29 March, 2009
Time is something we feel we have so little of, and we frantically rush around trying to get things done in the time that we have. But of course, time is an artificial construct – a man-made construct which is supposed to be there to be a framework. Yet, as with so many man-made things, time has now seemed to take over and rule us, to push us in ever-decreasing circles.
Time has different lengths depending on where you are in your life. Remember those incredibly long days that went on forever when you were a child? Especially when it was Christmas Eve and you were desperate for it to be Christmas Day? Now, the days seem to whizz by. That, of course, is because comparatively speaking a day is a long time in the history of a child, but as that history grows – as we become older and have lived more days, the days seem to get shorter as each one is a smaller fraction of the total time that we have lived. OK, so that makes sense.
But what about this feeling of panic that so many people feel about time? “I’m running out of time”, “I don’t have enough time”. I used to be a school teacher in a past life (there are many people who say that – it’s amazing that there are any school teachers left!). My life was ruled by bells, keeping an eye on the time to ensure you kept within your teaching slot and try to get everything done within that time span. Watches, clocks, bells. They were almost as important as actually teaching! Woe betide the teacher who didn’t get their lesson delivered, and wrapped up in proper order before the bell went!!
When I left teaching, I got rid of my wrist watch. I’m not the only one to do this by any means, and to me it meant freedom from the tyranny of time. But did it really? No, of course not. I started checking my computer clock, my mobile clock, my alarm clock, the clock in the kitchen. I refused to put a clock in my weaving workshop on principle, but that didn’t stop me from being anxious as to what time it was, how long had it taken to weave this, and so on.
But then, I went to visit a weaver named Francis Moore in Yorkshire. I forgot my alarm clock and there was no other clock in my bedroom. I awoke and it was full daylight. I hadn’t got anything by which to tell the time, and I was in someone else’s house so didn’t feel I could go round trying to find a clock. I had a hugely urgent feeling that I was late, so I got up, washed and dressed hurriedly and went downstairs. In the kitchen, the kitchen clock told me that it was something after 5 am! Now I felt cross with myself. What could I do in someone else’s house for 3 hours? So I went back up to bed again, and waited, straining myself to listen out for any sounds of movement before coming out to join the day again. Relaxing time to myself? Far from it!!
My thought is this – one day, when I have no plans made, and nowhere to be, I will take all the clocks down the night before, or switch them off. I won’t use my computer, or switch on my mobile phone. I won’t watch TV or listen to the radio. I will just try to live in my day as richly as possible without the guidelines or strictures of the clock to tell me what I should be doing. I shall eat when I feel hungry, and not because it’s 1pm. I shall allow myself to feel that anxiety that comes from removing our usual framework and ‘winging’ it. And maybe, I will just be able to be fully ‘in the moment’.
26 March, 2009
I’ve recently been posting about listening to what’s going on in nature around me when I’m walking, and I was really pleased to see a whole section in the 2nd edition of 2009 of TPM – The Philosophers’ Magazine - about coming to our senses – appreciating and using all our senses, starting with touch.
As weavers, touch is really important to us. It’s even more important to me in what I am studying – texture. The author of the article on touch, Mark Paterson, wrote in a way that brings to attention our constant world of touch, of which we are mostly unaware. It’s not so much being unaware, but being unconscious to what our tactile interface – our skin – is telling us. In Mark’s words,
“Touch is a sense of communication. It is receptive, expressive, can communicate empathy. It can bring distant objects and people into proximity. ” His article deals with how touch is perceived philosophically in a visually dominated world which I found very interesting and also with plenty of reference to historical texts so that I can go and read up for myself about it. More to the point, for me at least, is the sense of consciousness about touch that I was left with.
Other articles in the series are about smell as portrayed, or not, in film as compared to literature; about sound, which as a musician I found really interesting; taste and its disputed position as the least of the senses, and then 8 different short articles about seeing.
Going back to the auditory article, as a musician I had always associated music performance as a moment in time, never to be repeated (other than through a recording of one particular performance), and also taken for granted that I could hear the complete range of instruments and sounds during a performance, or different varieties of birdsong as well as that jet passing overhead and at the same time able to hear the hiss of the electricity in the high-voltage wires. But having it pointed out to me made me realise that this is discrimination of sounds at a high level of complexity! All sound happens over a shorter or longer period of time. I really hadn’t made that connection before. Our brains are making sense of all the complex sounds that reach it at the same time and not only are compiling each sound with its relevant nuances but is also notifying our consciousness exactly what we are hearing. We are all aware of the amazing work that the brain does in de-coding and re-creating what we see, but I know I have never really stopped to think about the brainwork going in to what I am constantly hearing.
