I’ve been thinking about ‘stuff’ this last week, stuff like things, possessions, things we own and fill our homes with. I don’t know if this has to do with watching the little birds in the trees making their nests in the bird boxes but maybe it does. The birds are so busy and single minded in their work, coming and going, popping in and out of their houses in some well worked-out relay. I have no idea how it all happens between the birds but there seem to be pairs who decide on a particular bird box, in one case I wondered if they were the same couple who were here last year because that one of the boxes was inhabited while the others weren’t. Anyway, they start work on their nests and I wondered if those who found an old nest in their chosen box, which just needed a bit of attention, were happier than those who had to start one from scratch. I’m not sure because one couple spent all afternoon removing stuff from their newly acquired box so I can only imagine it was dirty or maybe badly made or from the wrong stuff. Or perhaps the process of building the nest is a fundamental part of the preparation of laying and hatching eggs. Anyhow, the perfection and simplicity of their efforts puts us to shame with all our excesses in nest building and all its social and cultural connotations. Surely all anyone requires is a shelter that will protect us from the elements and which we can keep warm by basic means. Birds must have some superior insulation in their feathers and their little scaly feet maybe don’t feel the cold but, even with a blazing fire, our nests are so out of scale with the necessary.
When we sold up and left our old home we sold virtually all our possessions too. This was partly because we wanted to feel the lightness of not owning things but also, since we were going to be living in a van there wasn’t any space for more than the essentials. Initially it did feel liberating to know that everything we owned was in that van with us, but as time passed and the only door key we possessed was for the van we began to feel as if we had lost who we were. It was a difficult and scary time, not being able to find where we wanted to be in order to settle again, so part of our unhappiness was due to that but it was frightening not to belong anywhere, not to have somewhere we could to go back to where we had friends who knew us. People had said that we were brave when they heard of our plans but we didn’t understand what they meant or why they would think it. For us, bravery hadn’t come into it, not at that stage anyway. It was much later after a lot more experiences that I came to realise that the bravery friends spoke of was about our daring to abandon our carefully constructed life and the determination we had in trying to make a new one.
As time passes and our years begin to add up I get the feeling that our nests become lined with the experiences and values which we continue to gather until a certain time in life and then there are no more new ones to add. We are happy with what kind of person we turned out to be and without knowing it we set about ensuring that nothing new comes along to challenge our perception or to make us understand that life still has to be lived, right up until we die. We have our values, beliefs, experiences and houses full of stuff which reinforce for us who we are. Actually it was this defining which made us feel as though we were suffocating, that we were being shaped by our past and it was weighing us down. The painful, in our case, process of shedding was not something we planned, as with so much of our journey we groped our way along and tried to understand what felt right or didn’t. In hindsight what we were trying to do seems so obvious but we felt we were blindly responding to our emotions, apparently it always turns out easier to see the patterns and to understand things in retrospect.
Now we have our simply appointed hut and are very happy, even though the list of things it doesn’t have far exceeds the list of things which it has. We have learned to keep life alive, to expect to be amazed everyday by where we are and the things we see and experience and to know that not having the answers to everything is perfectly acceptable.
Our nests should be places which shelter us and keep us safe. They shouldn’t be places which we turn into a fortress of values and certainties which we then have to protect.
This fortress idea came to me as I’m re reading Austerlitz by WG Sebald in which there is mention of the building of fortifications….really fascinating:
…….it had been forgotten that the largest fortifications will attract the largest enemy forces and that the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive……..
We may not be defending our homes against invaders but when ideas or theories new to us come our way we shouldn’t automatically feel the need to leap to defend our old, dearly held views. Maybe sometimes there’ll be a new perspective for us to consider and then to accommodate amongst our constantly and healthily shifting values which can be really exciting. Anyway, our nests should be all we need to keep us cosy and not stuffed with things we don’t need. Happily even the smallest nests have room for new thoughts.
