After writing out the exercise in yesterday’s post, I grabbed my favourite red fleecy blanket and went outside to sit on the lawn in my back garden. I laid it out on the slightly damp grass, sat down, and closed my eyes. For a while my mind was busy with all the daily minutiae: the housework that was still waiting to be started, the reading I need to finish, the fish bowl I should clean etc. Then, after a wee while, I began to let these nagging thoughts go, and I started to listen to the sounds of the garden…
The flapping wings of a passing magpie, the chorus of creaks as the window frames expand in the heat, the low buzz of a bumblebee, the high pitched whine of a small insect, a neighbourhood car’s engine turning over, the far away squawk of a seagull, the drone of passing aircraft, the flap of laundry as it dried in the breeze.
While I was capable of identifying all these different sounds, I quickly realised that when I turned my attention to what I could smell, I could only identify one fragrance, and that was of the fabric conditioner as it wafted down from the laundry to where I was sitting. It makes me wonder whether I’ve neglected one of my main ways of sensing the world around me to the point where I can no longer notice it.
Have you read the Patrick Suskind book, Perfume? It is one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read, as so much of the description is articulated through an exploration of scent. When I read that book, I found myself thinking, ‘Yes, I know that smell, and that’s exactly what it smells like.’ One of my favourite passages in it is when a wet nurse is describing the smell of newborn babies:
‘Well, it’s -‘ the wet nurse began, ‘it’s not all that easy to say, because… because they don’t smell the same all over, although they smell good all over, Father, you know what I mean? Their feet for instance, they smell like a smooth warm stone – or no, more like curds… or like butter, like fresh butter, that’s it exactly. They smell like fresh butter. And their bodies smell like… like a pancake that’s been soaked in milk. And their heads, up on top, at the back of the head, where the hair makes a cowlick, there… There, right there, is where they smell best of all. It smells like caramel, it smells so sweet, so wonderful, Father, you have no idea!’
Perfume by Patrick Suskind, pp. 12-13
Isn’t that an incredible description which focuses entirely on smell? I think today, I’m going to concentrate on the scents I inhale, and see if I can increase my own awareness of a sense I’ve clearly neglected for too long.
What did you discover when you did the exercise? Are there some senses available to you that you are not fully experiencing? How can you enhance your awareness of them?
Forget 1001 historic sites/gardens/natural wonders/architectural feats you must see before you die. I’ll tell you the one thing that you really must see before you leave this world for the next – the here and now.
I’m not talking here of a cursory glance around, so you can check it off that mental list of things seen and done. To my mind, unless you give yourself completely over to experiencing the moment, this exact one happening right now, it won’t matter if you’re seated outside the Taj Mahal, touring the pyramids by camel, standing at the viewpoint overlooking the steep cliffs of the Grand Canyon or climbing the many steps ascending the Eiffel Tower. To fully experience life, it must be lived, not measured, evaluated and checked.
Here’s a quick exercise for you to try:
- Walk for no more than 5 mins from where you are sitting now – this may take you to your living room, your garden, a local park etc. – and bring with you a notebook, a pen and your camera.
- Find a good (safe!) place to sit, and close your eyes for a few minutes and just breathe. Allow your body to relax and your mind to unwind. Push to one side all those concerns about what you still have to do today, the money worries, the work woes. They’ll all still be there when we’re finished, so they can be ignored for the time being.
- Still with your eyes closed, give over to your senses. Feel the grass tickle your fingers. Smell the honey-scented blooms. Hear the sweet chirp of the birds. Of course, depending on where you chose your spot to sit, your senses may convey something entirely different from that which I’ve described here. The important thing is to give yourself over to it and to experience it for what it is.
- Now, open your eyes, and look around you. Take in the whole of the sight, allowing your eyes to drink in the unique beauty of what surrounds you. You may be viewing tall oaks, rolling grassy hillocks, colourful flowerbeds, or, if you stayed inside, maybe you’re viewing overfilled bookcases, softly draping curtains, and finely grained floorboards. Whatever the sight, accept and appreciate it, without longing that you were somewhere else entirely.
- After absorbing the bigger picture, it’s now time to zero in on the details. Pick up your camera and, turning on your macro setting, get up close to your subjects and start capturing the intimate curves of the petals, the gradation of colour in the leaves, the textured grain of the wood. Try new angles, new perspectives, new takes on the familiar. Make the known, new, fresh and strange.
