Happy Birthday Beethoven! An Ode to the Joy and Genius of the Great Man’s Music – Beethoven250

“What I have in my heart and soul must find a way out. That’s the reason for music.”

ludwig van beethoven

Nobody knows the exact date of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday. It could be today, 17th December 1770, the day he was baptised, or likely the day before. Two hundred and fifty years ago in a pretty terraced house in Bonn, Beethoven came into the world; and his influence was of such magnitude it can still be strongly felt; universally loved and appreciated today.

Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis by Josef Karl Stieler

Beethoven has always been at my side, a constant musical companion (from childhood to middle age), through the ups and downs of my life; my victories and vicissitudes, with his symphonies, sonatas, concertos, chamber music, overtures, lieder and choral works, resonating with my own experiences over the years.

I have applied myself to playing many of Beethoven’s violin works, and am now delighted that my youngest daughter (who recently passed her ABRSM Piano Grade 1 with Distinction, despite learning 90% of the syllabus in online lessons, thanks to her fantastic teacher), is falling in love with his piano music. I have never seen her practice so fervently on any other piece to-date as she does Für Elise, which she can now competently play a simplified version of.

There is divinity in Beethoven’s music, it speaks to the soul, but it’s also unmistakably human. How he transmuted sorrow, joy, jealousy, passion, injustice, fury, freedom, love, hope, and the depths of human emotion into the perfect notes on a score is his genius.

If you’ve read my blog now and then (thank you), you may have guessed that I’m a total Beethoven zealot!

He was one of the greatest composers that ever lived, numero uno as far as I’m concerned. I doubt his music will ever be surpassed.

There were very large boots to fill as Beethoven began to explore his musical promise. The great Baroque composers of Bach and Handael left a massive impressive ouevre, and soon after the titans of the Classical era, Mozart and Haydn came along. Young Beethoven had plenty of inspiration to draw from, but rather than worrying about how he was going to make his mark in their shadow, or let their talent suffocate him, he rose to be his own artist, shaping the late Classical era and defining the new Romantic era. Beethoven is a musical icon, his music is timeless.

Beethoven could be pugnacious and capricious, (the poor unfortunate souls who invoked his ire could attest to that), he was also volatile and could fly into a rage, even over a lost penny! But to his credit it wasn’t really a rage, Anton Schindler coined the phrase. A fantastic little piece.

He was also kind, dedicated, loving and loyal. I feel Beethoven was forged just as much by his flaws and tragedies as well as his talents and achievements; there were many facets to his character that made him so rich, complex and brilliant. 

Perhaps a challenging childhood is prerequisite for a romantic genius, and Beethoven ticked that box. He recovered from Smallpox, and endured a troubled relationship with his father, who would drink and beat him.

But Beethoven nurtured his prodigious talent and it would see him through multiple romantic heartbreaks, (including the Immortal Beloved), Napoleon’s assault on Vienna, health challenges, deafness and his problematic interactions with his nephew Karl.  To say his life was difficult would be an understatement. He had quite a vast range of experiences to draw upon…

In art Beethoven was usually depicted with a serious expression, tousled hair and intense eyes, the demeanour of a tortured artist. People overlooked the fact that he could be a curmudgeon and frequently irascible in nature, because through his musical gifts he brought profound beauty into a turbulent world. He wasn’t always understood and appreciated fully during his life, especially by the unsuspecting conservative Viennese audiences, but over the decades and certainly two and a half centuries since his birth, I’m sure millions of people feel the same way I do about dear Ludwig.

Classic FM asked some high profile Beethoven aficionados what Beethoven means to them in 250 words.

Beethoven’s music plays the human heart like no other. It is never ordinary; but profound, and soaring, passionate and searing, loving and lyrical, noble and idealistic, tender hearted and romantic, tempestuous, peaceful and bucolic, dramatic and virtuosic, heart breaking and visceral, innovative and revolutionary.   

Beethoven loved spending time in nature.

The year 2020 has been Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year – and it has been one of the toughest years in living memory; a year that will go down in history. Many of the planned celebratory live concerts did not take place due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I think Beethoven would have shaken his fist and carried on composing anyway. And luckily for us, modern technology enables streaming.

The difficulty of this year is all the more reason to celebrate his life and his music, it will see us through this terrible time, and if his music demonstrates anything, it’s that struggles can be overcome. It’s as though Beethoven is saying I understand your heartache and strife, your pain and your pleasure. Listen up!

I’m going to share some of my favourite pieces and some older posts I wrote about the maestro. But before that I wanted to explore some of his lieder.

Pain and passion

I’ve always felt that Countess Josephine von Deym (nee Brunsvik) was Beethoven’s mysterious Immortal Beloved, and read some of the early delirious, passionate love letters Beethoven wrote to Josephine, published in Jan Swafford’s tome: Beethoven – Anguish and Triumph.

In 1805 Beethoven was basking in the glory of his heroic third symphony, which premiered in April that year.

His health challenges were ongoing and he was working on his only opera, about a courageous and honourable wife: Leonore. The work was later retitled Fidelio. And his personal life was consumed by his passion for the newly widowed mother-of-four, Josephine. His heart and his whole being must have been on fire! He clearly wanted Josephine to be his devoted wife – but their societal positions and personal circumstances (at least for Josephine), meant they could not be together.

Not only did he write her ecstatic love letters, but composed and dedicated the song An die Hoffnung (To Hope), as well as the Andante Favori, which was originally intended as the slow movement of the Waldstein Sonata.

“O, beloved J. It is no desire for the other sex that draws me to you, no, it is just you, your whole self with all your individual qualities – that has compelled my regard…

Long – long- of long duration – may our love become – for it is so noble – so firmly founded upon mutual regard and friendship…Oh, you, you make me hope your heart will long – beat for me – Mine can only – cease – to beat for you – when – it no longer beats.”

Beethoven

Josephine made a respectful and honest reply:

“You have long had my heart, dear Beethoven; if this assurance can give you joy, then receive it – from the purest heart. Take carte that is also entrusted into the purest bosom. You receive the greatest proof of my love (and) of my esteem through this confession, through this confidence! I herewith give you – of the… possession of the noblest of my Self…will you indicate to me if you are satisfied with it? Do not tear my heart apart – do not try to persuade me further. I love you inexpressibly, as one gentle soul does another. Are you not capable of this covenant? I am not receptive to other (forms of) love for the present.”

Josephine

It seems that Beethoven wasn’t at all satisfied – for the heart loves who it loves, and perhaps he did not fully understand Josephine’s situation: she had lost her husband, gone through a nervous breakdown, taken on his debts, was running his business and raising four children; in a society, and from a family that frowned upon marriages between the aristocracy and commoners.

Beethoven’s frustration and heart break must have been expressed in some form of anger, which no doubt exacerbated the situation. Josephine responded with desperation:

“Even before I knew you, your music made me enthusiastic for you – the goodness of your character, your affection increased it. This preference that you granted me, the pleasure of your acquaintance, would have been the finest jewel of my life if you could have loved me less sensually. That I cannot satisfy this sensual love makes you angry with me, (but) I would have had to violate solemn obligations if I gave heed to your longings.”

Josphine

Josephine left for Budapest before Napoleon’s assault on Vienna, but even though he was emotionally bereft and in poor health, Beethoven ploughed himself into his music. It is thought that another song he wrote around this time, Als die Geliebte sich trennen wollte (When the Beloved Wished to Part), summed up his anguish, with some poignant lines, such as: The last ray of hope is sinking, and Ah, lovely hope, return to me.

In the early summer of 1805 Carl Czerny was present at a Lobkowitz soiree, where provoked during the course of the evening, Beethoven humiliated Ignaz Pleyel – a piano maker, publisher and pianist – a contempory of Haydn. Beethoven listened to Pleyel’s new string quartets and then was dragged against his will to the piano by some ladies. Beethoven was a great improviser, (he had quite the reputation in his early career), but must surely have transferred his annoyance at having to play in public into giving Pleyel the ‘Daniel Stiebelt’ treatment, featured briefly in my debut novel, The Virtuoso.

I listened to Beethoven exclusively and constantly as I wrote it, being as he was the heroine’s hero (and one of mine!).

Czerny, a talented pianist and student of Beethoven, recorded how Beethoven grabbed a copy of Pleyel’s second violin part and based his improvisation on a few random notes. It must have made quite the impression on him: “Throughout the whole improvisation the quite insignificant notes…were present in the middle parts, like a connecting thread or a cantus firmus, while he built upon them the boldest melodies and harmonies in the most brilliant (concerto) style.”

Unlike Stiebelt, who, in humiliation had stormed off in outrage and never returned to Vienna, Czerny explains poor Pleyel’s gracious reaction to the maestro’s mocking genius: “Pleyel was so amazed that he kissed Beethoven’s hands. After such improvisations, Beethoven used to break out laughing in a loud and satisfied fashion.”

Beethoven himself wrote of the incident to his friend Count Nikolaus Zmeskall: “I wanted to entertain Pleyel in a musical way – But for the last week I have again been ailing…and in some ways I am becoming more and more peevish every day in Vienna.”

It seems that Beethoven’s ego only surfaced full throttle when his art was involved, for he never put a lot of concern into his appearance or living conditions, and was not in the least bit foppish.

Beethoven in later years by Josef Karl Stieler

In 1807 Beethoven met Marie Bigot, an accomplished pianist, married to Paul Bigot de Morogues, Count Razumosky’s librarian. Beethoven flirted with Marie, and got into hot water with her husband, but having been caught out he apologised profusely and they remained friends. Apparently Marie had been able to sight read his water stained Appassionata manuscript. She was technically brilliant and put her own stamp on the music she played.

She had wowed Haydn in 1805, and had a similar effect upon Beethoven after a performance of one of his sonatas: “That’s not exactly the character I wanted to give this piece, but go right ahead. If it isn’t entirely mine, it’s something better.”

It’s apparent that Beethoven respected artistic interpretation and was not affronted by an artist’s individuality, as a non conformist, it was quality he valued in himself.

Beethoven’s advice on being an artist.

Immortal Beloved

In the spring of 1816 Beethoven completed a song cycle known as An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), clearly stemming from his own considerable pain, having written in a letter to Ferdinand Ries, “I have found only one whom no doubt I shall never possess”, a memorial to the Immortal Beloved.

This little cycle of folk songs unifies the story as a whole, greater than the sum of its parts. Beethoven was familiar with folk songs from his childhood and his early teacher Christian Neefe. The song cycle is strophic, so each verse is sung to the same melody with slight variations here and there. The emotions of the song are expressed less flamboyantly than opera, but no less poignant.

The verses were written by the poet and playwright Alois Jeitteles, and were highly relevant to Beethoven at this time in his life. Perfect to set to music!

Beethoven250: Analysis of the composer’s letters proves that creativity does spring forth from misery

There has been speculation that Josephine’s youngest daughter, Minona von Stackelberg was in fact Beethoven’s illegitimate offspring. By the time she was born Josephine and her husband were estranged.

As I’m short of time I’ve included some previous posts:

A fascinating discussion about Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas between Daniel Barenboim and Giuseppe Mentuccia:

Plus his five minutes on the Moonlight Sonata:

A small selection of some of my favourites :

The Opus 30 was dedicated to Tsar Alexander I of Russia

The Symphony no. 9 ‘Ode to Joy’, the apotheosis of Beethoven’s output – composed when he was entirely deaf!

Happy listening!

I wish you all a very merry (socially distanced) Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year for 2021! Thank you for reading and sharing my ramblings over the year.

“Life would be flat without music. it is the background to all I do. It speaks to the heart in its own special way like nothing else.”

ludwig van beethoven

Birth of a Nation: How did Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness Come About?

“Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.”