Having read the series of articles (not counting one on subliminal processing and the last one on whether we have 5 or more senses), I started hearing things I hadn’t heard before, and being much more aware of how I interact with things through touch. My senses all seemed heightened. Even when I sat down to a cup of tea and a few chocolates (!!), I was much more alert to the flavours of the drink and the chocolates, the heat of the tea, the aroma of the tea, the chocolates and the flowers in the room, the lingering smell of smoke as my son walked through the room after having just lit the wood fire, and the sound of the wind outside, the noises of the house, the crackle of the fire in the next room.
Appreciation of the small things in life start with observation. Thanks to this series of articles, and my own musings recently, I’m focussing on the small things with great enjoyment! There may be a recession outside, but I can relish the immediate things of life with more attention to the information my senses are giving me. Learning to appreciate the best things in life is definitely a positive way to counter the gloom of our ecomonic reality and it’s free!
22 March, 2009
Somehow a city seen from a few hundred yards up at night is more alive to me than one seen during the day. During the day, the skyscrapers shout for attention, their static solidity commanding your gaze. At night it is the movement of lights that gives the city its soul, the individual cars on their arterial paths, the twinkling pinpoints of street lights that shimmer, sparse in some areas, like clustered fairylights in others, garlanding areas of the city like a celebration.
Seen from above at night, human habitation looks like strands of neural viruses, creeping out, tendrils extending to unimaginable limits. Of course, if it were a virus, a neural network of infection, we would seek to eradicate it as quickly as possible, using every means we knew how, including direct attack as well as more subtle and subversive methods such as changing its genetic makeup, turning it on itself. Then, when we come to think about it, isn’t that what we do already?
We try to protect our own particular strain, but remove others that, to our minds, don’t develop in the same way. Even our own strains seek to implode from within. What’s more amazing perhaps is that, despite our best, or worst, intentions, the virus still seems to be thriving and growing, changing, adapting to new conditions.
But maybe not forever. Just like any parasite gone out of control, this one is destroying its own means of survival and it can only be a matter of time before its habitat is eaten from within and the virus is killed off by its own machinations.
You can take this to mean whatever you wish – it applies equally to biology, man v nature, religion v religion, culture v culture, individual v individual.
Nature contains innumerable examples of this process in action – in plants, animal behaviours, living bodies. But are we inevitably ensnared within the repetitions of process? Or do we have a choice to escape this behaviour? Our bodies can’t escape, but our minds can. But will we allow them to? Can we see beyond the process to the possibilities that exist outside? Can we kill off this parasite? Do we really fundamentally, deep down, want to?
Perhaps it’s only when we’re ‘versus’ each other that this happens. When we’re ‘for’ each other, it doesn’t seem to have the same impact. One of life’s lessons that as a species we keep failing to learn, now and throughout our history on this earth.
I have no answers, only questions. But maybe questions can help…. Let me know your thoughts?
15 March, 2009
You know how suddenly everything grows and puts on its coat of green? Well this week in my corner of the world, spring has suddenly sprung. Leaves are popping up all over the place, and suddenly the world looks less bare and forlorn. It’s amazing how it happens almost overnight.
Today on my walk, I decided to practise half an hour of mindfulness. Boy, was that hard! I decided to focus on listening to the sounds of nature and man around me as I walked because I thought that listening would focus my attention more powerfully than looking. I was right about that, but had to keep metaphorically shaking myself to rein my thoughts back and just listen. In a way, it was harder to do that than it was to spend time practising my oboe back in the day…. Practising the oboe required me to think in a disciplined way. Listening to nature required me not to think – just to listen and appreciate the sounds I was hearing. Not to think about them but just to note them. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but the experience made me determined that each day I must dedicate some time just to listening to sounds.
We all listen to our minds constantly, and if you’ve the kind of job, or mind, that likes to analyse or imagine, then the time that we spend in our minds is massive. I would say that the time I spend in my head is over 90% of the total time that I am conscious! Yikes! No wonder trying just to suspend thinking was hard! It’s like being a tea-addict – it requires conscious thought not to go and put the kettle on for another cuppa. But I would never have realised that it would require conscious thought not to think!! Hopefully practice will make it easier to do.