- Time to uncap the pen and open the notebook. Find a fresh page and begin to write about what you’ve experienced since you first sat in that spot 5 mins walk away. Remember to try and capture the sensual experience of what you felt, heard, and smelled as well as the sights you saw and photographed, and really try to use as descriptive language as you can. Write as truthfully and as mindfully as you can – try and express the truth of the moment to the best of your ability. Wax lyrical!
- Optional: What I do following this exercise is, I upload my photographs, cropping and editing them to make them more clearly represent my perspective, and then create a post combining my words and images. A record of that time and place to be shared and experienced by all who come across it.
I think you’ll find that if you follow these steps, you’ll have see the one place you ‘must see’ before you die – the present moment. But do you know what the great thing is? Life is just full of these moments!
I’m reminded of this wonderful quote which my mum used to keep on her fridge:
Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had my life to live over, I’d have more of them in fact I’d have nothing else, just moments, one after another instead of living so many years ahead each day.
Nadine Stair age 85 in Spilling Open: The Art of Becoming Yourself by Sabrina Ward Harrison
I couldn’t have said it better myself 🙂
If you do decide to give the exercise a go, why not report back here with how you got on? I’ll be posting about mine tomorrow! If you decided to take the option of blogging about it, leave the link so we can all go and share in your experience of a moment. Also, you could contribute one of your photos from the exercise to the Photography Less Ordinary time capsule. If you’re planning to do so though, you’ll need to do it today, as the deadline for entries is midnight (your time) tonight!
On Friday night, we decided that we would go for an explore the following day. We opened up our Ordinance Survey maps – you know, the kind that unfold to enormous proportions and then rebel against being manipulated back to their original position – and started planning. After discounting a few places, we decided on heading back to Loch Lomond. Now you may remember, if you’ve been a reader here for a while, I visited Loch Lomond towards the end of last year, when the greenery was provided by coniferous trees only, bare branches jutted into view, and the low lying sun sank all too soon on that cold, frosty day. Loch Lomond, however, is actually renowned for its oak forests, and I wanted to see them in all their glory, not stripped of all leaves, naked and dormant.
After scanning our maps, we eventually spotted an island that seemed to have a boat link and chose that as our destination. It’s called Inchcailloch, and there is a woodland walk the whole way around it. We hired a boat to take us across the short stretch of water from Balmaha to the north jetty on Inchcailloch and began our trek.
The great thing about Inchcailloch is that there is so much to see and yet it only takes a couple of hours to walk all the way round. It was inhabited at one point, and there remains the foundations of a church and a graveyard with graves dating from 1600s to 1910. There are also lots of wildflowers, insects, deer and plantlife to identify, which certainly kept the kids occupied!
Anyway, here are some shots from the day. Enjoy!
Where did you last go for an explore? What did you find when you got there?
When I was walking in the centre of Edinburgh recently, I came across this remnant from bygone days painted on the side of a building.
Perhaps it’s just the way my mind works, but I was immediately reminded of this painting:
The Great Figure
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
Isn’t that a fabulous poem? Carlos Williams had an incredible talent for conveying such rich images through so few words.
Like I said, maybe it’s just the way my mind works, but when I wander around cities, ramble through forests, window-shop down the high street, I can’t help but be reminded of paintings, poems, lyrics, novels etc.
I’d be fascinated to know, however, what creative works you are reminded of as you make your way through your city, your hometown, your local parks and woodlands. Perhaps it’s the work of a local artist or songwriter? Or maybe it’s a personal association? What are the narratives that call to you when you’re out and about?
The bud contains all, locked up tight. Its thick green coverings hiding from view what lies within. It is not until the bud begins to open that the colour of the bloom begins to reveal itself, and the falling away of verdant shroud quickly follows. What remains is petal after petal of soft satin loveliness, peach-pink and smooth to the touch. The promise of the bud has been fulfilled.
It makes me think about the promise that each of us holds, locked up tight within our wildest dreams, our most audacious imaginings, our most closely held ambitions, just waiting for the right conditions to flourish into radiant glory.
What promise have you seen fulfilled recently? Have you personally found an opportunity to grow and shake loose your luminous petals? Or perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to watch a friend, child, colleague, partner blossom within a nurturing environment? How do you help others to flourish?
When I was out recently with my grandparents, we walked along a short woodland walkway which took us to a playpark where the kids could run off some of their excess energy. As we approached the walkway, we heard a man talking, and when we drew a little closer, we saw him pacing back & forth talking on his mobile phone. We quietened down the kids and kept walking to the park. On our way back to the car with our happy and only mildly tired out children, I noticed that the man wasn’t there anymore, and just at the spot where he had been walking back and forth engaged in his conversation, I saw this beautiful flower:
I wonder if he saw it too?