George Washington to Alexander Hamilton on August 28, 1788

The world collectively held its breath as the election for the 46th President of the United States of America was held during November, and has subsequently been rumbling on over the entire month. For interminable days it seemed to hang on a knife edge, and now, thankfully, Joe Biden has unequivocably emerged as the victor. But the election has been embroiled in quite a circus…

During such times of upheaval and turmoil around the world it’s essential that we have a grown-up in the White House rather than a self-inflated, messianic enfant terrible.

Trump has thrown multiple tantrums about how unfair democracy is, and has behaved like a desperate despot wanting to cling to power at any cost. It’s damaging not just for America, (being the beacon of freedom and democracy that it is in the world), but also for global democracy, when the perceived leader of the free world acts like some third-world, tin-pot dictator by refusing (until recently), to collaborate with the incoming administration for the good of the nation.

What kind of example is that?

Trump’s antics over the last four years have brought the Office of President into disrepute. His legacy is a litany of lies and ‘fake news’ accusations, the desecration of values, the demolition of decency, the destruction of integrity, willful ignorance around environmental issues, mishandling of the pandemic and the spread of division, hate, racial tensions and the complete polarisation of a nation.

The man (and I hope someday woman), serves the office, not the reverse!

There is still a way to go before the vote is certified and thankfully the unnecessary and baseless legal challenges from the incumbent president have been thrown out. His apparent denial of the facts and manner of departure will further test America’s democracy.

“The Constitution was designed not to give us rights but to prevent government from taking our rights.”

Thom Hartmann, Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights

Biden strikes me as a man of competence, common-sense, caring and humility – a breath of fresh air to Trump’s insouciant attitude toward responsibility, and his unrepentant vanity and hubris.

America, and (like ripples travelling across a pond) to a lesser extent the world, is reeling from the onslaught of an egomaniac and chancer tyrant. The fact that more people have voted in the 2020 election, (close to 150 million people) than at any other time in its 244 year history as the United States of America speaks volumes.

Balance must be restored – now the scales can start tipping towards the safer mid-point. How much damage has been done remains to be seen, and Biden is right to suggest that the nation needs to heal.

The fact that sanity has prevailed is in no small measure due to the principles and values that the Founding Fathers employed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents are sacred and integral to the founding of the United States of America. They are the bedrock and cornerstone of America’s power and prosperity.

But the severance of the colonies from George III’s distant rule was far from smooth. After the dust had settled from the Revolutionary War, a handful of men courageously saw a vision of what their nation could become.

The founding of the United States has been an incredible experiment in the evolution of human civilisation.

With its isolated geopolitical borders the United States of America was free from outside interference once they had eliminated servitude to the British monarchy. Inspired by the sheer unlimited potential and opportunities for a better life, a wave of immigration seeded the nation with a diverse population – an ideal cultural petri dish for the growth of the New World.

By looking to the microcosm of America we can apply the knowledge, wisdom and learning of human civilisation and evolution to the macrocosm – the world at large.

The only pre-existing cultural personality in the newly formed United States of America was that of the native Indian populations, it was still early days for the first generations of settlers, but their spirit of adventure, innovation and discovery has certainly permeated down through the centuries.

Unlike the more established nations across Europe, (where citizens were limited by their highly stratified caste-like society and hierarchy of power, usually predicated by blood lineage), America was a blank canvas for her citizens, where, on paper at least, all men were created equal; endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.  

In the United States Declaration of Independence, for instance, it was stated with great clarity by the originators that the rights of man stem from the divinity of their creation, and thus was established the principle of spirituality. However they differentiated this from religion by saying that citizens are to be free from the establishment of any religion. The founders were aware that religion divides and is based on secular power, whereas, spirituality unites and has no worldly organization.”

Dr. David R Hawkins

Sadly, these lofty ideals have not always proved the lived experience for many with darker skins, those of the ‘fairer sex’ or other minority groups. There is plenty of unfinished business, hence still, even in the 21st century, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was deemed necessary to attain a fairer, more egalitarian society. But the values are at least enshrined in its founding, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and therefore inextricable from the nation’s cultural and social evolution.  

The values and courage of the Founding Fathers

The Deistic Enlightenment philosophy that was sweeping through 1700s Europe, as espoused by its leading philosophers such as John Locke, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whose raptures of ‘free’ noble savages intrigued many), resonated with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

“These men (who signed the Declaration) were the most idealistic and determined among the colonists. While the conservatives of the day argued that America should remain a colony of England forever, these liberal radicals believed in both individual liberty and societal obligations.”

Thom Hartmann

Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hancock and the other 56 delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence did so knowing that they would pilloried, ostracised, suffer financial hardship, ruin and possibly death. This act was no tea party!

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull c. 1819

When they wrote: ‘We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, our Sacred Honor’ they were legally marking themselves as traitors, knowing the penalty for treason was death. Patrick Henry’s passionate statement, “Give me liberty or give me death!” was not merely hyperbole. When Benjamin Franklin said to his fellow revolutionaries, “We must all hang together or we shall most assuredly hang separately,” he was speaking literally.

John Hancock was the wealthiest of the American revolutionaries, with a net worth of around $750,000 in today’s dollars. Another wealthy signatory, Thomas Nelson of Virginia, had his lands and home seized by the British and died penniless at the age of 50. Hartmann purports that 9 of the 56 signers lost their lives in the war and 17 lost their homes and fortunes.

Hartmann further explains: “While many of the conservative Tory families still have considerable wealth and power (in Canada and England), not a single founder’s family persists today as a wealthy or politically dominant entity.”

It was inevitable that cynical attacks would be made on their characters in the years since the founding of the nation. They were not perfect human beings; their personalities contained flaws and contradictions like the rest of us – however, their hearts were in the right place. It’s worth remembering that this enlightened band of brothers stood up to what was then the greatest power in the world – the British Empire.

Their Deist beliefs meant that the Declaration of Independence encapsulated Natural Law: the notion that ordinary humans could be equal sovereign citizens who endow government with authority, instead of the other way around.

The tenets of Natural Law

In 1661 English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published his work, Leviathan, which attempted to codify Natural Law into 9 principles:

  1. Seek peace first, use war as a last resort.
  2. Be willing to offer the same freedom to others as to oneself.
  3. Keep your agreements.
  4. Practice gratitude.
  5. Accommodate your own needs to the laws of the community.
  6. As appropriate, forgive those who repent.
  7. In the case of revenge, focus not on the great evil of the past but the greater good to follow.
  8. Never declare hatred of another.
  9. Acknowledge the equality of others.

John Locke sought to hold governments accountable to these principles. In his Two Treatises of Government which was initially published anonymously in 1689 he suggested that if a ruler went against these natural laws and failed to protect ‘life, liberty and property’ the populace could justifiably overthrow a government. It happened in France in 1789, and heads rolled as a consequence…

One could argue that Brexit has removed some of our rights and liberties.

Jefferson used Locke’s arguments when he crafted the Declaration of Independence. But the Enlightenment philosophers were not the only influence on the Founding Fathers. Locke and Rousseau got their ideas from the Native’s New World.

Quite a circle of serendipity…

The ideals of human perfection existed in Europe since the golden age of Greece, but the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness never actualised from an abstract concept to reality in Socrates’ world of form.

The first reports of the ways and customs of the native peoples of the Americas showed the concepts of democracy and balance of power were well established in these cultures at least 400 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Some say as early as 1100, but there are accounts from the 1400s to 1500s of  six tribes that lived in what is now the northeastern United States, Southern Ontario and Quebec, a people who came together to form what was known as the Iroquois Confederacy.

The Iroquois Confederacy

Hiawatha was instructed by an elder named Two-Rivers to negotiate peace between the warring tribes. He proposed a League of Peace and Power to bring the tribes together. The result of this historic gathering bore the League of Haudenosaunee, meaning ‘people of the long house’.

“Every human longs for peace and love.”

Hiawatha

The confederacy was comprised of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes, later accepting the Tuscaroras who migrated from the Carolinas. Through this confederacy, six diverse nations managed to live in relative peace and harmony through a remarkable political system that was the forerunner to the United States Constitution.

Seneca – Chief Red Jacket of the Iroquois League

There are many similarities between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Constitution: namely the devolvement of power in the federal system – just as tribes maintained autonomy in regard to local issues.

A mutual-defense pack provided a strong multi-tribe nation to protect against their enemies. It conserved lives, energy and resources that would otherwise have been spent in waging war with each other. The confederacy also employed a sophisticated system of checks and balances between three governmental branches.

The Iroquois Nation of colonial America believed in freedom of expression, provided that expression caused no harm.

Whereas Western civilisation was more guilt orientated, tribal culture was more shame-orientated – a strong identification within the community motivated individuals to avoid transgressions that might bring shame on them and their clan.

“Human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”

George Washington

The influence of Native American culture was profound and far-reaching on the early colonists, particularly those who grew up in the New World rather than England. The colonists adopted indigenous customs such as bathing, not considered a healthy practice across much of Europe at the time.

In Iroquois tribal society authority flowed from the ground up, not from the top down.  

Thomas Jefferson was deeply influenced by Native American wisdom, as his father Peter was a cartographer. They would go off on excursions together and Peter and would have meetings at their home in Virginia with the Cherokee chief Ontassete which young Tom possibly witnessed.

Franklin, Adams and Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 by Jean-Leon Gerome

Why the Fourth of July?

The 4th July is an auspicious date indeed. It is known that on the 4th July 1776, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence that had been largely drafted by Thomas Jefferson.

However, some 32 years prior on the 4th July 1744, an important meeting took place that was also fundamental to the founding of the United States of America. A charismatic chief from the Iroquois Nation, Canassatego, met with the the English colonists to forge an alliance between the colonists and the Iroquois against the French.

He spoke of unity:

“Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the Five Nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring nations. We are a powerful confederacy and, by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you, don’t fall out with one another.”    

Benjamin Franklin, present at the meeting relayed a powerful example that Canassatego demonstrated to the colonists, describing how the chief held up an arrow and easily snapped it in two. He then lashed together twelve arrows, (one for every one of 12 colonies represented at the meeting), and even the strongest man in the room could not break them.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Great Seal of the United States, designed in 1782 by Charles Thomson, depicts an eagle clutching thirteen arrows in his claws.

Obverse Great Seal

And it has a certain poetic justice that the President is referred to as the Commander-in-Chief!

In 1751 Franklin began his campaign for a federal union, writing: “It would be a very strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages, and yet a like union should be impractical for ten or a dozen English colonies.” Aside from his jibe at ‘ignorant savages’, Franklin expressed admiration for Iroquois political practise. And thus, a new republic was created based on Native tribal wisdom.   

It’s disappointing but not altogether surprising, that information explaining the role of Native American culture on the founding of the United States was repressed until the seventies.

Soundtrack to the film 1492 – Conquest of paradise by Vangelis

How about this for a tragic and sobering statistic:

When Christopher Colombus discovered the New World in 1492 it was estimated there were around 6 million Native Americans living across the continent. Some argue there were many more, upwards of 20 million. But the white settlers brought with them a host of big city ‘plagues’ that were new to them, such as smallpox, measles and syphilis. The native population had no immunity to these diseases. In addition to the ravages of disease, other factors compounded their fate; warfare, forced migration, outright slaughter and a massive white land grab. By 1900 the Native American population had been reduced to around 250,000 souls.  

“You can’t justify the whole conquest and subjugation and destruction of Indian populations if there are things of value in the people you are destroying.”

Donald Grinde

The forgotten Founding Mothers

Although Franklin and the Founding Fathers acknowledged the contributions of the Iroquois Nation, they left out the specific role of tribal women in America’s Constitution. Maybe this was a step too far, and would not have been accepted at the time. Too often women’s role in history is brushed under the carpet or concealed. We should not overlook the importance and influence of the Council of Grandmothers.  