Living here, in a foreign country we have realised that it’s necessary to ‘imbibe’ what’s going on around us in a way that wasn’t needed in our own culture. Language is of course part of the difference but it’s not just words, if it were then steadily learning grammar and vocabulary would be enough, but we have found that it isn’t. Usage for one thing illustrated that we use lots of phrases in daily life and never think how weird those things might sound when translating them word for word into another language. And of course, foreign languages too have their own strange turns of phrase. For example, we might say was are looking forward to seeing someone, where as people here say they are ‘ilusionado’ about seeing someone, which looks like it might have something to do with illusion but in this case obviously doesn’t. For us it’s like living in a word puzzle, requiring lots of concentration and which can be very satisfying when you discover something new and feel you’ve gained a bit of knowledge or, that finally you have understood something. But there’s the other stuff, life lived differently, cultural points of reference which refer to things we know nothing about. Like the last however many years of politicians, public figures, musicians, footballers, TV presenters, artists, authors etc, well known people who have contributed actions or events which form a backdrop to everyday life. We are at sea without a compass with regard to these types of thing.
Learning to understand a foreign culture and its language is tremendous exercise for the brain; we are constantly looking for clues or meanings from the people we encounter. Moods, kindness, irritation, shyness or friendliness it can be very tiring and we’re aware of grappling with tiny bits of information and trying to make sense of them. Over time I think we have developed a kind of telescoping technique of zooming in and out while speaking to people, checking for extraneous information while trying to work out which of the things we are hearing are useful or not so important.
In a way, despite all our gathered experience and expanding vocabulary I get the feeling that we will always be slightly out of step here even with our friends but then, we definitely felt the same way with many people in our own country. Having certain principles or passions can set you apart so it’s not really so different being here. Words are one thing, but I think the world’s obsession with language, both spoken and written and the endless chattering and noise all around us can make it difficult for us to really hear what is important, even in our own tongue. Spoken words have their limitations and their potency has been reduced from overuse.
In a way, language has been given too much value, there must be lots of other ways that we can communicate but have lost the ability over time. There is a wonderful example of this in the work of Reggio Emilia in Italy and it’s thrilling to see examples of the creativity and inspired work which happens there every day. Reggio Emilia is the name of a school for young children in Italy which was set up after the war by Loris Malaguzzi and a group of parents from a desire to:
‘ …..bring about change and create a new, more just world, free from oppression…………urging women and men to gather the strength and build with their own hands, schools for their young children’.
Learning in Reggio Emilia centres on the children’s exploration of their world using creativity as their only tool. They are assisted and enabled in their work by their teachers and parents. One of the interesting central themes of Reggio Emilia is its acceptance of the ‘hundred languages of children’. This is a reference to the incredibly diverse ways young children have in communicating before they acquire a full spoken language. Visit the site and be inspired.
Anyway, thinking of all this stuff about communication, language, both forgotten and acquired, I have begun wondering about nature and how we can understand it. Maybe in the far distant past we were more connected and were part of the whole environment so could pick up nuances, rhythms and understand their significance. I’m conscious of letting go of all the complex ways I acquired in communicating and understanding in all those years of work, not just because of the need to create more space in my head but because those skills just doesn’t mean that much here, it’s like a foreign currency, it doesn’t have any value. Obviously foreign culture and language are things we are growing to understand, however, we are realising that nature’s way of communicating is going to be fascinating to experience and understand.
Over this last week there has been a dramatic change in the weather, literally days ago we had the stove alight and each time we left home we were wrapped in jumpers, jackets and waterproofs to try and keep dry in the endless rain. Today its 30 degrees, the sun is burningly bright and we have been watering the young trees in pots outside the house. What can it mean? Each morning we are treated to an ensemble chorus of every kind of bird as they enjoy the spring and start nesting. While sitting in our porch a pair of swifts flew back and forth only a foot above our heads, looking for a suitable bit of roof to start building. We felt honoured by their visit because we’ve never seen swifts around here; they usually stick to the old buildings in the pueblo. I wonder why this should be. Is there something we could understand if we had the ability? The thing is, maybe we don’t understand what is going on around us but it’s fascinating to think that eventually we might and we feel that it’s really worth the effort of giving ourselves over to trying. We have become accustomed to the sensation that our brains are being exercised in a way which they definitely wouldn’t have been if we hadn’t set out on our journey so maybe, eventually, we will understand more about nature and even discover a way to understand it at a deeper and fundamentally different way than merely thinking about it in words. I seriously think that the preschool children at Reggio Emilia have something to teach us.
