly not lost.  Art, I believe, reminds us of who we are.

I wrote this a few days after the death of my mother-in-law.  She died in hospital, just over a year ago, immersed in a deep morphine-induced sleep, having suffered the unthinkably dreadful effects of a deep pressure sore.  Her sore developed at home and, after much reluctance to be admitted to hospital, she finally agreed to to so when the sore was too far advanced to heal.  It seems (without the benefit of an autopsy to be sure) that she died of septicaemia.   She was 93 but had the spirit and the bright playful eyes of a 17 year old girl.   

Birth and death ... two rites of passage, both equally loaded with emotion and a sense of something momentous, huge.  The beginning of a life, and the end of a life .... or so it seems.   If you believe, as I do, that our 3D experience is only one aspect of a richer, more profound reality, then you might feel, too, that birth and death could be treated with a great deal more consciousness and care, respect and awe than is currently given in our culture.

 Fear imbues all our dealings ... even at birth, anxiety prevails.  Home births are rarer now, hospital births being the expected norm.  From the moment of birth, tests, advice, the presence of health visitors, weight checks and a general miasma of insecurity surrounds a Western mother as she seeks to find her way.  Instinct is virtually pushed aside as we begin to care for our babies because ‘experts’ are given ultimate credence.   The huge amount of TV and publishing time and space given to these experts confirm that we have been taught, and learnt very well indeed, to give ultimate credibility to outside authorities.   And so our children are immediately born into a family and a society in which anxiety and distance are a given.

At the death of a loved one, we find ourselves in yet another unfamiliar place.  Our fear of the unknown, of the sad and messy reality of death, of the aura surrounding death, enables us to hand over to strangers (professional, qualified, sensitive perhaps, but still strangers) the care of our relatives as they approach death, and care of their remains after death.  We follow the norms set up for us by industries that are really there to simply expedite the removal and disposal of a dead body.  A simple process.  How many of us know that it is quite legal NOT to use a coffin?  And yet countless millions of us purchase boxes of varying styles, price, toxicity, with all their accompanying paraphernalia, only to burn them a week later.  We spend thousands of pounds on this disposal.  Jessica Mitford exposed the excesses of the outrageous funeral industry in the USA a few decades ago, but still we continue to follow the trends.  There are other choices, and yet we still automatically give the choices over to others.

How many of us have the courage to immerse ourselves in the whole process, from start to finish?  How many of us can put down what we are doing, give up our comfort and need for entertainment, in order to provide grass roots, nitty gritty care?  There is a book by Ram Dass, called ‘How Can I Help?’, which gives a credible explanation for why so many of us feel we want to help ... but don’t.  He asks us to consider how fearful we are in getting involved.  If we step forward to help at one moment, we may become enmeshed, pulled in beyond our comfort zone, and it is that fear of involvement that stops us doing what is, often, the decent and necessary thing.

Why are we fearful in this way?  Because, from birth, we are surrounded by fear, and so it goes on.   On and on, a life compromised by fear.  And because we are eminently programmable beings (as advertisers and politicians well know), with three-level brains already set up (from birth via our faulty nurturing practices and its accompanying and premature push of the child into independence) to survival mode, then it seems almost foolish to expect anything otherwise.  But our hearts whisper to us constantly and we are so unaccustomed to this sound, so afraid of being seen as foolish (after all, were we not told not to let our hearts rule our heads often enough?) that we hesitate to step forward to ... what, question?  Protest?  Challenge?  We could never do that easily with our parents, our schools, and so, now, we find ourselves still caught between our hearts and instincts and our fear of authority.  We are like children, still, looking up to those in authority and terrified of making waves in the sanctified halls of our institutionalised lives.  We are in thrall to the power structures that have grown up around us because we were actively discouraged from taking self-responsibility.  We were taught, through fear of punishment, to obey authoritarian teachers, and thus our own inner knowing was, from birth, replaced with a fearful compliance. 