In Iroquois culture the Earth, plants and land were perceived as feminine in character – older women were responsible for the basics of life – growing and preparing food, birthing and nurturing children and the domestic work of the community.

This work was of value and the men recognised and appreciated the women’s fundamental power. A far cry from the underrated role of modern mothers. It was in everyone’s interest for the clan to be successful.

The clan was usually headed up by an older woman. Property and land was collectively owned by the clans and enough food grown to feed all of their members. It was a broadly egalitarian society and the Iroquois men understood the need for men and women to achieve unity and work together in balance and harmony.

True political power was in the hands of the grandmothers, who possessed the authority to select a chief and also to impeach him for wrongdoing or incompetence. The original impeachers!

The women even made the final decision about whether or not to go to war. When women were past childbearing age they became clan mothers and would often accompany war parties. They could be just as ruthless as men with enemy tribes outside the confederacy, especially when it involved the abduction of clan children. Maternal instincts can be as brutal as they are nurturing when required!

It seems that the clan mothers may have inspired the early 19th American feminists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who had contact with and learnt from Iroquois women.

Mother Earth and Father Sky came out of balance as patriarchy retained all the power in Western civilisation. The disconnection from the sacred feminine enabled the plundering of Earth’s resources, and put us out of touch with the natural world.

As usual, Marina’s lyrics are spot on:

“The world has never yet seen a truly virtuous nation, because in the degradation of women, the very fountains of life are poisoned at the source.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The pursuit of happiness (as defined by the Iroquois Confederacy), was held in balance as long as citizens did not cause harm to others. One could argue that the pursuit of happiness has taken on a darker, materialistic slant in so much as corporate greed is running rampant with no regard for the consequence to human life and the planet. But that’s a subject for a new post!

In the meantime, even with all the turbulence and turmoil around us, as much as you can – be happy!

Life is a Creative Process: Provenance and Value in Art

“…Is there ever such a thing as a whole story, or an artist’s triumph, a right way to look through the glass? It all depends on where the light falls.”

Jessie Burton, The Muse

I love it when I come across a book I’d forgotten about. I purchased The Muse by Jessie Burton a few years ago, and as is my tendency, addiction even, to hoard books and novels, I added it to my ‘to read and ongoing’ piles around the house. Somehow it got buried.

As I’ve been decluttering and reorganising I came across it, just at the moment I decided I needed a break from research and non-fiction.

Jessie Burton is now my muse! It’s a fantastic novel, it stimulated my creativity and motivation in many ways, which is auspicious with #NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) coming up in November, where writers aim to get 50,000 words onto paper or screen.

I ended up studying it anyway, a masterclass in historical, literary fiction, I couldn’t put it down.

The lives of two young women, thirty years apart and from different cultures are juxtaposed and intertwined in a riveting way, all connected to a work of art: Rufina and the Lion.

Maybe I loved it so much because the main protagonist is a writer, and the pivotal character a painter.

Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, struggles to find fulfilling work in 1960s London. The story begins with her getting a new job at a respected London art gallery, The Skelton Institute.

Odelle writes in her spare time and works for the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, bearing witness to her descent into a destructive, downward spiral when Lawrie Scott, (Odelle’s boyfriend), brings a mysterious painting to the gallery for valuation; the only thing left to him by his late mother after her un-timely death. Odelle is determined to get to the bottom of Quick’s secrets.

In a parallel story the novel then jumps back to the past, and the life of the Schloss family who have just moved from London to Andalusia in January 1936. They are renting a large finca in Arazuelo, a village near Malaga.

This image captures how I imagined the Schloss’s rented finca to look.

The father, Harold Schloss, a renowned Jewish Viennese art dealer with a gallery in Paris, becomes obsessed by what he thinks is a work of art by a promising local Spanish artist, Isaac Robles. His wife Sarah is a spoilt and unstable English condiment heiress, and their daughter, Olive, a painter, is coming to terms with her formidable artistic ability.

To her surprise, Olive finds the rural Spanish setting and the presence of their close neighbours, Isaac and Teresa Robles inspires her to express her authentic self. Olive has a letter from the Slade art school in her possession, but she has not shown it to her father, fearing his lack of approval, but also she does not wish to leave Spain and her lover, who also happens to be her muse…

Olive paints in secret, only Teresa is party to her acts of creation. Teresa burns with indignation for her friend’s anonymity – that her talent goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. Her subversive actions on Olive’s behalf are the crucible of how events unfold, of the inevitable apocryphal attributions.  

Olive has a hard time persuading her reluctant muse to take the credit for her art.

“‘Why do you and your sister think I’m so stupid? Do you know how many artists my father sells? Twenty-six, last time I counted. Do you know how many of them of them are women, Isaac? None. Not one. Women can’t do it, you see. They haven’t got the vision, although last time I checked they had eyes, and hands, and hearts and souls. I’d have lost before I’d even had a chance.

‘But you made that painting-’

‘So what? My father would never have got on a plane to Paris with a painting he thought was mine…’”

Jessie Burton, The Muse

Harold Schloss entices Peggy Guggenheim in Venice (a real person and collector) to view the works that he believes are by Isaac Robles.

As Isaac and his younger sister Teresa become deeply involved in the complex dynamics of the Schloss family, they are all ultimately drawn into the Spanish civil war with devastating consequences.

Apart from being a brilliant and beautifully written story, The Muse subtly revealed and revelled in the themes of identity, provenance, the restitution of valuable paintings suspected of being stolen by the Nazis, the circumstances surrounding the creation of art and the cult of the artist.

Saints Justa and Rufina by Murillo

Very often an artist’s appeal and allure increases after their death, although some are fortunate to become legends in their own lifetime. Death certainly creates and intensifies icons…

I’d like to think I’d hang a piece of art mainly because I loved to look at it, not because of who painted it, but very often the two are not mutually exclusive. Rarity adds value, as does sentimental attachment.

The Muse makes you think about what art’s intrinsic value is: the actual work of art itself, which once completed stands independent from the artist, or whether that value should be tied to the person who made it; their story and the ‘journey’ of the work post creation.   

The idea of provenance isn’t unique to the art world, but is also applied in literature, music composition and the purchase of instruments. I readily admit that given the choice, I would love to own a violin made by Stradivarius or Guarneri rather than one produced by an unknown luthier. Their quality has been proven over the centuries.

Maybe time is a factor in how we appreciate art. Trends and tastes change, but geniuses never go out of fashion.

Can we really separate a purely aesthetic desire from financial value?

Any creative endeavour, whether we like it or not, is bound by some degree to the person who originated it.

“I’m doing the absolute opposite of giving myself away. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll be completely visible. If the painting sells, I’ll be in Paris, hanging on a wall. If anything, I’m being selfish. It’s perfect; all the freedom of creation, with none of the fuss.”

Jessie Burton, The muse

Romantic notions tend to creep in when purchasing art and sculpture. We are naturally attracted to the story behind a work of art, it heightens our understanding of it, gives us context to value and appreciate it. Is it right that there may come a point when the provenance or story behind a work is perceived as more important and valuable than the work itself?

Provenance is solely a human benchmark.

I think Banksy was very astute to keep his identity a secret. It’s his trademark signature next to street art that has popped up on a wall or tube train overnight that almost seems to excite people as much as his original pictures…

And what about the artist? What value do they imbibe from their creative efforts?

View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by Hubert Robert, c.1796

Certainly they deserve financial remuneration, admiration and respect. Some of these external blessings never flow to an artist. So in many cases the inner joy of creating is paramount. Nothing is certain.

It’s hard to believe that Vincent van Gogh only sold a handful of art works in his life, but now his colourful and distinctive oeuvre is one of the most sought after and popular in the world. How much value did he place in his own ability versus other people’s opinions? Vincent struggled with his mental health, but he was compelled to paint regardless.

Real life scenarios in the art world where a lost masterpiece has been found, and subsequently authenticated, demonstrate how excitement builds and a bidding frenzy usually ensues…

Some amazing stories about lost and recovered masterpieces. And who wishes they had a Renaissance masterpiece hanging on the wall?

For various reasons authors sometimes choose to write under a pseudonym. J.K. Rowling penned the Cormoran Strike crime novels as Robert Galbraith, with modest sales. But once her true identity became public knowledge sales took a startling upward trajectory.

Like writing, art is highly subjective, and we each look at a work of art through our own prism or perceptive lens. Picasso is a big deal, but I don’t personally gravitate to his work. But I love the likes of Monet, Pissarro, van Gogh, Klimt, Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse, and well, I could go on.

In The Muse, Odelle becomes choked up about not being good enough. And who hasn’t experienced Imposter Syndrome to some extent at least once in their life?

Jessie Burton summed up these feelings that can capture and anchor a creative soul on the seabed of writer’s block.

“She had told me that the approval of other people should never be my goal.”

“You’re not walking around with a golden halo beaming out of you depending on the power of your paragraph. You don’t come into it, once someone else is reading. It stands apart from you. Don’t let your ability drag you down, don’t hang it round your neck like an albatross.”

“Like most artists, everything I produced was connected to who I was – and so I suffered according to how my work was received. The idea that anyone might be able to detach their personal value from their public output was revolutionary. I didn’t know if it was possible, even desirable. Surely it would affect the quality of the work? Still, I knew I’d gone too far in the opposite direction, and something had to change. Ever since I could pick up a pen, other people’s pleasure was how I’d garnered attention and defined success. When I began receiving public acknowledgement for a private act, something was essentially lost. My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged. It was not outward-looking, a self-conscious performance. I was asked to repeat the pleasure for people, again and again, until the facsimile of my act became the act itself.”

“…I’d been writing so long for the particular purpose of being approved that I’d forgotten the genesis of my impulse; unbothered, pure creation, existing outside the parameters of success and failure. And somewhere along the line, this being ‘good’ had come to paralyse my belief that I could write at all.”

Jessie Burton, The Muse

My takeaways are that we have to get out of our own way, have faith in our abilities, try to learn from the creative process and above all, enjoy it.

If every artist, writer or musician had decided to quit their projects out of fear of rejection or lack of recognition there would be no culture for us to enjoy, no legacy of human creative expression, no muses to inspire future generations.

“Although any collective answer to my question remains to be seen, personally I feel quite certain of it. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: in the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being. Odelle”

Jessie burton, the muse

Now is a Great Time to Hear ‘Words that changed the world’

“Language is the dress of thought.” ~ Samuel Johnson

I love language.  I love the way anyone can employ almost infinite combinations of words and phrases to express themselves. There is a skill in the way words are arranged; their symmetry, their poetry, their layering, their meaning.

Language is sometimes woefully inadequate to express the human condition, (hence the saying, lost for words), but it’s the best, most accurate method we have to communicate with.

I’m not including music, which is in a realm of its own to stimulate imagination and emotions, a shared universal language that transcends language barriers. Music is more ephemeral, subjective and enjoyable, but it cannot give specific instructions, it can only elicit certain moods. It is a gateway to feelings, inspiration and words.

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven

Having said that, I’ve always been drawn to speeches; sometimes making them, but mostly listening to or reading them. I even included a speech (in dramatic context of course), in my novel.

As a formal way of putting across ideas either to small groups of people or to large numbers of the population, speeches can be used effectively by charismatic politicians (not necessarily of good character), in nuggets of beguiling rhetoric to garner votes.

At their most effective speeches record history, provide inspiration, communicate important ideas and concepts, and of course, tell stories that need to be told.

Emmeline Pankhurst delivering a speech

Delivering an impactful speech in the modern era is probably harder than in centuries before. People stream their entertainment and news from many different sources and have limited time and probably shorter attention spans. Most of us lead busy lives and have to filter a multitude of outlets vying for our attention.