After three weeks of end to end heavy rain everyone here has been called upon to dig deep and draw on their own personal resolve to survive the onslaught. As I’ve mentioned, there’s no weather in these parts which can be taken lightly, even rain is extreme. Last Sunday there was a full twenty four hours of heavy rain, enlivened by a cracking thunder and hail storm in the middle of the night. Even the hardiest of souls were wringing their hands and looking worried as streams of water coursed down the hillsides and gushed along the roadside gullies under leaden skies. It’s small wonder, when confronted by a drenching just getting for the door of the house to the car, almost everyone opts to stay indoors, stoke up the fire and think of all those outdoor jobs waiting to be done. I think it might be called enforced slowing down. Even the teams of men who come to the hillside in the local authority Landrovers to brush cut the firebreaks sit hunched behind steamed up windows unable to get outside.
In a way it can be a pleasure for us to be forced indoors, to be able to think of things other than practical matters and enjoy the luxury of living slowly. Time to think, read books and write letters. Obviously, giving into severe weather conditions wouldn’t have been an option if we weren’t here on our hillside but beavering away in the city as we used to, protected from the elements in warm, bright offices. Being here, indoors behind our rain-streaked windows with clouds scooting past, I wondered if it would be possible for us to reconnect with that world, would it be too alien now. I know that when we set out I used to worry about becoming so disconnected, that it would be impossible for me to retrace my steps back to our old life and I feel as if I left a mental trail of breadcrumbs back to the city. I haven’t thought about that in ages, maybe its rainy days like these, when life seems to pause, which give random thoughts a chance to surface. I can remember well trying to keep one foot in that other place, not actually disconnecting so that no break actually happened because, like everyone else, I wanted to think that any door, even one into the past, wasn’t closed to me.
But recently, and only recently, I’ve realised that decisions about life have to be made. Choices, one thing or another, and amazingly it’s taken me my whole life until now, to realise that it’s acceptable not to do something, to say no. With this discovery came to realisation that I was free to set out my stall with all the things, values, ideas which what mattered to me, it’s just so strange that it should take me so long.
It was while I was still feeling the newness of this discovery that I saw a leaflet from a cultural organisation in London about a special weekend of activities with a programme of performances, discussions and events. And apart from the excessively energetic language: ‘ground-breaking’ ‘thought provoking’ ‘award-winning’ ‘critically acclaimed’ ‘compelling’ ‘powerful’, or maybe it was because the whole thing seemed so unnecessarily breathless and alien that it felt weird, and sort of bobbed along next to my revelation about saying no to things. Maybe the reason it had been impossible for me to decide on my own personal values was because I had been surrounded by all this ‘noise’ which acted as an invasive interruption.
Perhaps because city life is so distant from nature’s quiet soothing rhythms it makes its own beat which sounds strident, bullying, insistent and hard to ignore. It’s hard to imagine but who would have known that revelations about personal values and clarity on life’s important things could have settled around me now in the same way that the sunlight appears here after the intense greyness of the endless rain. All very odd, but there we are, it seems we can understand or discover important things without all the drama and drum banging noisiness of living in the city.
Here we are in March already, pulling ourselves out of a long, cold and wet winter, intent on looking forward to sunnier times. Actually, I’ve been trying to work out if this is winter really has been longer or whether it just feels that way, maybe it’s the excess of cold, wet weeks that have made this winter seem so interminable. Isn’t it strange how time can feel so elastic, telescoping back and forth in our memories making us think that some event was only yesterday when it was actually months ago and conversely, things which have just happened seem to slip quickly into the past. Maybe that has more to do with how we feel about particular events rather than real time.