On a slightly different vein, I bought my Dad a book for his birthday. It’s called The Book of Idle Pleasures and is edited by Dan Kieran and Tom Hodgkinson. Dad is trying his hand at this thing called retirement. He’s a very young 79 this birthday and has been working 7 days a week in my brother’s company for the last 4 years. It helped him tremendously when Mum died in 2007, but now is the time to rein back a little and only work for a couple of days a week so that he can begin to enjoy his time to himself. To give him a little help and a few suggestions along the way, this book is full of short ideas such as ‘Reclining on Top Deck of the Bus’, ‘Doodling’, ‘Whittling’, ‘Lying in a Hammock’, ‘Walking Back Home Drunk’ – although I don’t think Dad will go for that last one, somehow!! The contributors write for The Idler, a magazine ‘that celebrates freedom, fun and the fine art of doing nothing.’ Their reason for writing the book – “We want to comfort and inspire you with philosophy, satire and reflection, as well as giving practical information to help in the quest for the idle life”.
Sounds like a great idea to me!
11 March, 2009
I read on WeaveTech (thanks to Janice Zindel)today about the following article and visited. It was really informative and important information that we can all use as ammunition when threatened with cuts in the arts. With permission of the authors, as stated in the article, I have reproduced it here. Please use it to petition school governors, district and county councillors and anyone who wishes to make cutbacks in budgets by targeting the arts. I have included the web address at the bottom.
A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus: Hobbling Arts Hobbles Innovation
As the economy stumbles, the first things to get cut at the national, state, and local levels are the arts. The first thing that goes in our school curricula are the arts. Arts, common wisdom tells us, are luxuries we can do without in times of crisis. Or can we?Let’s see what happens when we start throwing out all the science and technology that the arts have made possible.
You may be shocked to find that you’ll have to do without your cell phone or PDA. In the first place, it uses a form of encryption called frequency hopping to ensure your messages can’t easily be intercepted. Frequency hopping was invented by American composer George Antheil in collaboration with the actress Hedy Lamarr. Yeah, really.
Next, the electronic screen that displays your messages (and those on your computer and TV) employ a combination of red, green, and blue dots from which all the different colors can be generated. That innovation was the collaboration of a series of painter-scientists (including American physicist Ogden Rood and Nobel laureate Wilhelm Ostwald) and post-impressionist artists like Seurat – you know, the guy who painted his pictures out of dots of color, just like the ones in your electronic devices. The programming inside owes its existence to J. M. Jacquard, a weaver, who invented programmable looms using punch cards. Exactly the same technique was borrowed to program the first computers and is incorporated into modern programming languages.
Then there are all those computer chips running our critical devices. They’re made using a combination of three classic artistic inventions: etching, silk screen printing, and photolithography. Add to that the fact that data from NASA and NSA satellites is enhanced using artistic techniques such as chiaroscuro (a Renaissance invention) and false coloring (invented by Fauvist painters) to increase contrast so it’s easier to perceive important information. (Parenthetically, artists also figured out how to hide information. Camouflage was invented by the American painter Abbot Thayer and during WWI the Vorticists in England and the Cubists in France were co-opted by their governments to design prints to protect troops, equipment, and planes.) Hey, the arts look pretty useful, huh?
That’s only the beginning. In medicine, the stitches that permit a surgeon to correct an aneurysm or carry out a transplant were invented by American Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel, who took his knowledge of lace making into the operating room. Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin while gathering beautifully colored microbes for his (rather unusual) hobby of “painting” with microorganisms. Pacemakers are simple modifications of musical metronomes. If you have a neurological deficit, your neurologist may employ dance notation to analyze your problem. Physicians at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and other major medical centers are trained by actors to interact humanely with you as a patient. These same physicians may learn to observe your symptoms more closely by being taught to draw, paint or photograph, or through art appreciation courses. Many hospitals employ music to relieve stress in operating rooms and post-operatively. Painting, drawing and sculpting are also used to treat depression and other psychiatric disorders. Indeed, our own institution, Michigan State University, originated music therapy as a way to treat soldiers suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
Oh, and that bridge you may drive over on the way to work? Princeton engineering professor David Billington and Smithsonian historian of technology Brooke Hindle have demonstrated that most innovations in bridge design originated with artistically trained engineers such as John Roebling and Robert Maillart. They’re part of a long tradition of American artist-inventors. You may not know that Samuel Morse (to whom we owe the telegraph) and Robert Fulton (to whom we owe the steam ship) were two of the most prominent 19th century American artists before they turned to inventing — visit the Smithsonian American Art Galleries some time and see for yourself. Alexander Graham Bell was a pianist whose invention of the telephone began with a simple musical game. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes don’t just provide us with unusual architectures, they also inform our understanding of cell and virus structure and permit new biomedical insights. Kenneth Snelson’s tensegrity sculptures (stroll past his “Needle Tower” outside the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden on the Washington Mall) aren’t just fascinating constructions in and of themselves, they’ve also created a whole new form of engineering. Google it!