The TED Talks are a wonderful way for thought leaders to reach people who are looking for ideas, knowledge and inspiration. Being in a position of power gives certain individuals a platform, but once it has been consistently abused those words will eventually fall on deaf or resentful ears.

In the recent chaos of house renovations, back to school and starting secondary school preparations, plus the upheaval of my 18 year old son’s move to Germany, I have been burning the candle at both ends.

One night I was feeling particularly exhausted and burnt out, and experiencing unexpected empty nest syndrome. My eldest son has already been in New Zealand for over a year, I thought I might handle it better. Despite being fortunate enough to have my two wonderful daughters at home, I still feel Will’s absence immensely.

On this night when I was at a low ebb, I started watching a 2018 episode of Intelligence Squared on YouTube, and soon became totally engrossed. The speeches, made at pivotal moments in history, still seem so relevant to what is happening around the world right now; as humanity faces a global pandemic, the insidious dismantling of democracy by right-wing populist governments and the environmental behemoth of climate change.

I think that’s enough to be getting on with!

“Speeches are great when they reflect great decisions.” ~ Ted Sorensen (speechwriter to JFK)

Words That Changed the World is expertly hosted by journalist and political broadcaster Emily Maitlis, who is flanked by two respected, experienced speechwriters, journalists and political advisers: Philip Collins and Cody Keenan – discussing the historical context and fascinating insight on their chosen speeches. This is not to be missed. The acting talent who give life to the oratory is equally brilliant.

The chosen speeches in the order they are presented and discussed:

  • The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln (1863)
  • 50th Anniversary of Selma Speech by Barack Obama (2015)
  • Their Finest Hour – Winston Churchill (1940)
  • Elizabeth I – Tilbury speech addressing the troops (1588)
  • Emmeline Pankhurst – ‘The laws that men have made’ (1908)
  • William Shakespeare – From Henry V Saint Crispin’s Day speech (1599)
  • Colonel Tim Collins – on eve of the Battle of Iraq (2003)
  • JFK’s Why go to the moon? speech (1962)
  • MLK’s I have a dream (1963)
  • The Perils of Indifference by Elie Wiesel (1999)

It felt good to remind myself of the strength of the human spirit listening to ‘words that changed the world’.

These speeches contain both substance and style – they resonate and connect with people on an emotional level – proof on me in the form of hair-raising goose bumps! That’s what we need now, leadership as a force for shared empowerment and good.

JFK’s full ‘why go to the moon?’ speech at Rice University on 12th September 1962 :

As Philip Collins so eloquently explains, rhetoric originates with the Greeks, and cites how Pericles in 431 BC gave his eulogy to the war dead before going on to praise democracy – a move mirrored by Abraham Lincoln in his immortal Gettysburg Address.

Cicero believed that rhetoric and democracy could not be separated. Collins highlights: “It’s only in a democracy that words really matter, because it’s only in a democracy where you’re trying to persuade. The act of persuasion is the act of politics…”.

An audience is always at risk of being hoodwinked by empty rhetoric. If only we could peer into the speaker’s heart and see their inner core, their truth.  A truly great speech doesn’t pass from lip to ear – but from heart to heart.

Even one of our most revered statesmen, Winston Churchill, who wrote some of the most enduring, best loved speeches in our history didn’t always get it right. Collins shares that early in his career, Churchill had a tendency to lavish verbosity and grandeur where it simply wasn’t warranted.  Churchill certainly embodied the phrase, cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Words that changed the world:

There is a danger that politicians will woo audiences with rhetoric that speaks to fear and prejudice, that appeals to our base motives, disguised as serving the national interest, but in reality does anything but.

The power of words, as is mentioned in this superb video, can work both ways. Freedom of speech is a razor sharp double edged sword.

“Speech is power: Speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sadly, the broad, sunlit uplands that Churchill espoused in Their Finest Hour speech are currently shrouded beneath bloated grey clouds. Shadows and harbingers of our own collective making. We need to shine a light, a ray of hope, before we are enveloped in total darkness.  Our finest hour seems a long way in the past, as we hurtle full steam ahead into what looks like will be our most desperate post war hour, come Brexit.

Who in their right mind would vote for such a horror? Only if it is portrayed as a benefit and a blessing, as was emblazoned across a certain red bus. But there comes a time when people perceive seductive slogans and disingenuous rhetoric for what they are: harmful and dangerous. Perverted ideological fantasies are being increasingly laid bare; exposed in the light of truth and reality.

The power of hindsight enables us to see through tempting rhetoric to the destructive political attributes beneath the surface: criminal incompetence, bare-faced corruption, jingoism, greed, cronyism, nepotism, hubris, deceit, censorship and breath-taking hypocrisy.

There should be no doubt that Brexit will be a nightmare for our nation, for the majority of its citizens. Just as Hitler’s rise to power proved devastating for Europe and indeed the wider world. His passionate oratory belied his inner psychopath, but perhaps the signs were already there for those who looked closely.

I fear that we are headed towards tyranny – the worst kind of tyranny because it was freely selected by a majority under the influence of rhetoric, aided by media complicity. We all need to pay attention to what is happening in the halls of power.  British sovereignty is not being reclaimed, it’s being overtly purloined by a group of elected gangsters! The ugly content of their characters is on show for all to see.

Cody Keenan rightly says that speeches hold up a mirror to society.

“All the most powerful speeches ever made point to a better future.” ~ Patrick Dixon

Decency and honesty is such an important part of public life, alongside vulnerability. Being a servant-leader is a fundamental quality and should be a prerequisite for politicians.

When you look back at the best loved, most iconic leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, Emily Pankhurst and other luminaries who changed the world through their deeds and words; they had that skill to act selflessly and lift people up,  not just to say, but to do the right thing.

Listening to these speeches gave me a glimmer of hope that sparkled like a luminous beacon in a deep, dark well of despair that has recently opened up within me. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this dread and anger over the egregious actions of the current government…

Some short and shrewd Twitter speeches:

It occurs to me that the most memorable speeches in the world highlighted injustice, created harmony, hope and connection, whereas, in the long run at least, the ones that are forgotten or rarely shared conversely sowed hatred and division.

It would also be remiss of me not to include these fantastic snippets of Nelson Mandela:

I also felt it was worth sharing this deeply felt, perfectly executed and excoriating ‘misogyny’ speech by Julia Gillard, voted the most unforgettable Australian TV moment by Guardian readers:

The speeches in this post have reminded me that democracy and freedom should never be taken for granted. Through the ages they’ve been fought and sacrificed for. Let’s not let complacency, ignorance and indifference rob us now.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Elie Wiesel

A Pragmatic and Powerful Parable to Guide Your Life…

“These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” ~ Rumi

I had several subjects lined up for this blog post, but changed my mind at the last minute. I had an accident on Friday and have badly injured my tailbone. Ouch!

Having given birth to four children, I can honestly say the pain of that fall came close! I can’t sit for long periods of time at the moment and have spent the last few days mostly lying on my side feeling sorry for myself, interspersed with copious icing sessions with frozen peas and popping pain killers.

I spent most of April recovering from Covid-19, and the next two months dealing with an inner ear infection and vertigo. It certainly gives you some strange and disconcerting sensations. Various renovations to the house and garden are ongoing, and before I knew it I was pushing myself to the limit again. I should have listened to my body…

There’s nothing like physical pain to facilitate the transition from a human doing to a human being. 

The really intense pain is less pervasive now, but I will be on a go slow for weeks. I can only write for short bursts using a special cushion to help alleviate the coccydynia.  When we don’t heed messages from the universe they become more and more obvious until they can no longer be ignored! Now I have been forced to scale back and rest more.

The kids were moping as it looks like a four hour drive to Cornwall for our holiday might not be the best idea next weekend. I may have to grin and bear it, as it will be my last family holiday with my younger son for a while; he is planning to live and work in Berlin for a year, commencing mid August. In fact, I think he timed his departure with A-Level results day!

I was at a low ebb when I read this Persian parable. With many ongoing challenges in 2020, on a personal level as well as nationally and globally, it feels like a timely message to share.

The Persian Parable

Once upon a time there was a king who told the wise men of the court: “I’m making a beautiful ring. I have acquired one of the best possible diamonds. I want to keep hidden inside the ring some message that can help me in moments of total despair, and help my heirs, and the heirs of my heirs, forever. It has to be a small message, so that it can fit under the diamond on the ring.”

All who listened were wise, great scholars; they could have written great treaties, but providing the king with a message of no more than two or three words that could help him in moments of total despair…

They thought, searched through their books, but couldn’t find anything.

The king had an elderly servant who had also been a servant of his father. The king’s mother died young and this servant took care of him, so he treated him as if he belonged to the family.

Learned Advice by Ludwig Deutsch

The king felt an immense respect for the old man, so he also consulted him. And the servant said: “I am not a wise man, nor a scholar, nor an academic, but I know the message. During my long life in the palace, I met all kinds of people, and once I met a mystic. He was your father’s guest and I was at his service.

“When he left, as a gesture of gratitude, he gave me this message.” The old man wrote it on a tiny piece of paper, folded it and gave it to the king. “But do not read it,” he said. “Keep it hidden in the ring. Open it only when everything else has failed, when you can’t find a way out of a situation.”

That moment didn’t take long to arrive. The country was invaded and the king lost the kingdom. He was fleeing on his horse to save his life and his enemies were chasing him. He was alone and his pursuers were numerous. He arrived at a place where the road ended where there was no exit: in front there was a precipice and a deep valley; to fall would be the end for him. And he couldn’t go back because the enemy was blocking his way. He could hear the horses approaching. He couldn’t move forwards and there was no other way out…

Suddenly, he remembered the ring. He opened it, took out the paper and there he found a tremendously valuable little message. It simply said: “This too shall pass”.

As he read “This too shall pass”, he felt a great silence descend. The enemies that were pursuing him must have got lost in the forest, or they must have gone the wrong way. All the king knew was that little by little he stopped hearing the sound of the horses’ hooves.

The king felt profoundly grateful to the servant and the unknown mystic. Those words had proved miraculous. He folded the paper, put it back in the ring, gathered his armies and reconquered the kingdom.

And the day he entered the capital again, in victory, there was a great celebration with music and dancing… and he was very proud of himself.

A Procession by Ludwig Deutsch

The old man was by his side in the coach, and he said: “This moment is also appropriate: look at the message again.”

“What do you mean?” the king asked. “Now I’m victorious, the people celebrate my return. I’m not desperate, I’m not in a no-way-out situation.”

“Listen,” said the old man, “this message isn’t only for desperate situations; it’s also for pleasant situations. It’s not only for when you are defeated; it’s also for when you feel victorious. It’s not only for when you are the last; it’s also for when you are the first.”

The king opened the ring and read the message: “This too shall pass”.

And again, he felt the same peace, the same silence, in the midst of the crowd that celebrated and danced. However, the pride, the ego, had disappeared. The king could finally understand the full meaning of the message. He had become enlightened.

Then the old man said to him: “Remember that everything passes. No thing or emotion is permanent. Like day and night, there are moments of joy and moments of sadness. Accept them as part of the duality of nature, because they are the very nature of things.”

This ancient parable, thought to originate with the Sufi poets, is probably the most important fable one could ever read and employ in life. Somehow it helps to dissolve worries and woes, and keeps you grounded; offering the succour of equanimity and acceptance in all situations.

When I look back on my life so far, and how awful some segments of it were, I remember feeling that those tough periods would never end when I was in them, but now, with hindsight I realise I grew stronger as a result of the struggle and pain, and they didn’t last forever.