Actually, the only thing which ticks along in a fairly regular and even pattern is the passage of the days; they mostly do feel the same length. This probably means that our minds can just about deal with twenty four hours, more than that and our grip becomes less firm and our feelings more hazy.
I sometimes wonder about our perceptions of things, like how long things really take, time actually passing, distance between events and the changing seasons. Those things are all in sharp focus here, even if we have difficulty keeping tabs on them or being aware of what is happening. At this time of year we are willing the lovely days of spring to arrive, wondering how long it’ll be before we feel the warm sun on our chilly skin, when if we could just take notice of the bigger picture, of all that nature around us, we’d be able to see that it was already happening. March is incredibly different from December or even February when everything appeared to have stopped. We hardly ever heard the birds singing, we were enshrouded in a muffled grey light, the hills covered in mist, soundless apart from when we were visited by heavy rain or the roaring wind rattling the roof tiles. But now the light has changed, the trees are full of noisy birds and everything is coming back to life so quickly. There are lots of wild plants here and they have burst into flower just in this last week, there’s colour everywhere. Many plants are like the gorse and broom, bright, perfect yellow and the leggy heather so pink that the opposite side of the valley, which is usually brown, looks as if it has been sprayed with a soft haze of pinkness.
The track from our little hut down to the pueblo takes us through high pine trees, big rocks and boulders which are now surrounded by sprays of bright yellow and pink, everything so alive, fresh and vibrant. Those plants have been there all winter, dressed in their dull winter clothes, blending in with the damp grey background, now they’re covered in flowers. It’s the same thing as time, one moment things are happening and the next they are slipping into the past, retreating into obscurity. But isn’t it amazing that nature produced these cycles, dark, brooding, unproductive times followed by the big burst of colour and transient beauty. Actually I shouldn’t think of it as amazing because it’s the plants which have the real rhythm, it’s what nature does all year through and it’s what we have so much difficulty grasping. I wonder if it’s to do with perspective, our vision has got so close or short, I’m not sure which but we spend more and more time looking at things near to us, right in front of our noses, like computer screens, television and the ever present mobile phone, that to stretch our eyes away from the immediate is almost alien.
Our little place is hunkered down on a steep hillside. Pine trees and rock loom behind us and the land slips away in front down into a deep valley. It’s so steep it’s not possible to get down to the bottom, there’s water there, we can hear it foaming for days after a big rain storm but we’ve never actually seen it. We’ve plenty of windows to look out of and can see for miles, right across the valley to the mirror steep slope on the other side where we are level with the top of the burnished, pink heather hills. On clear days we can see to the horizon some sixty kilometres away. We are accustomed to our crow’s nest view, sky all around, but it’s still possible to be surprised. Out on our little porch, which protects us from the strongest elements of the weather, I could hear the griffon vultures circling and naturally looked out from under the porch and up at the sky. When I couldn’t see them it took me a moment to realise that my perspective was wrong, I was looking up when I should have been looking down. Down to the trees below where the birds were flying, it appears that sometimes we are above the birds. The trees down there look so miniature but really they’re huge oaks. Down there is where the sky starts and the tree tops sway. Our difficulty is in understanding what we’re looking at because we are so high up and trees are usually something you stand underneath.
In the same view we heard a rumbling noise and after adjusting our eyes, could just make out a little yellow shape appearing and disappearing under the trees right at the bottom but couldn’t work out what it was. A person? Some sort of bird? Eventually we realised if it had been either one, we couldn’t have seen them because they’d have been too small. Having dusted off the old binoculars we squinted down and saw a tiny yellow tractor moving backwards and forwards in the lens, ploughing the ground under the trees. Even though we were seeing and understanding what it obviously was, it took some time for our minds to accept it because the thing was so, so small when we knew those tractors where huge. Literally, we couldn’t believe our eyes.
But it was a very useful thing because now I often think of the yellow tractor when I’m trying to understand how nature works or how long or far something seems. It’s easy to be looking through the wrong end of the telescope and not getting a real perspective.