It is hard to observe oneself displaying hesitation, a fear of making a fuss, an almost automatic giving over of responsibility to the person ‘in charge’.   One can feel, in a hospital, an immense sense of inadequacy accompanied by a sometimes over-compensatory gratitude and trust that those caring for one’s loved one are acting in their best interests.  Therefore, it is mortifying to realise that one has let an issue pass purely because one did not have the courage to pursue a question, to continue the dialogue until completely satisfied.   Sometimes we feel embarrassed because we feel we should be more fully informed.  Sometimes we do not want to make fools of ourselves by questioning procedure.  It is only later that one comes to realise the disempowerment inherent within us that causes this hesitation, this almost wishy-washy response to what is a hugely significant event. 

This almost automatic giving way of our own power is frightening in its scope.  Instead of looking within when we feel depressed, we seek medication from without.  Instead of following our instincts, we put our tiny babies into solitary confinement and ignore cries that would, from an animal, bring instant attention.  We become ill and, fearful of pain and even death, demand drugs to bring ease of body and mind.  Our children exhibit behavioural difficulties and we not only seek external help but readily receive the drugs with which to drug them.  We have given permission, in effect, for industries to grow up that cater for our every perceived need and thus are disempowered ever more and ever more deeply.

A vision I hold is that suffering, to the extent we see it today, in a horrible and unnecessary heresy.  We have moved so far from our simple and very divine roots, from tribal wisdom, that, from birth until death, we live a half-life, seeking joy because somehow we know it is possible but hardly believing that it is.  Therefore we unthinkingly take on and are convinced by the messages we are fed by authoritarian bodies that are fully aware of our readiness to be manipulated and ultimately ruled.   In many cultures, children do not have tantrums, let alone behavioural difficulties.  In these cultures, depression and violence and heart disease are unknown.  In these cultures, the elders are held in deep respect, and never, ever die alone in the care of paid strangers.  My vision holds that our pain at witnessing  these things in our culture is, right now, impelling us to return to our basic, true roots, is impelling us to listen to our hearts and work out WHY we are so afraid to involve ourselves, so afraid to give up our comforts, so afraid to take responsibility.

Prevention is so easy in the place our culture stands currently.  Initial education, via printed material provided by NHS and TV advertising, are perhaps a simple first step towards preventing the suffering of so many elderly people before it even begins.  Prevention could go deeper, though.  We could re-think the very basis of our lives.  We could take back our power and trust that we have access to a deeper wisdom than can ever be given by outside agencies.  A complete re-think of our child-rearing practices and a renewed respect for the formative power of family life, would be the obvious and most deeply powerful starting point, even if the effects took more than a generation to be felt.  Optimal nurturing invariably leads to an adult who is likely to be healthier, mentally and physically, and who will naturally, without effort, take on social responsibilities.  His life will inevitably be love-led, and his family and society will gain from that.   He will certainly be a huge influence on those around him, an inspiration even.  He is likely to be less open to the ills of old age when that time comes.  Families may, through this, come back to the natural tribal way, where it would be seen as incomprehensible to leave a baby or an elderly person alone, to fend for themselves, or to give over their care to institutions.

My sorrow in seeing my own mother, and now my mother-in-law, die in less than ideal ways, leads me to want to seek something better.  It would be easy to blame ‘the system’, but I want to go further and use my God-given passion and intellect and feelings to seek a better way, to inspire others to see that we are responsible for bringing change to a struggling world.  If we did not give away that responsibility so readily, then there would be no power behind the commercially-driven structures and the politically-suspect bodies that ostensibly exist for our good.  Shops close down when their merchandise is of no interest to shoppers.   The shopper comes to know, through curiosity and a passion to live well, that there are hundreds of alternatives to the supermarket.  So too in our precious lives we come to know, through our discomfort at what does not work, what really CAN work.  To bring a sense that life is a beautiful thing.  That suffering is not inevitable.  And that as one individual family finds unity and healing, then the possibility for that healing to come to other families, and to society as a whole, is a hopeful and likely outcome. 

by Julia Cameron

Countless people have said that this book was instrumental in enabling them to find the ‘vein’ of creative gold they instinctively felt to be present inside but that had seemed, until then, to be remote and inaccessible. 