The fact is that the arts foster innovation. We’ve just published a study that shows that almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences actively engage in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Many connect their art to their scientific ability with some riff on Nobel prizewinning physicist Max Planck words: “The creative scientist needs an artistic imagination.”
Bottom line: Successful scientists and inventors are artistic people. Hobble the arts and you hobble innovation. It’s a lesson our legislators need to learn. So feel free to cut and paste this column into a letter to your senators and congressmen, as well as your school representatives, or simply send them a link to this column. One way or another, if we as a society wish to cultivate creativity, the arts MUST be part of the equation!
Root‑Bernstein, R. S. “Hobbled Arts Limit Our Future,” Los Angeles Times, Op‑Ed page B7, 2 September 1997.
Root-Bernstein, R. S., Root-Bernstein, M.M. “Learning to Think with Emotion,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 Jan 2000, p. A64.
Root-Bernstein, R. S. “Art Advances Science,” Nature 407: 134, 2000.
Root‑Bernstein, R. S. “Music, creativity, and scientific thinking,” Leonardo 34, no. 1, 63-68, 2001.
Root-Bernstein, M. M. and Root-Bernstein, R. S. “Body Thinking Beyond Dance: A Tools for Thinking Approach,” In Overby, Lynette, and Lepczyk, Billie, eds. Dance: Current Selected Research, vol. 5, pp. 173-202, 2005.
Root-Bernstein RS, Lindsay Allen^, Leighanna Beach^, Ragini Bhadula^, Justin Fast^, Chelsea Hosey^, Benjamin Kremkow^, Jacqueline Lapp^, Kaitlin Lonc^, Kendell Pawelec^, Abigail Podufaly^, Caitlin Russ^, Laurie Tennant^, Erric Vrtis^ and Stacey Weinlander^. Arts Foster Success: Comparison of Nobel Prizewinners, Royal Society, National Academy, and Sigma Xi Members. J Psychol Sci Tech 2008; 1 (2): 51-63.
The authors will be happy to send copies to individuals who send their addresses to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
10 March, 2009
The last few days have gone by in a bit of a whirl. I’ve been so busy, interleaving different activities in between each other. This morning, the rain caused me to stop and reflect.
I was walking with Charlie on our usual walk, thinking about all the things I would like to accomplish today, this week, this month, this year, this decade….. the usual ….. when it began to pour with rain. I wasn’t surprised because the sky had looked ominous and Charlie and I had had a discussion as to whether he would get wet enough to justify his waterproof coat, or whether he would overheat in it. He decided to take a chance on the weather. I had my waxed jacket on and a hat and wellies, so it would only be a few bits of me that would get wet if it rained.
Well, it did. It absolutely chucked it down, like someone was throwing out the slops! We got drenched! We took the short walk, but we didn’t scurry along trying to hide from it as people do. We carried on our normal walking pace, and I concentrated on relaxing my shoulders, and noticing where I was getting wet. Normally you don’t think twice about the contact that our clothes have with our skin, but when you are getting soaked, you can become very aware of it! My knees were getting cold and had definite contact with the very wet cotton of my trousers. But that was all. Bits of my face were wet, but I was warm so that wasn’t uncomfortable. But my knees were.
When we got home and Charlie had been towelled off and I changed my trousers, I decided to spend today doing one job only at a time. Not trying to juggle things. I stood and watched the washing up bowl fill with suds and took time to watch and admire the bubbles forming under the pounding water before sliding the plates and cups in the bowl. And for once I didn’t overflow the bowl! I had to keep reminding myself to keep my mind on appreciating the bubbles and enjoying the feel of the hot water whilst I was washing up, to relish the cleanness of the items I’d washed up, to feel good that it was a job that I had enjoyed whilst doing it.
What a lovely feeling!