This too shall pass reminds us of the ephemeral quality of emotions and the human condition, the transient nature of life.

The parable brought to mind the vibrant and totally captivating paintings of the Orientalist artists for me.

The Najd Collection would have been a wonderful exhibition to see:

I can’t help thinking there is so much in the world that needs to pass already, but events unfold at their own pace and this erudite parable confers wisdom and peace for all who are in the thick of it.

If we can make the most of each moment, whatever that brings, we may find we can take stock one day and fully appreciate a life well lived, shaped by profound experiences.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” ~ Rumi

Audiobook Version of The Virtuoso is Released on Audible!

“Someone needs to buy a radio station, then play nothing but audio books, with a different genre of book played at set times. That way we can always have something new to read, no matter where we are.” ~ Shana Chartier

I’ve been wanting to produce an audiobook version of The Virtuoso for about 18 months. Looking at the next step for my debut novel it seemed logical; audiobooks are a fast growing market in publishing (both in the UK and USA), a new way of reaching readers (or should I say listeners), that an author may not have access to via traditional print or ebook.

Image by Siddharth Bhogra on Unsplash

I diligently researched narrators on ACX, a time consuming process which quickly became overwhelming. The choice was phenomenal and my shortlist had a hundred names on it. I was determined to find a narrator, but I didn’t have a clue how to choose with such a dazzling array of talent on offer. I began to feel slightly dispirited.

Then, out of the blue, at a local networking event I met Cheryl Tissot, and whilst she wasn’t in a position to narrate my fiction novel she introduced me to a colleague of hers, talented voice artist Rachael Beresford.

I’m so glad I went to that meeting…

Long story short, Rachael was happy to narrate my book, which was a big relief. The moment I heard her voice I knew she would be perfect for The Virtuoso.

A few months passed before I was ready to proceed, and Rachael began working with the leading independent audiobook producer in the UK, White House Sound. My production date was booked in and I saved assiduously to pay for a professional production.

Image by Findaway Voices on unsplash

Chris Perks managed my project; he was patient with my inexperience and explained everything clearly – a total delight to work with.

The sound files came through during lockdown, lifting my spirits no end. After the uploading process I waited for approval from ACX, and last week my title went live.

I loved the way Rachael breathed life into Isabelle Bryant and the entire cast of characters, she did a brilliant job.

As an audiobook narrator, Rachael has recorded bestselling books, including titles nominated for the International Man Booker Prize and Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year 2017.

Apparently, audiobooks are more captivating than movies! Some interesting nuggets in 5 Things you didn’t know about audiobooksAuthor Mark Haddon on the magic of audiobooks.

I’m now on a mission to garner some audiobook reviews. As such, to celebrate the launch I am giving away five free audio review copies of The Virtuoso on Audible:

Redeem the one-time use codes below here 

  • 3U5Z4MJFJXFNU
  • 44HJYMBRLRFLC
  • 5M5B4R6BB2828
  • 64B7D3QR69XZJ
  • 8RGN5WPPD7J3C

Happy listening!

“Here is a nice fact books and ebooks take a lot of time to be read, but audiobooks just for one day or 2 you finish them… this is a great fact!”
~ Deyth Banger

4 Fascinating Neurological Processes to Help Fulfill Dreams

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

It’s amazing to think that we all walk around with a brain, the control centre of our body; a soft, grey squidgy piece of matter protected by the cranial cavity inside our skull, possibly the most complex organism in the universe.

Cranium – Image by Gordon Johnson via Pixaby

The human brain contains one hundred billion neurons (nerve cells). Each neuron makes links with ten thousand other neurons to form an incredible three dimensional grid containing a thousand trillion connections – that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 (a quadrillion).

If you struggle to get your head round that number try visualising each connection in this grid as a disc that’s one millimetre thick.  According to molecular biologist Nessa Carey, if you were to stack up the quadrillion discs on top of each other they would reach the sun (which is ninety-three million miles from the earth) and back, three times over!

Those incredible, powerful connections are all happening inside our heads…

My last post about brain power focused on neuroplasticity, as neuro science is a subject that fascinates me, and lately I’ve been reading Neurowisdom: The New Brain Science of Money, Happiness and Success by Mark Robert Waldman and Chris Manning, PhD.

I’ve learnt some fascinating facts already, but it’s putting those findings and aha moments into practice that counts.

That is a consistent lifelong activity!

“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The authors wanted to define that ineffable quality that we all aspire to feel every day – happiness.

Measuring happiness…

According to data published by the National Opinion Research Center at Chicago University over nearly forty years (1972 – 2010) consisting of accumulated worldwide statistics – money predicts happiness.

Further research undertaken in 2012 by the Wharton School of Business took their findings even further, having found no evidence of a saturation point. In other words, the more income we make, the more happiness we will experience. But just as income appears to be the primary indicator of happiness, there are other important factors in the measurement of happiness.

But we have probably all read about miserable millionaires with dysfunctional lives in news stories and conversely know happy every day people who are content with their lot.

In 2015 the United Nations published the World Happiness Report, containing the six most powerful indicators for happiness, in descending order of importance. Interestingly, the report also found that those who make more money are happier, and those who are happier tend to live longer.

The World Happiness Report identified another major aspect of happiness: wellbeing. Wellbeing is defined as a life that is filled with enjoyment and feelings of safety, alongside the absence of anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress and pain.

In a 2015 issue of the Lancet it was reported that an ongoing sense of wellbeing lowers your risk of physical and emotional disease, tripling your survival rate and extending your life.

The Six Qualities of Happiness

  1. Spending Power (economic capital)
  2. Friends, family and community support (social capital)
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Freedom to make decisions
  5. Financial generosity to others
  6. Absence of corruption in business and government (don’t get me started on this last one!!)

Whilst we still have significant challenges in Western societies (including a shared global pandemic at the moment), they pale in comparison to those caught up in cruel dictatorships and war ravaged regions, with limited opportunities of improving these six fundamental factors for happiness. The severe lack of these factors in certain parts of the world is driving mass migration.

Then there are the profound impacts that climate change could have for our species in all those areas.

It comes as no surprise that money is in the number one spot.

“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
~ Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The dark side of money

Money is neutral until it is used by a person. People used to bandy about the saying “money won’t make you happy” or as the bible warns: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Money can be used for good, and just like another neutral object, a knife, it can be used to butter your toast or to harm another person.

Being obsessed with money is shown to increase greed, narcissism, feelings of entitlement, selfishness, risky behaviour and insensitivity towards others.

Research has shown that making money increases happiness, but using money wisely predicts long-term satisfaction.

Spending one’s hard-earned dosh on experiential purchases, such as holidays, cultural events, courses and lessons, hobbies and helping others, will make you happier than spending it purely on material objects.  That’s not to say those purchases won’t make you happy, but shared experiences with and for others can be more fulfilling.

“A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.”
~ Jonathan Swift

Researchers reviewed 259 studies comparing money and happiness, and a clear pattern was revealed: the more people focused purely on materialistic wealth, the more dissatisfied they felt with their lives.

It was even noted that if others perceive you as being overtly selfish and greedy they will want you to fail, and may even go so far as to try and sabotage your success.

When people feel they have been unfairly treated, especially where money is concerned, they may take steps to punish the greedy individual, even if it means there is a personal cost in doing so. This reaction is known as Altruistic Punishment.

As a population we can punish unethical, polluting, greedy and poisoning corporations by not buying their products, lobbying for changes in the law, in the same way we can avoid voting for dishonest, unintegrous politicians (unless sucked in by their shallow charisma and empty promises).

The crucible of a happy, healthy, successful life therefore is mastering the balance between inner and outer wealth, as well as integrating material, social and personal desires.

I hear you – this is easier said than done!

Our brains are programmed to seek outer wealth, including any object or activity we perceive to be valuable. Inner wealth is rooted in the brain’s desire to experience pleasure, whether through social interaction or the involvement in any experience that provides greater meaning, purpose, satisfaction and a lasting sense of wellbeing.

The philosophers of ancient Greece discovered that there are two types of happiness: Hedonic and Eudaimonic. Both are necessary to wellbeing, but the latter is more conducive to long-term sustainable happiness.

Triumph of Bacchus by Michaelina wautier c. 1650

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, an immediate fulfillment of a particular desire.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology had an erudite take on this form of happiness:

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth.  They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

On the other hand, the eudaimonic path cultivates enjoyment from daily activities:

“Without enjoyment, life can be endured, and it can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.” 

I feel the Baroque and contemporary paintings are brilliantly executed art depictions of Greek Mythology in relation to the subject matter. The link under Apollo and Dionysus highlights the artist’s concept.

Apollo and Dionysus by Leonid Ilyukhin

To better achieve these markers of happiness in our lives we need to master four neurological processes the authors cite as being the foundational pillars of inner and outer wealth – defined as the combination of money, happiness, success, and personal contentment.

The four pillars of wealth:

  1. Motivation
  2. Decision making
  3. Creativity
  4. Awareness

MOTIVATION

Desire – Curiosity – Pleasure

Motivation is the motive for action. A download of dopamine gives us the essential desire to seek out new goals and go about our business. Instinct and curiosity are the key elements of motivation.

Dopamine is a powerful neurochemical that stimulates pleasure and desire and is essential to mental health, the immune system and overall wellbeing. If the brain does not secrete enough dopamine the brain can become lethargic, and we can slip into depression, losing the drive to work towards meaningful rewards. This is a good reason to engage in new and interesting activities throughout your life.

Gut-Brain Axis

I’m not going to dwell on this as I will be writing future gut health posts, and I touched on the links between the bacteria living inside the gastrointestinal tract and mental health in a previous post. But suffice to say, if you want optimal brain function you need to look after your gut!

There are around 100 million neurons lining the gut, it has been termed the second brain. Various drug factories (aka trillions of bacteria) in your gut produce all kinds of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, GABA and oxytocin to name a few. Communication between the gut brain (Enteric Nervous System) and the head brain (Central Nervous System) happens instantaneously via the Vagus Nerve.

It is a two way street, but majority of messages travel from the gut to the brain. This is the source of food cravings – pathogenic bacteria yelling at the brain that they need more sugar!

If your gut is out of balance it’s likely your hormones could be too, and this will hamper these neurological processes.

The M-Drive

The motivation-reward circuit is located in the Nucleus Accumbens, in part of the most ancient area of the brain, the Limbic system, responsible for sensory and emotional processing and midbrain activity. The authors refer to this circuit as the M-Drive.

When something emotionally excites you or captures your imagination, your brain is deciding whether to move towards the object of desire or away from any perceived threats. This motivational drive is fundamental to the survival of humans and every organism.

As I explain when I do my music education talks, learning an instrument and listening to music stimulates dopamine release. It’s a random fact I know, but so does yawning!

“I can give you high blood pressure just on the phone by criticizing you. On the other hand, I can send a tweet to somebody in China and give them a dopamine hit.”
~ Deepak Chopra

There is a flip side though; your brain can release too much dopamine when it perceives a highly rewarding activity or object, which can cause potentially destructive addictions.

Too much pleasure may override the brain’s ability to make sensible and wise decisions, encouraging risky behaviour.  Roll call adrenaline junkies. Everyone is different, and we each become aware through our thoughts and behaviour of what floats our boat in terms of activating our motivation-reward circuits.

What causes a conflagration of desire and pleasure that becomes overwhelming?

Infatuation and obsession are two powerful states that spring to mind.  But there are many others. The list of human foibles is rather a long one.

Image by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

We can get stuck in the dopamine loop before we even realise what has happened. I have experienced this on occasions, and eventually, through great effort, I’ve been able to shift myself away from a destructive cycle.

But it’s not easy, you have to have the will to do it once you become aware of what is happening in the M-Drive!