The month of February is apparently the lowest point in the year. We are almost out of the push which saw us through December and up to Christmas with its tinsel and lights. Their afterglow and all the celebrations managed to take us to the end of January, even though it was cold and grey we had the feeling that if only we could last out until the end of the month, spring would be there for us in February. But unlike TS Elliot, who thought that April was the cruellest month, I reckon that honour goes to February. Granted, April pretends to have something warm and friendly to offer us, with glimpses of the summer to come but then cruelly dashes our hopes with late snow and bleak coldness. At least February doesn’t pretend. It is the low point.
More people die in February than in any other month of the year. I don’t know if that’s statistically correct but my Mum told me it was true so surely that makes it fact. Years ago she worked at a dry cleaners in a parade of shops opposite the local crematorium. Her boss, having had the advantage of seeing many Februaries pass, observed that this was the month when the crematorium was at its busiest, it was the low point in the year where those hanging on by a thread just couldn’t cling on any more. I wonder if that’s really true or if there’s something related to the universe, to do with the magnetic pull of the earth or the planet’s atmosphere or a shift in the earth’s axis. In other words, something bigger than us which occurs in February and takes some of us with it in its wake. Perhaps it’s more acceptable to believe in the big thing rather than it just being the endless cold greyness which adds depression to physical illness and ultimately equals death. I don’t know.
I’ve been thinking about it because our friend died, the one who was in hospital, and it just seems wrong. I know people will say that 83 was a good age and that death comes to us all but my question is, why does it? Why does it come? I’m not sure if I mean the actual dying itself, which seems so utterly sad and awful or why, when however old we are, we can never really be ready to go. Certainly all those left behind aren’t ready to be alone. It’s just not right. The more I think about it, the more I am left with the feeling that for all our so-called advancement we still don’t understand the simplest thing i.e., why do we have to die and why are we so unprepared for our own and our dearest’s departures? We cloud the issue by focussing more and more on inanities and things which waste life so appallingly, like chatting online. Is there anything more disrespectful to our short lives than chatting? Meanwhile, if all the clever people are busy inventing things like Facebook who can we look to, to help us understand our end? Maybe society’s worship of youth culture is the acknowledgment that there is no answer and that our obsession with being young is us trying to back away from our inevitable end.
An Indian friend once said that he couldn’t understand why Western cultures were so worried and fearful about dying, never wanting to think or talk about it, let alone embrace it. In his culture life and death were much more closely tied together. Everyone understood that death was part of life, not some bogeyman waiting to snatch us away, death was the next stage, it happened in the context of everyday life and was somehow more acceptable.
Maybe it’s just that unreal sense of people being rubbed out of our lives, the sudden disappearance which seems so wrong. Would I feel less sad about Tim’s being missing from our lives if I knew that he was prepared to go and that his family were not so distraught? I don’t know but it seems wrong that he’s no longer here.
When someone is missing from the daily roll call of life their disappearance affects everyone who knew them. So surely that means that our lives are really about us belonging to other people and to our place. In a way it’s one of the things we feel keenly here, because we are foreigners living in a tiny rural community. We’ve no family here and didn’t know a soul when we arrived but somehow we have managed to edge our way into this place. Unlike the big city we came from this place is almost entirely made up of inter-related people. Cousins, aunts, brother-in-laws, nephews, godmothers, great aunts and how strange it must have been for these people who, not only have known each other since birth, but in many cases have connections going back through generations, to have to work out how we fitted into the pattern of the place. Bizarrely it seems to be happening, not due to any huge effort on our part beyond being grateful for local people’s acceptance and respectful of their way of life. Gradually over almost four years we have become ‘familiar’, family, a term for those who belong here, a greeting when we meet each other in the nearby small town. People miss us if we fail to materialise when we are expected in the pueblo, they report that we had been asked after and are happy to know we are well and back on track, i.e. visible. People are ready to offer what might be needed in the way of help or at least solidarity whenever we have a problem. Maybe it’s always been this way in small places. Help had to be found amongst its people because there was no one else to ask.