I believe that, whether we consider ourselves artists or not, we are all instinctively creative beings.  Look at the cornucopia of magazines and television programmes inspiring us to re-create our homes and our gardens; see how attendance at art exhibitions has risen so sharply in recent years (The Louvre in Paris attracting over nine and half million visitors in 2012, with the Tate Modern attracting just under five and a half million visitors in the same year); notice how YouTube is saturated with shared music that brings so many millions utter joy; just peek into a bookshop and see tables and shelves aglow with the work of inspired writers and illustrators; glance through people’s windows as you walk by and see flowers in funky vases, not to mention paintings and photographs framed in fur and mosaic and perspex, and chandeliers made from twisted cutlery and....

We are such sparky beings, and there seems to be no end to the variations seen in the field of design, be it in the world of cars or furniture or ceramics or perfume bottles or socks or airport concourses ... We delight in it and would, I believe, go into a very real decline as a society if such expression was quelled and quashed.

But, moving on a little into the more private world that we each inhabit, some of us find ourselves yearning and dissatisfied, and often we cannot work out why.  It is almost as though the beauty external to ourselves, in nature and in that created by our fellows, causes a dawning sense of wild homesickness.   Something deep within starts to stir, and almost immediately we close it down.  It is a whisper .... I could do that.  I want to do that.  But .... I can’t.  I am not an artist.  I can’t. 

Julia Cameron, in her wise and deeply spiritual book, tells us otherwise.  She declares, on behalf of each and every one of us, that we are born creative.  We need only to identify and then gently and lovingly dismantle the barriers that are holding us from this natural creativity.  She has written a book which invites us to re-discover and embrace our inner artist, and although it asks for a commitment to ‘creative recovery’ that can sometimes feel uncomfortable (and even painful), it is chockful of intoxicating tasks and games which very soon start to bring a joyful sense of recognition ... a recognition that we are so much bigger than our conditioning and our upbringing and our teachers and our society have led us to believe!  We recognise that a huge part of ourselves has been temporarily disowned, placed in the shadows.  Synchronicities begin to happen in our lives which give us a startling and delicious sense that we are part of a universe which is friendly, supportive, eager for our fulfilment.  

She has created a course comprising twelve weekly sessions, each of which presents tasks that unmask the self-appointed tyrants of perfectionism, self-criticism and downright fear (fear of failure, of scorn from peers etc), and which very quickly reveal the riches beneath. 

One is, in addition, asked to gift oneself with a little extra time, each morning before rising, in which to write of one’s joys, one’s gripes, one’s conundrums and certainties, one’s current state of mind, anything that is filling one’s mind, on three sides of A4 paper.  This is a powerful process, which somehow or another creates space and clarity and an increased intuitive sense.  Basically, these ‘Morning Pages’ give you permission to be who you are.  They are a radical invitation to self-acceptance.  They enable you to honour the true you.  And when you honour yourself, all self-criticism is rendered impotent and irrelevant, and the creative energy that is waiting to flow, flows ... through you ... with no resistance.

And how about this ... the Artist’s Date!  You give yourself permission to joyfully go on a weekly date with yourself!  On this date, you do things, buy things, see things, which feed your inner artist.  The deal is, the instruction if you like, is that no-one comes with you.  You choose; you experience; you enjoy.  You commit yourself to a time each week in which you nurture and feed your neglected creative soul.  The relief and joy this brings cannot be over-stated.  This is another statement given to yourself: no matter what, this date is an important commitment to enable myself to completely embrace my full creative nature.  None of this need cost very much money necessarily.  After all, your inner artist is a child needing nurturing and fun, and it is the attention and time which is important.  A solitary visit to a gallery or the bookshop cafe.  A search for as many gargoyles on as many churches as possible in an afternoon.  Going back for the pair of hand-made earrings you saw last time at the weekly craft market.  Treating yourself to your favourite author’s new novel in hardback, thus honouring and supporting yourself and the author.  A visit to the art shop to pick up a box of handmade pastels.   The purchase of ten exquisite postcards showing your favourite works of art.  

These tasks, which of course could be seen as daily/weekly rituals regardless of whether one follows The Artist's Way, contain a strangely mysterious power.  We come face to face with a self we might have lost sight of, even mourned.

I may run some courses here in my home town.  In the meantime, the book remains on my shelf:

Click here to see 'The Artist's Way' description and reviews.