The World Is Too Much With Us
The World is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gather’d now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.-Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn,-
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
By William Wordsworth
When was the last time that you stopped and stared and fully engaged with the beauty of the world around you? What gift did you find when you did? A flower like this one? Or maybe a beautiful view? Or maybe a stunning reflection?
…you discover something new.
I was born in Stirling and I live just outside the city now. I haven’t always lived here, but members of my family have lived in the area since long before I came into the world, so I like to think that I am very familiar with this town and its surroundings. Today, however, I was proved very, and most happily, wrong.
There’s a junction that we always turn right at, which takes us to the homes of both my aunt & uncle and my parents. Today we went left, and, oh my, it was beautiful! I took these shots from where we stopped for a picnic:
As you can see in some of the shots, we were quite close to the wind turbines, which I’ve only ever seen from a distance. Their movement is graceful and somewhat hypnotic. I know there are some that object to them on the basis that they spoil the countryside, but I think I rather like them…
When was the last time you turned left instead of right, and discovered wonder in the once familiar?
On Saturday, Joanna Young and I took a wander along the Union Canal in Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful walk and one very close to my heart, as I used to walk along the canal every day to school. Here are a few photos I took along the way…
Joanna pointed out that, because it’s a canal, the reflections appear crystal clear, just like gazing into a mirror… The water was still, the light was bright and the reflections created by this effect were perfect in their symmetry.
As we walked along the gravel towpath, I was reminded of all the funny, childish antics that I participated in along the banks of this waterway. There was the time that I fell in the canal, just in front of that boathouse, in fact. I can even remember which top I was wearing at the time of the submersion! There were dens built in the undergrowth that accompanies the canal, where elaborate worlds were created, and the only limits were our imaginations. There were epic games of tag played across the park, playing fields and towpath that left us all breathless, clutching our stitch-afflicted sides. There were whole mornings spent scouring the grassy verges in search of ever-elusive four-leaf clovers.
Watching the reflections on the water and reflecting on my own past…
What environments cause you to reflect on your past, on your present, on your future? Are there specific locations that induce the state of mind conducive for reflection, or is it more generalised, such as the beach, the lake, the mountains? What did you reflect upon when you were there last?
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but Scotland has been getting the most fabulous weather recently! Today I celebrated the warmth, the sunshine, the acres and acres of blue sky, by taking my kids and my niece to Braidburn Park in Edinburgh. It’s one of those places that I often notice as we go passed it on the bus, but I haven’t actually set foot in the place since I was 12 years old. On my last visit, it was covered in a thick blanket of snow, and my friends and I made the most of its steep inclines, as we sped faster and faster on our sledges till we reached the bottom, cold but exhilerated.
Today, it wasn’t snow that dominated the landscape, but blossom.
There was something quite magical about walking beneath those archways of blossoming branches. Really quite enchanting…
So how are you celebrating the weather in your corner of the world? Are you barbecuing in shorts and shades or are you snuggled up indoors with a steaming mug of hot chocolate? Are you jumping in the puddles or are you imagining shapes in the clouds above?
…you’re sure of a big surprise.
OK, well maybe you won’t be that surprised by what you find there, but you will most certainly be taken aback by the simple beauty that you find there.
On May 9th 1871, Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote the following in his journal, regarding his experience of a bluebell wood:
It was a lovely sight. – The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense. If you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them.
What I love about this description is that it is so mindful of the sensory experience. The feel of the flowers between the fingers, their ‘faint honey smell’, their ‘sweet gum’ taste, their ‘brittle rub and jostle’ sound – just bliss.
Two of my favourite bloggers are writing about two different themes over at their blogs at the moment. Joanna Young from Confident Writing is writing about Powerful Writing and Rosa Say from Managing With Aloha Coaching is writing about Humility. I thought about both of these themes and how they connect as I looked at the photos that I took today of the bluebell wood and read Hopkins’ journal entry. It seems to me that by remaining humble, by retaining our focus on the seemingly small and modest, we can tap into a powerful source of truth which does not simply resonate with the individual writing-self, but also with all those who read their words. When I read the word Hopkins wrote over 130 years ago, I feel the dew he felt, I smell the honey scents he smelled, I hear the rub and jostle he heard, I taste the sweetness he tasted. His words describing a simple trip into the woods ring with truth. They transcend time. They are powerful and yet they are simultaneously humble. As is all truly great writing.
When was the last time you took a trip into the woods, or indeed any natural setting, such as the beach, the lake, the waterfall, the desert? What did you find there? Could you describe and share with us the sensory experience of being there?