Yet, deaths do affect everyone here too. There was a funeral yesterday because even in Spain, February claims its own. The crowd of black-clad people were huddled outside the church, sharing their loss and again I felt it was wrong. But there was a difference and I think it might have something to do with small places and small communities. Everyone who lives here knew the woman who died and likely, they’ll have a memory or two of their relationship. So maybe this makes if feel that even though she’s no longer here her part in the fabric of life won’t fall into holes because of her absence. Everyone’s memories will ensure that. And after many years her part will have been reworked and embroidered over by the people who continue to live here so that the fabric will continue to hold her and everyone else in it.
I’m going to ponder this fabric thing as I continue to miss Tim’s regular, weekly letters. Love, death, memory and place are surely something for us all to think about, but thankfully February is behind us and we can look forward to a hopeful March and the joys of the spring to come.
I’ve just read two really fantastic books back to back: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and all the while I was reading them and popping back into real life I felt as if I was looking at the world while standing on my head or through the distorted glass in the bottom of a bottle. Are things really as they seem? Or do our minds have the capacity to make order out of a jumble of images just to make things comfortable? In creative and marvellous stories where odd events happen, the characters quickly adapt to the strangeness and accept things, obviously because if they didn’t the story wouldn’t work, but I have a feeling that if something odd happened in our everyday lives we too would just as quickly accept it and in no time it would cease to be strange.
Not long ago we watched a lovely film called Another Earth, where one day a seemingly identical planet earth appeared far away in the sky. At first people were concerned, although not hysterically so and then gradually, over the years it took for the other planet to come closer, they became accustomed to it and mostly decide to carry on with their lives. But then, what else would they do? Go crazy? Jump off tall buildings? I know that this too was a story but I do think that our ability to adapt to strangeness seems to indicate that there is something inside us, ready to accept almost any change in our environment and that thing helps us shift our perception of how things are. After all, those Apollo trips of the 1970’s suddenly changed our understanding of the moon and we accepted that.
There’s something liberating in this idea which appeals to me. It makes me think that if one day, the planet decides to shift and make dramatic changes then we’ll just assimilate the change and learn to live with it, provided that’s possible. The wonderful part is imagining the incredible.
I think people should be encouraged to think the impossible because currently most people prefer to function using only so called, hard facts. Immutable truths, accepted values, shared knowledge and very few people spend time wondering what life would be like if things were ‘other’. I’m sure this obsession with so called facts is a symptom of our society’s state of being, its obsession with news, documentaries and the internet, maybe people think that there’s nothing left to wonder about, the answers are all out there. Definitely people are more drawn to stories which are based on ‘true life experiences’ than fiction. But isn’t that a shame, when there are so many wonderful books about the strange and magical. What will happen to our imaginations? Will they start to stagnate from lack of exercise, so that eventually even another planet earth turning up will be accepted, once it has been sanitised by television crews?
Where does that leave fantastic stories like The Time Travellers Wife and The Night Circus? Trapped in a bubble of make-believe or whimsy? Or can they really help us understand who we are and our sense of place from a different perspective? Actually, I find it hard to accept that stories as well made as these don’t have a resonance with our world. Could the authors have written those stories without believing that there are things going on which we might not understand? After all, the planet exists, we exist, animals, plants, trees, the sky, the sun, wouldn’t those things be incredible, fantastic and hard to believe if we hadn’t already accepted them? Surely it stands to reason that there are many more marvellous things out there. Why not? It’s just that our perceptions aren’t up to the job of seeing that they’re there, not helped by our current obsession with facts and figures, true life stories, tangible television-worthy material. Our other senses are shrivelling like our imaginations from lack of exercise.
The other thing I wondered about while stretching my mind around these beautiful stories was, what is actually going on inside people in today’s world if all the things which occupy our thinking are so external, like obsessing over the next electrical gadget or fashion accessory and absorbing superficial information. What is happening to our hearts and our souls? What feeds those important parts of us, what keeps them alive, warm and loving? It has to be something intangible and impossible to quantify but how do those obsessed with measurable things know what that is?