“Science has learned recently that contempt and indignation are addictive mental states. I mean physically and chemically addictive. Literally! People who are self-righteous a lot are apparently doping themselves rhythmically with auto-secreted surges of dopamine, endorphins and enkephalins. Didn’t you ever ask yourself why indignation feels so good?”
~ David Brin

Another perspective on the same subject from an advanced spiritual teacher:

“Everyone gets a secret pleasure from resentments, from being the martyr or the victim, and from feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, etc.[…]To undo the ego, one must be willing to abandon this payoff game, with its grandstanding of emotions and repetitive rehashing of data and stories to justify its positions.[…] When the ‘inner juice’ is abandoned, it is replaced by inner peace.”
~ Dr. David Hawkins, I: Reality and Subjectivity

This was also ancient knowledge:

“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”
~ Patanjali (The Yoga Sutras)

Dopamine is potent, our job is to direct it into healthy pursuits – in other words being of service. Deeply held altruistic values and beliefs will stimulate more balanced desires.

According to Waldman and Manning whatever obstacles a person may be facing, the more optimistic they feel, the more motivated they will become. Apparently it is possible to sublimate our more pessimistic tendencies of cognitive awareness and literally build stronger neural circuits of optimism. Over 100 published studies exist showing that optimism is essential for physical and emotional health.

Even the anticipation of future rewards can stimulate dopamine, improve mood, motivation and decision-making. This is why pleasure/dream boards can keep our motivation going, which is the precursor for the next neurological process of decision-making.

DECISION-MAKING

Goals – Consciousness – Language

After being released from the Nucleus Accumbens dopamine travels to a newer part of the brain, the frontal lobe, giving us the ability to plan out strategies and activities to help us reach our goals. Here the brain helps us turn desire into action. This process may involve learning new skills, developing new habits, developing greater emotional intelligence, control and self-esteem.

Maybe this is why I find I’m more creative and productive immediately after a violin practise…

The frontal lobe helps us to consciously find ways to satiate the yearning and ambition ignited by desire. We begin to have ideas to solve problems or acquire something, and this helps us to make the decisions we need to act and work towards achieving our dreams.

This process involves habitual behaviour, the regulation of moods, and helps keep you focused on your desired outcome.

However, decision-making can be disrupted by stress, worry and doubt, so positive affirmations can help train our brain to stay focused, confident and optimistic, even when we experience setbacks.

The only time I delay making important decisions is when I’m upset, because I know that my executive function will be temporarily impaired by an emotional episode.  But in the longer term, not making a decision is a decision.

CREATIVITY

Imagination – Intuition – Daydreaming

I wrote a post a while back specifically about mind-wandering, a part of this crucial process on our journey to greater fulfilment. This unique state of consciousness, when the brain is in the default mode network helps to prevent mental exhaustion, by use of small scheduled time pockets to actively engage in daydreaming and the use of intuitive imagination to solve problems.

Imagination is so fundamental it led Einstein to declare that it was more important than intelligence!

“Do not let the memories of your past limit the potential of your future. There are no limits to what you can achieve on your journey through life, except in your mind.”
~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Day dreaming has traditionally been frowned upon, and teachers may berate young students for zoning out when they should be focused. But this is a natural process and a helpful one in the right amounts, one that is essential for learning new information and revitalising the brain.

Deliberate mind-wandering is recommended to alleviate stress or if struggling with a difficult problem or emotional issue.

When we imagine a scenario, putting ourselves into another time, place or situation, we can use the subtle senses as part of this envisioning process. Unlike the physical senses, when the subtle senses are engaged in multi-directional thinking there are no limits. We can recall the sound of someone’s voice, the smell of roses, the taste of strawberries, the sound of the sea rolling rhythmically onto the beach, rain falling gently onto the window pane, a certain physical sensation; we can create an entire experience that hasn’t happened yet in intricate detail in our mind’s eye.

Creativity is the journey from the formless to phenomena to form. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the world’s foremost researchers on creativity and optimal performance, found that creative people tend not to lose their sense of awe and wonder in the world, and are less likely to be trapped by repetitive daily routines. They maintain a childlike curiosity about everything, exploring various different avenues of interest not necessarily related to their core work.

His research suggests looking for things that are unusual or different, or seeing familiar things with a fresh perspective – in other words aim to be unquenchably curious and surprise yourself and others every day.

Divergent and convergent thinking

Csikszentmihalyi also recommends practising both divergent and convergent thinking. You may recognise divergent thinking from the term ‘thinking outside the box’.  This kind of thinking is considered open-ended, non-linear and irrational when seeking solutions to problems.

I imagine some people thought Wilbur and Orville Wright were off their trolleys in attempting to fly in a powered machine at the start of the 20th century, but now, a mere 117 years later we can fly around the world, exceed the speed of sound and travel into space!

We also need to become adept in convergent thinking, dealing with the minutiae of daily details and decisions, selecting one of just a few options or ideas.

I also explored the source of creativity in a previous post.

AWARENESS

Fairness – Empathy – Self-knowledge

The newest part of the brain, evolutionary speaking, is where awareness occurs. When we participate in self-reflection it stimulates circuits of empathy, compassion and self-love. This process helps us to develop more self-awareness, become more socially aware and more spiritually aware of our values, better equipping us to meet the needs of others as well as our own.

Image by Levi XU on Unsplash

In this way mutual trust and cooperation expand, work becomes more meaningful, purposeful and satisfying.

Awareness grows as we age, for the neural circuits involved in self and social awareness (the insula and anterior cingulate), don’t become fully functional until a person is well into their thirties.

This is why I try to have patience with my children, because they have less understanding of how their actions affect and influence others. Selfishness is the default position of a young person’s brain.

From childhood into early adulthood an individual has not yet developed the neurological capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, and are prone to taking greater risks and making mistakes. We all make mistakes, but with age and wisdom they will likely decrease. Mistakes are an essential feedback tool and not proof of failure.

One of the best ways I have found to enhance the conscious knowledge of my character, personality and everything else about me, as well as how my actions might influence others, is through meditation and honesty.

When we fully own the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing holds any power over us. We already know the worst, experiencing both the shadow and the light.

I have learnt to accept myself, flaws and all, with compassion. Patience isn’t a natural strength of mine, so I need to focus on practising it daily, with myself and my family!

Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation strengthens the areas of the brain concerned with confidence, optimism, emotional regulation, happiness, self-love and compassion for others.

There are varying levels of awareness: encompassing bodily sensations, positive and negative thoughts and feelings, awareness of old and new habits and behaviours, self-image and self-esteem, belief systems, purpose and values, awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings, the social consequences of actions and awareness of awareness itself.

Heightened states of awareness facilitate ‘aha moments’, those sudden insights and ideas that can be applied into different aspects of your life.

The four pillars are interconnected, as when mindfulness/meditation increases awareness, so does motivation, hence you will make better decisions and your creativity will be unleashed. As the connectivity between the four pillars is strengthened a person will begin to take a greater interest in the welfare of others.

In NeuroWisdom they list the 23 traits of moral character (something we should look more closely for in politicians, business leaders, and across the social stratum).

Contemporary research in Positive Psychology identifies the following character traits as associated with happiness, wellbeing and success: compassion, kindness, fairness, open-mindedness, forgiveness, appreciation, gratitude, leadership, social sensitivity, social responsibility, bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, creativity, curiosity, love of learning, wisdom, hope humour, humility, prudence and spirituality.

Not a bad list to aspire to…

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitations; your conscious expands in every direction; and you find yourself in a great, new and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
~ Patanjali

Life After Life is a Book That Will Make You Think

“‘There are some Buddhist philosophers (a branch referred to as Zen) who say that sometimes a bad thing happens to prevent a worse thing happening,’ Dr Kellet said. ‘But, of course, there are some situations where it’s impossible to imagine anything worse.’” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is one of those books that will make you question the nature of reality. It is certainly thought provoking and provides some historical learning, it will also make you laugh and cry, as well as entertain you. In short it is a literary masterpiece!

Do you believe in reincarnation?

I am coming round to the idea more and more these days. One life just isn’t long enough to experience and learn everything an immortal soul would strive to achieve.

I’ve often pondered about when people die young, the tragedy of a life cut short: the pain of their loss on loved ones, missing their presence and wondering what they might have done had they survived.  So much unfinished business. And then there is how their death impacts other lives to the extent of what they do going forward.

A few days before my 20th birthday, unexpectedly my first love perished in a motorcycle accident. He was 22 years old. I had been on the back of his motorcycle many times before, (I still am something of a speed freak), but I never got on a motorbike again after his untimely and tragic death.

I couldn’t accept that he had just disappeared; here one minute, gone the next. I was in a dreadful state and moped around the house for many weeks. I couldn’t stop myself thinking about having seen him lying at the undertakers. It was the first and only time I have seen a dead body. It didn’t look like him. His life force was not animating his body. I began think about where his spirit or soul energy had gone.

Did it exist outside of time and space?

I had the sensation that his spirit was near and around me in those early days, a feeling that’s hard to describe.

It was at that time I started to believe in the divine nature of the soul.  It comforted me to think of him as an immortal soul occupying a temporary body, having a human experience; as opposed to a mere body that originates in oblivion and returns there.

When we do have spiritual experiences it is like returning to our natural state. What Deepak Chopra terms as ‘lightness of being’. He asserts that we are light beings in essence.

I feel like I am the watcher, the sentient being, the spark of consciousness that pervades the universe, just as every human is; aware of being alive, able to use sensory outlets and emotions to heighten experiences.  According to Chopra we are the infinite creators, conscious agents in the matrix of the microbiome of life!

It’s an intriguing idea that every sentient being is an aspect of infinite consciousness experiencing the finite, entangled into a genetic uniform and personality.

How can we explain why we are drawn to certain people, places or careers, why we enjoy certain activities or the talents we have, why we make the choices we do?

Perhaps our choices reflect our level of consciousness or soul wisdom in any given moment…

“Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realised their significance.” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

There are particular phenomena I’ve gone through, such as having an out of body experience and various moments of déjà vu, the feeling of having lived in a particular place,  (such as Paris), meeting some individuals you feel like you’ve known your whole life after only a few minutes.

Then there are some people you just resonate with.

I suppose that’s why this book’s premise drew me in; I needed a profound read as I set aside moments to rest over the last few weeks.  I’ve experienced a litany of unpleasant after effects recovering from the coronavirus, and I knew that reading a good book would hook me, forcing me to spend some quiet time.

Life After Life did not disappoint…

“What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact, an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

The baby in question is Ursula Todd, and her stories also revolve around her family: mother Sylvie, father Hugh, siblings Maurice, Pamela, Teddy and Jimmy and her wayward aunty Izzie. Not forgetting the acerbic cook, Mrs Glover, and the scullery maid, Bridget who live at the idyllic ‘Fox Corner’ in rural Beaconsfield (not far from me).

The novel’s time span runs from 1910 to just after the Second World War.  There are plenty of opportunities to die between two world wars…

“At times life seems to be a cruel game. The only justification for it is that in reality it is only a dream. That is why there are so many differences in the world. Some people are poor, some are rich, some healthy, some sick, and so on. You have had many experiences through many incarnations and you will have others in future incarnations, but they should not frighten you. You must play all parts in the motion picture of life, inwardly saying: ‘I am Spirit.’ This is the great consolation that wisdom gives us.”
~ Paramahansa Yogananda

If I could get to the crux of the genius of this book, it is how the author creates such lifelike, vivid characters, building on and altering their circumstances during each of Ursula’s lives in a way that is not repetitive or dull.

Their characters don’t change through each incarnation, but their life paths are modified depending on the choices that Ursula makes.