In a way, this downturn in the world’s economy is also making us focus on different things. With money tight, and job security wobbly, this could be the time to re-evaluate what really matters, to take stock and to begin to appreciate the small things in life that add up to far more riches than money and possessions. Especially in the spring time when trees are budding, hopeful flowers are pushing up through the soil and blooming, and the lambs are appearing in the fields. It’s observation time! It’s a chance to look at things afresh. It could be a hopeful time. All it takes is a little attention to the minutiae of life burgeoning around us, happening right now. Time and attention. Mindfulness.
8 March, 2009
One of the lessons that weaving teaches is patience. All kinds of patience – the ‘take a deep breath and count to 10’ patience when something easily preventable happens; the ‘am I dedicated enough to the quality of this piece that I unweave those picks to sort out that mistake?’ patience; the ‘can I be disciplined enough to weave a sample to check how it’s going to end up when wet-finished?’ patience; and just the normal sort of patience that you need to go and fix that broken end rather than weave on.
I think weaving should be compulsory to teach patience! I am smiling as I write those words because I know that many would disagree with me, and to some extent, I disagree with myself! Patience is a valuable life lesson to learn and many of us find that, through our weaving, we are more patient with other people, and also with things that go wrong just for the sheer hell of it!! On the other hand, would I want weaving to be seen as a life’s lesson? No, of course not. If someone has no interest in it, it would be purgatory for them and put them off weaving for life – like liver and peas for me!!
And of course, we learn best when we are doing something we enjoy. There are many other ways to learn patience, but for me weaving has been the best teacher. I can’t honestly say that it works every time. Just today, one of my baby jacquard looms was having a hissy fit – not lifting certain ends – and in the end I realised it was down to my lack of a maintenance routine on the card-cutting and lacing equipment, and the loom itself. Whilst I realised and appreciated that, I was somewhat frustrated because I was in the middle of weaving a project, and the cards were not presenting themselves accurately to the jacquard head which meant that quite a few cards ended up mangled with resultant mis-picks. At the beginning of my 2 hour session, I went up and down the ladder quite frequently, and with a certain amount of laissez-faire. By the end of my 2 hour session, I was more bad-tempered whenever the recalcitrant cards came up, and less likely to go up the ladder to fix it. A salutary tale to remind me that maintenance must be done when I’m not actually using the machinery!!!
Patience with machinery is one thing – they can’t answer back so it doesn’t matter if you vent a little – but patience with people is totally different. Some people are incredibly patient – I’m thinking particularly here about people who care for little ones, for the elderly, for people with disabilities, to name but a few – and they are never valued financially as they should be. Trying to be patient with my little problems in weaving makes me appreciate much more the incredible job that so many people do for so little reward.
2 March, 2009
I’ve been reading an old book by an author called Eric Williams. He was a pilot in the Second World War and his book is called The Tunnel, and is about escaping from captivity. His first confinement was in a small cell and brought back to my mind Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and the more recent kidnapping of British journalist Alan Johnston, and got me wondering about how I would react to such enclosure. The more I thought about it the more I realised that it’s impossible to know in advance how we’d each react to such conditions. What we hope we would do could well be completely different to how we actually behaved in such circumstances. Hopefully we shall never have to face that ultimate truth about ourselves, because I’m not sure that I would be as strong and full of character as I hope I would be.
This brings another, also uncomfortable, reflection. How little we actually know ourselves. Even in daily life, with its never-ending decisions, we can surprise ourselves. On one day, we might react one way to a set of circumstances, but on another day, the same circumstances might evoke a completely different, even the reverse, reaction. There is no real way to know which is more us – only our own sense of right, wrong, principles, morality, social awareness – and who’s to say that’s actually us, anyway?!
We like to think we have characters that are pretty much constant, but just a few minutes thought can show us that actually, we are in constant flux about everything – how we think about things, react to situations, read our own and others’ actions and conversations.
Going back to these books, would I have the mental discipline to form a physical routine to keep myself fit? Would I have the mental strength to withstand solitary confinement, or torture? Or would I decide that passive resistance, acquiescence, or co-operation would be the best course? And what stories would I tell myself to justify my actions, one way or the other?
Thank goodness most of us will never be tested in this way, but this reflection brings home to me that I just don’t know myself as I like to think I do, and I probably never will…. But that shouldn’t, and mustn’t, stop me trying to imagine how I could be my best self, and what that best self would be.
The only thing I can do is to try to live each day being the best ‘me’ I can be at that time, even in the most trivial of things in daily life. Tomorrow, I could well be something different.