This week I realised what that intangible is for those who have shared a long life with someone else. A friend in his eighties is ill in hospital and the only thing his wife and family are hoping for is that he will be restored to them. They know well the rituals which make a real life, the shared morning coffee, the pleasure of the garden they have made together and the joy their little dog brings. These simple, meaningful things have been made by people who know love. The only thing which breathes life into hearts and souls is the sharing of a life with another person, someone whose own heart and soul is nourished and maintained by our care and attention. The intangible, immeasurable, elusive, unquantifiable thing we all search for, which doesn’t conform to scientific measurement or any sort of easily supplied internet answer. So maybe the world isn’t as lost as it might seem because all the while we value, above all other things the intangible wonderfulness of finding love and living true to its meaning there’s still hope.
Christmas, New Year, then Los Reyes Magos – the Spanish celebration of exchanging gifts. It’s been a long break. So long in fact that it’s actually hard to remember what our life was like before all the usual day-to-day activities were suspended. Holidays or, as they are known here, fiestas are eagerly anticipated. And that’s not because they are rare events, one glance at the calendar will reveal a holiday almost every month, but I am beginning to understand that there is something very important here about these breaks. Quite apart from the relaxation of having a day or more off, it seems that local people actually feel more like themselves when they aren’t at work. Here the business of living is valued, just being with family and friends needs no explanation this is the way life should be lived. Going to work is a necessary evil but not one which anyone spends much time indulging. As for ambition, it’s not really something I’ve come across here at all. Maybe it’s a symptom of living in our tiny, rural corner. Just looking at the map of Spain shows us literally clinging on to the bottom left hand corner, geographically disconnected from the rest of the country. Maybe there are people in faraway cities ambitiously planning their futures, hoping to be someone different by the time the next New Year comes along, perhaps even knowing where they want to be in five years time. But here, we celebrated the arrival of 2013 with new friends at a party in the pueblo. The clock struck midnight and, as is the tradition, everyone ate one grape for each chime to ensure a year of good luck. Earlier in the evening we had all written our New Year wishes on pieces of paper and then folded them up to stay secret until next New Year’s Eve when we will see how many of our wishes came true. Rather nice to have wishes I thought, as if how things turn out is divined by a power other than ourselves, very different from making New Year’s resolutions; all those promises to try harder, be better, improve ourselves, set new goals. New Year wishes are left to resolve themselves, hopefully in our favour.
Maybe the difference between English and Spanish New Year hopes has something to do with what we perceive as our purpose. What are we here for? Are we supposed to be striving for something or does that notion come from an external force? Who knows? I can understand hopes and wishes though, after all, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t hanker after something, but are we just here to have or acquire things or could our wishes be about how to actually feel things better? Could we, for example, aspire to improve our senses?
I was wondering about all this the other day as I watched a flock of vultures floating in the sky. They were really high up, lifting and dropping, turning and rising on air currents. It was a warm, bright day, the sky as blue as it is possible to be, an unreal children’s sky colour and I thought about the birds. I know that they come from a special bird reserve about 25 kilometres away where in recent years they have been reintroduced. But why did those birds come to our bit of sky on that day? Was it the first bit of hillside they came across after the flat pains where they live? Have they decided to nest here? Is there more food? Who knows? We can hardly understand our own actions let alone the motives of other creatures. Maybe that’s what makes their behaviour so attractive, as if the decisions which wild creatures make are so pure and impulsive. No agonising or planning and with no obvious outcomes. Watching the birds as they were gliding I felt as if they’d got it right. They were just being purely in that moment, right then. Not storing up their wishes for next year. Us humans always need a whole fabric of planning, wanting, waiting, aspiring. I guess that’s all in response to the complex lives we lead, even when we’re trying to keep it simple sometimes it’s just not that easy.
But now I’ve had my revelation watching the birds, I’m going to try and keep them in my mind’s eye. Something to reflect on when I’m feeling cornered and maybe that image will help bring things back to the real, simple business of living.