There are quite a few childhood deaths, handled with sensitivity by the author, but nonetheless still sad. Then there are the incarnations that Ursula has where she has made it to and sometimes through World War 2, and the amazing descriptions of her lives in London during the horror of the blitz.

“We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.” What did that mean, Ursula wondered. “It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”
“And if we are killed?”
“Then others must remember us.”

Even the people she meets in that phase of her blitz lives are memorable, like Mrs Appleyard and her infant Emil, the Nesbit sisters, her senior warden at the ARP, Miss Woolf, Mr Durkin, the violinist Mr Zimmerman and Mr Bullock.

September 1940 is revisited a couple of times in Life After Life:

The multiple deaths that occur around Armistice due to the Spanish Flu are poignant, especially given our current Covid-19 situation, and how Atkinson weaves slightly different scenarios each time, all leading to the same inevitable fate – except one.

Two of the saddest lives Ursula has are when she is raped by a friend of her older brother on her sixteenth birthday and becomes pregnant and that lifetime ultimately ends in tragedy. In another life she meets him again on the same birthday, but handles the situation differently and so does not end up being violated.

11 November 1918
“Everything familiar somehow. It’s called déjà vu, Sylvie said. “It’s a trick of the mind. The mind is a fathomless mystery. ‘ Ursula was sure she could recall lying in the baby carriage beneath the tree. ‘No,’ Sylvie said, ‘no one can remember being so small,’ yet Ursula remembered the leaves, like great green hands, waving in the breeze and the silver hare that hung from the carriage hood, turning and twisting in front of her face. Sylvie sighed. ‘You do have a very vivid imagination, Ursula.’ Ursula didn’t know whether this was a compliment or not but it was certainly true that she often felt confused between what was real and what was not. And the terrible fear – fearful terror – that she carried around inside her. The dark landscape within. ‘Don’t dwell on such things,’ Sylvie said sharply when Ursula tried to explain.  ‘Think sunny thoughts.’”

The other life is when she first has an ominous encounter with her future husband, Derek Oliphant while studying at secretarial school. I wept through that chapter (Like a Fox in a Hole), as anyone likely would who has been in an abusive relationship. It touched a raw nerve that I didn’t even realise was exposed.

Then there are the lives where she spends her mature years in Germany, where she becomes friends with Eva Braun…

Life After Life is not just clever but totally absorbing. After a certain amount of lives Ursula’s feelings of déjà vu begin to surface during her childhood and into adulthood, as her various realities are lived out, with her subtly making different choices that impact her outcomes and those of her friends and family.

She develops a kind of inexplicable intuition, an instinctual, emotional palimpsest of past realities that influence her thoughts and feelings.

Whilst I don’t personally believe in reincarnation into the same body and life, (I lean towards the school of thought that we take different forms with each go around the mortal block over aeons of time), it did not stop me from immensely enjoying Life After Life. It is utterly brilliant.

Reading Life After Life also made me feel that as difficult as things are at the moment for all of us, it does not compare to the hardships earlier generations went through for many years during these conflicts.

I think I need to leave some time for this book to fully settle in my psyche before I read her highly acclaimed follow-on novel, A God in Ruins (focusing on Ursula’s younger brother Teddy’s time in the RAF).

“Become such as you are, having learned what that is.” ~ Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

The Value of Innovation, Imagination and Vision in Lockdown

Where there is no vision, the people perish. ~ Proverbs 29:18

I sincerely hope you are safe, healthy and mentally strong during this strange and unprecedented time.

After lockdown I was so caught up in getting stuff done I was overdoing it. I didn’t pay attention to the mild cold I couldn’t seem to shift as home quarantine came into effect, and boy did I regret that. I have come out the other side of a rough exchange with Covid-19 and I’m grateful to be here writing!

After three weeks of convalescence (2 of which were complete rest) I am almost back to normal. Whatever normal is. Some of my friends have also been laid up for weeks and have experienced similarly scary symptoms.

I have resolved to make less excuses to myself for all that I haven’t yet done and at the same time be proud of all that I have achieved in half a century. I am reminded that life is a journey, not a destination, and part of the joy is in travelling…

The Coronavirus has profound implications for each of us, for humanity collectively and for our planet. At worst it is utterly devastating – thousands of families have lost loved ones, jobs are on hold, households are coping with reduced income, and many are frightened and anxious about the future.

Mankind is being tested on every front. The situation humanity now faces is nothing less than the management of evolutionary change in order to survive long-term.  

Across the world difficult decisions about when and how to come out of lockdown must be taken.

If you live in the UK, where our incompetent and culpable government was slow to react with testing, contact tracing, providing PPE, (even for just our frontline medical staff), initiating nationwide lockdown, closing borders and introducing quarantine measures for new arrivals etc. then it will be all the harder.

There is now strong evidence this Brexit government refused vital life-saving equipment from the EU on ideological grounds.  They are lacking in both humanity and ability; ergo the biblical quote I started with sadly sums up our predicament.

I am hopeful that having been treated so well at St. Thomas’s Hospital that Mr Johnson will have a new found respect for our NHS and pull out all the stops to do whatever they can to get on top of the situation, even though the Corona-horse has already bolted.

I was also lost for words that a president could advocate injecting bleach! It’s easy to feel disheartened with such numpties in charge; so it’s all the more important for each of us to handle our particular circumstances as best we can.

I am reminded of the famous JFK quote: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

Of course we expect the nation’s safety to be prioritised, and I for one hope there will be full enquiry into the government’s mishandling of the crisis. But also we have the ability as individuals to act, to help ourselves, our families and our community. I have seen so many heart-warming stories among the corona carnage and tragic stories.

For every example of ‘covidiots’ ignoring social distancing advice and leaders exacerbating already difficult situations, there have been instances of mass collaboration on a global as well as local scale. Billions of us are in self-quarantine to protect the more vulnerable in society and help prevent the overwhelm and collapse of health systems.

It’s amazing what we can collectively do when we agree on a beneficial shared outcome, despite different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. If we can do it for our health, then surely we can also do it for the planet?

A heartwarming video of animals encroaching on human territory for once!

In the UK Captain Tom Moore has been one of these selfless and courageous individuals. So far he has raised over 32 million pounds for the NHS, as of today, his 100th birthday! And just as importantly, he has raised the nation’s morale.

Now that life has slowed down for many who have either been furloughed or made redundant, people are communicating more and re-establishing lapsed connections.

Musicians have been live streaming from their homes and making vital contributions to our cultural and creative life in lieu of being able to attend concerts and theatres. I had the pleasure of meeting the virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov a few years ago in Oxford:

Some of us are working harder than ever – namely our frontline healthcare professionals, medical support staff, grocery workers and supply chains. The NHS staff are risking their lives every day to treat the constant influx of Covid-19 patients. When I was briefly in Stoke Mandeville Hospital they were amazing. But they did not have face visors and scrubs.

It’s right that we support and applaud nurses and doctors, they are real life heroes. I’m sure this proposed payment from the government will be helpful to bereaved NHS families, but surely they would rather have their loved ones alive and well, kitted out with the correct protective gear!

Parents are now teachers, and as much as I love my kids it has added considerable stress and work to my already overloaded life. I’ve since learnt to let go of the worry and embrace the chaos.

Need I say more…

Before I got sick I wrote about focusing on what we have control over. It’s the best way to alleviate anxiety about the uncertainty. We are living in uncharted territory right now, but through all the disruption, chaos and fear there is hope for a brighter future if we have vision.

If there’s one thing we are being made to do it is to adapt. Accepting and adapting to the way things are will help us through this challenging time in the best way possible. Leadership isn’t just something we expect of elected politicians, we can develop leadership qualities to serve each other and our communities.

Imagination and Innovation during historical epidemics

Our ancestors had to cope with the Bubonic Plague, Black Death and Spanish Flu of 1918 to name but a few historical scenarios.

The Decameron (or Human Comedy) was written by Giovanni Boccaccio in Florence following the 1348 plague, and was completed by 1353. The collection of one hundred short tales is told by a group of 7 women and 3 men as they hunker down in a Tuscan villa to avoid plague ridden Florence. Stories within a story.

A Tale from The Decameron – John William Waterhouse c.1916

Being the 14th Century there is no social media or television, and without distractions they each set to storytelling for ten days. They tell tales of love, life, fortune and power, much as we might do right now if we were suddenly deprived of the internet! The work provides a snapshot into life at that time and influenced Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

A fascinating book talk on The Decameron by Marilyn Migiel:

The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys wrote about his melancholy experience of living in London during the Great Plague of 1665. Some of his entries in Lapham’s Quarterly make sobering reading.

Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague is having something of a renaissance at the moment. A substantial body of literary works over the ages serve as an escape from reality (well, almost), but perhaps not this one!

William Shakespeare was no stranger to existential angst, growing up and writing during outbreaks of the Plague. His works are immortal…

It was commonly believed that Sir Isaac Newton found inspiration at Trinity College Cambridge during the plague, although this interesting article in The New Yorker points out he was well on his way with his learning and research both before and after the plague.

Whatever you are doing in lockdown, I hope it is nourishing your soul in some way.

There was a particular quote by Napoleon Hill that kept flitting in and out of my mind over the last few weeks as I was feeling sorry for myself and struggling to regain my energy, joie de vivre and motivation.

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

Covid-19 has wrought adversity, failure and heartache on the world like nothing in living memory. Aside from our personal and collective suffering over the pandemic, the Coronavirus has also shown us the dysfunction we have created in the world, effectively holding up a mirror…

Not just to the plundering of the natural world and the pollution we are responsible for, but our corrupt political systems and economic wastage. Philip Pullman makes a compelling case for change…

Douglas Rushkoff illuminates the way forward with the economy in the USA, but the principles of supporting local businesses rather than just large corporations could be applied in principle anywhere.

Humanity is at a cross roads. What can we learn from this pandemic?

From a health perspective an urgent priority is finding a vaccine and an accurate antibody test,  and people are rightly focusing on their health and what they can do to improve it, (also a passion of mine), but it would be prudent to assess the fundamental issues of how we operate in the world.

Maybe the next great clean energy project will come out of this…

And the world will be watching China, where somehow the coronavirus jumped from bats to humans. Will China keep its ban on wildlife sales?

For the time being we are breathing cleaner air around the world:

Out of our darkest periods in history there always springs new hope and fresh ideas.

Spring is in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, unfurling her burgeoning, colourful buds. Perhaps you have been able to enjoy the solace nature has provided during lockdown. I’m now getting back to doing my regular walk in the woods.

Just as nature signals rebirth, regeneration and renewal, so it can be internally.

Detail of the procession and musicians in Spring by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema c. 1894

Will we choose to do things differently? Work together to make a better, safer, more sustainable, inclusive world?

During my bed rest I asked myself what the Coronavirus had meant for me and my family. What did I need to face? I had some uncomfortable but necessary revelations.

It was a forced time of reflection that has brought about renewed clarity and purpose. It felt good to live more simply and to spend time with my family rather than working myself to the bone to cross off a list of never-ending chores.

Everyday minutiae become immaterial in those moments you fear might be your last. You remember what is truly important in life. I have renewed my daily gratitude practise. I am thankful that I managed to get my health into a strong position and was able to weather my personal Covid-19 storm.

I have vowed to be kinder to myself and those around me and work towards my inner vision with joy in my heart despite the circumstances.  I take each day as it comes, while simultaneously holding a vision for where I want my life to be.

As much as this time is placing restrictions on us it is also a moment of opportunity. It’s our job to sow the seeds of hope, to be diligent farmers of our own lives in order to reap a more abundant future harvest.

Lockdown doesn’t have to be stagnation, we can innovate, imagine and plan for the future with forward motion.

“Commitment and creativity cannot be captured and handcuffed. Inspiration cannot be jailed. The heart cannot be contained.” ~ Gary Zukav

Facing an Uncertain Future in the Age of Humans – Part 2

“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad, or an economist.”
~ Sir David Attenborough

So far 2020 seems to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us… Humanity is lurching from surviving environmental paroxysms to coping with germ warfare!

Since I last posted the Coronavirus has become a serious global health threat, possibly a pandemic, if infection rates continue to grow and the mortality rate increases. Risk of death rises with age, diabetes and heart disease. 

The hubris of Homo sapiens

There is no doubt that our species has achieved some truly amazing feats.

But we have made many mistakes too, some with serious ramifications. Man’s innate curiosity led him to explore his surroundings and then spread further afield until he covered the planet in his search for a better life for his ‘tribe’.

But the current hegemony of Homo sapiens will be short lived, in evolutionary terms, if we don’t have the humility and hindsight to take responsibility for how we got here.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down. None of this is true. But let’s begin with the speed of change. The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset, the planet’s phylogenetic tree first expanding, then collapsing, at intervals, like a lung: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization. And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years. There were no humans then.”
~ David Wallace-WellsThe Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

We must now harness the creative and critical thinking edge that the Cognitive Revolution birthed, and that catapulted us into the Anthropocene, to figure out how we can repair much of the destruction left in our wake; now that we have woken up to the fact that it threatens our survival.

One could argue that our rise to the Age of Humans is ‘progress’, a necessary evolution, but such progress comes with responsibilities. We cannot accept a continuing  attitude that the end justifies the means. Unless we curb and alter our progress it will prove to be the road to perdition for Homo sapiens.

Homo sapiens means ‘wise man’, but for a species credited with such erudition we have certainly demonstrated ignorance in equal measure…

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Isabella (Act 2, Scene 2)
~ William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

The four horsemen of the apocalypse could prove to be greed, arrogance, apathy and indifference.

As well as conveying the beauty, awe and wonder of Earth in his latest programme, Seven Worlds, One Planet, Sir David Attenborough repeated the ongoing message of habitat destruction and climate change.

Despite the Coronavirus, the fact remains that climate change is the single biggest threat to all life on Earth in the Age of Humans.

Biodiversity and sustainability

At the launch of the spectacular Netflix nature programme Our Planet, Sir David Attenborough gave a clear message: we must find a way to survive that does not entail decimating the natural world, because biodiversity equals stability.

SUSTAINABILITY should be our new watch word, a global standard that helps to protect biodiversity in the interest future generations.

If we managed two mass extinctions as hunter-gatherers, (the decimation of two continent’s mega-fauna with just hand tools), imagine what damage we can inflict now, thousands of years later, with efficient machines in this industrial and technological age?

Rapid, wholesale destruction of rainforests by agribusiness for short term profit over long term ecological stability is crazy, and should not be allowed to continue unabated.

We cannot continue to bludgeon our way through our planet’s natural resources with no regard for the consequences.

Over the last year I have phased out processed food from our diet (apart from the odd treat), and I look carefully at the ingredients and buy brands like Nairn’s that only use sustainable palm oil.

This passage from Sapiens illustrates how Homo sapiens have evolved too quickly, thus creating massive environmental problems for ourselves and the planet:

Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo Sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to co-operate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered.

In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana-republic dictator.  Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

~ Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)

On our way to the top of the food chain humans domesticated fire, gaining control of a powerful, obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike other animals, humans could decide when and where to ignite a flame and use it for numerous tasks. Our use of fire was not limited by our physical form, structure or strength. A child with a fire stick could burn down an entire forest.

Metaphorically, this seems like exactly what our still relatively ‘young’ species has done to the planet!

The Cognitive Revolution

The Cognitive Revolution was probably the defining moment in humanity’s evolution thus far – the ability of our species to communicate, to gossip, to develop ever larger social structures, to organise ourselves, collaborate and plan and imagine outcomes. It was the beginning of creativity and storytelling.

No other creature on Earth has developed this mental capacity.

Creation of Man by Michelangelo

We lived for millennia in a similar fashion to our closest genetic cousins, chimpanzees; who survive still in small hierarchical communities lead by an alpha male, having to intervene in squabbles when necessary, and deal with challenges to his authority from younger males who would usurp him, along with his right to sire many of the infants in his group and continue his blood line.

The atmosphere can be aggressive at times, but it is permeated with playfulness, loving mothers, friendships and sub groups that garner support by giving and receiving favours such as picking out fleas and grooming.

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours… It’s a well known fact in psychology that people respond in kind.

What is the American president but the alpha male of the United States, if not the world? Or for that matter, the Pope is the alpha male of the Catholic Church.

Current political favours and manoeuvrings aren’t so far removed from our ancestral chimp roots, just more sophisticated.

Image by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Brutality is cloaked by bullies in suits: corruption, corporate malfeasance and brainwashing in the media and all the machinations of imperfect democracies.

What is democracy but millions of people choosing to believe in certain imagined realities?

Feminism

Female chimpanzees are not able to look at and study the example of the more balanced and loved-up societies of Bonobos, which are run by their more emancipated female relatives, and translate that learning into more freedom and peace for themselves in their own environments.

But the rise of feminism in human society arose from women’s collective desire for a fairer, more meaningful and egalitarian life. It is, of course, an ongoing challenge in a patriarchal society.

Such dramatic changes in behaviour do not occur in the animal kingdom unless environmental pressures or mutations in DNA initiate them.

But since the Cognitive Revolution humans have been able to change their thoughts and pass on new ideas and behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change.

This ability to transform our social structures, the nature of interpersonal relations and our economic activities is a beacon of hope that we can collectively adapt our social behaviours in relation to conservation, waste management, consumption, future innovation and living more cleanly in respect to climate change.

Environmental pressure is certainly driving our continued evolution!

Our species’ nascent curiosity all those thousands of years ago made us think and ask: what would it be like to sail to another land?

The diverse cultures that we are part of and can experience through travelling could not have grown without a curiosity about the world and our place in it.

The temples and pyramids we have built, the gods we have worshipped, the land we have tilled and shaped, the art and music we have expressed (even from the days of cave men) has all been possible because of the Cognitive Revolution.

The freedom to think and act gave us power, and we’re still learning how to wield it.

Sophisticated language and the ability to create ‘imagined realities’ meant that humans could go from living in small groups to creating cities and empires, religions and ideologies, law and order. We could co-operate on hitherto unknown scales.

Money was, and is, the most universally successful creation that mankind invented. Even two people who are born in different geographical locations, and diametrically opposed in their beliefs, their lifestyles and outlooks will both use money in their everyday lives. It is humanity’s common denominator – as is nature and our home planet, Earth.

How do you get millions of people to act in a certain way? It comes down to common goals and shared beliefs. We are individuals, but still able to work together for perceived mutual benefit.

We may be able to disagree on one or two issues, but have many other overriding positive connections that outweigh any disagreements. That is the beauty of freedom of speech and social interaction. The challenges occur when we can’t overcome our differences or agree on a particular imagined reality.

Brexit springs to mind!

Once Homo sapiens started telling stories we never stopped. We evolved our capacity to craft and learn from stories. Myths and stories are the glue of our social connections.

Our physical evolution may have continued at the normal glacial pace, but our imagination raced ahead, enabling us to build networks of mass co-operation.

Social media amplifies this ability to a truly staggering global level.

All the leaders in history have used stories to their advantage, and the best ones used them for the good of humanity. We still tell and read stories that were written years, decades and centuries ago, because we continue to find value and entertainment in them.

Now it is time to tell the most important story in modern history, the one that’s uncomfortable and sometimes frightening to hear, about how we are destroying our planet.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” ~ Albert Einstein

Dystopian climate disaster movies that have been portrayed on the silver screen are now becoming an all too frequent reality in different areas of the planet.

A few months ago the ex-governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, issued dire warnings about the consequences of climate change to business and continued investment in fossil fuels.

“Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue.”
~ David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

It’s one thing to hear that elephants, tigers, lions, bees, dolphins and whales are going extinct, and that the earth is becoming uninhabitable, and quite another to experience an unthinkable reality that moves us emotionally into action.

Big Think on global warming.

Whether driven by love or fear, we need lots of new stories about climate change, biodiversity, mass extinctions, pollution and human disease to be told in different ways to different audiences.

It’s our only chance of making such rapid changes to create a paradigm shift on how we have contributed to the problems facing humanity and how we can solve them. It no longer serves us to be insatiable consumers of natural resources, our fictional realities now need to focus on being the protectors, custodians and lovers of our dwindling abundance.

Conservation

International co-operation is key. Leaders of nations need to come together and set aside large areas of land and sea as protected from human activity, purely for conservation. Nature has shown she can recover if we give her a helping hand.

Sir David Attenborough used the example of a group of islands in south east Asia as an example. Massive over fishing depleted the waters and the coral reefs significantly declined.

The screen filled with eerie images of thousands of giant jellyfish undulating below the surface – the consequence of there being no fish. This is what awaits us beneath the ocean if we continue in that vein. However, this group of islands was declared a national marine park, and within a decade it had recovered most of its biodiversity.

Sir David stated that a third of coastal seas on our planet should be protected as marine parks in this way, so that they can recover from over fishing.

The wasteland of Chernobyl is another example of nature recovering free from human interference:

Sir David Attenborough with some solutions:

The giant Australian marsupial Diprotodon became extinct because it couldn’t adjust in time to develop a fear of humans, who duly massacred them all.

The irony is, nature is now forcing us to adapt to ourselves…

Spiritual evolution

There is no one single historical antecedent to the Anthropocene.

What we call ‘history’ is us recording and looking back at our fictions and imaginations and the outcomes our actions shaped.  This elusive, mysterious quality of mind was the driving force behind our evolution.

To me, the logical next step in our evolution is that of the spirit – the unseen.

Moving from being a person that purely experiences the world through just their five senses, to being multi-sensory beings; developing awareness of our inner motivations, emotions and behaviour, being comfortable with stillness, the oneness of all that is, developing empathy, gratitude, a loving nature and a love for nature, becoming highly intuitive and learning to transcend our evolutionary animal inheritance from our chimpanzee days – the ego.

I feel strongly that healing the planet will be achieved with more insight and awareness, and more rapidly, if we can first take responsibility for ourselves and care for each other.

World domination never succeeded (at least for very long), on an individual level, national or empirical level. Just look at Hitler, Stalin and countless other despots, egomaniacs and repressive regimes.

Collectively we influence each other and the planet, to the extent that the consequences of our actions are magnified and compounded in the Age of Humans.

If we all adopted the attitude of asking  what serves all of life, rather than what just serves humanity, or purely what serves me, where could we be?

In today’s world, amid efforts to combat a myriad of crises of climate, politics, medicine, and socioeconomics, we are in a constant state of emergency…

Which leads to forced adaptation rather than evolution.

But in order to evolve to our highest potential, individually and as a species, we must access and cultivate the innate and largely unexplored capabilities already within us.

~ Steve Farrell, Worldwide Executive Director – Humanity’s Team

We don’t have to become monks, saints, or even permanently altruistic beings, we can still follow our dreams and aspirations, enjoy our lives; but with an increased awareness of the impact of our actions.

We each have more power than we think.

A profound solution – Consciousness creates reality:

I heard a beautiful explanation of intuition by Gary Zukav, he said that it is the voice of the non-physical world. Cognition could be exponentially more powerful when we are aligned with a higher purpose and the non physical part of ourselves – the soul.

To give future souls a chance at evolving we must preserve the physical stage upon which they can do so – planet Earth.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
~ William Shakespeare (from All the World’s a Stage speech) As You Like It