Thursday 1 October 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Disappointment

How disappointed we feel will depend on the magnitude of our disappointment.  If my soufflĂ© fails to rise or I discover the dress I planned to wear to an important occasion no longer fits I will be mildly disappointed, but if my daughter fails to win a place at the university of her choosing I may be very disappointed.  I may feel that the decision to turn her down is unfair.  All the more so if I believe that it will have a significant impact on her career, once she graduates. 

I will be disappointed on her behalf, as well.  And, like most parents, I will feel disappointed, for her, if her boyfriend dumps her for someone else. The disappointment I feel will be the measure of how deeply I empathise with her disappointment.

How we respond to any given disappointment – how unhappy we feel - is measure of much we’ve invested in our hopes and expectations for an outcome.  We will doubtless feel sadness, dissatisfaction or displeasure that something we’d anticipated would go according to plan has not come to pass.  And if, upon reflection, we can see beyond our immediate feelings, disappointment can be a means for growth.  We may find that as we comfort ourselves with platitudes like, ‘It wasn’t meant to be,’ or ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea,’ that there’s compensation to be had in every disappointment

David Whyte, writing in Consolations agrees that disappointment can be a teacher: an opportunity to not only reappraise who we have become and our relationship to the world (our place in it) but also to consider “the larger foundational reality that lies beyond any false self we had only projected upon the outer world.”  Disappointment may be “the first stage of our emancipation into the next greater pattern of existence.”

So the measure of what we can learn from disappointment is the measure of our willingness to embrace it as a teacher; our willingness to allow it to bring us back down to ground.  Whyte understands this to mean that disappointment can restore us “to a firmer sense of our self, a surer sense of our world, and what is good and possible for us in the world, or whether we experience it only as a wound that makes us retreat from farther participation.”

In the light of what we discover about ourselves and the world  we may see that our aspirations weren’t realistic in the first place and consider that if we set our expectations lower, we’ll have less disappointment, and any disappointment we do experience won’t feel as crushing:  if we don’t have hope, our hope can’t be crushed.  Without hope and expectation, we couldn’t have disappointment.  But is living without hope a life really worth living? Would we really be happier if we expected everything in our life to crumble to ashes?  Realistically we wouldn’t attempt anything.  Sadly, some people do give up and are reduced to shadows of their former selves.

I begin to feel that Whyte’s response on disappointment is a tad melodramatic.  At one time to disappoint mean ‘to undo the appointment, remove from office,’ but now?  I can appreciate that the confiscation of title and lands in the early fifteenth century would have had serious repercussions, but in this day and age don’t we understand disappointment to be something a lot less serious? 

Surely, what we understand as disappointment doesn’t impinge on us to this extent?  I’m not sure I would describe my response to a heart broken in love or the hurt a disloyal friend has caused me as merely disappointing; I would consider the word disappointment too mild.  

OK.  I’m probably splitting hairs.   A mid-life crisis can be described as having a sense of profound disappointment – not as a response to any one event, but to a series of events.  My understanding is that disappointment of this magnitude (which I feel is where Whyte is coming from) is best described as a nebulous intense feeling – that will have as much to do with how we consider things ought to be as with how things actually are.  

And thus - despite my misgivings - I find myself agreeing with Whyte.  Irrespective of the magnitude disappointment is always a reality check and a call to transformation.

Wednesday 30 September 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Destiny

How comforting to think that “There's a divinity that shapes our ends.  Rough-hew them how we will—.” (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 2).  No need to be accountable to ourselves – or indeed to anyone else.  Divine providence has a grand plan laid out for us; all we have to do is to give in gracefully.  Fine, if we are destined for great things; but far less tantalising if a power greater than ourselves has decided that we are born to commit heinous crimes, or to live out a life that will come to nothing much at all, despite our best efforts.

David Whyte, writing in Consolations, says that the word, destiny, is hardly used like this, but I’m not so sure.  Just look at the wealth of books that would have us believe we born to achieve great things.  This sort of literature allures us with the promise that we’re meant for something much better than the cards we’ve been dealt.  Destiny understood in this sense is "a word of storybook or mythic dimension.”

But, I do the literature an injustice, because its overriding message is that, having identified a special something that only we can achieve, it’s down to us to follow the road less travelled, with discipline.  As Bruce Lee said, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”

For my money, Heraclitus had it about right, when he said that, “character is destiny.”  He was not a fatalist – far from it – he had a profound belief in our responsibility to shape our own ends.  “Good character is not formed in a week or a month ... Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”  He believed in free will. 

But this is where it gets complicated: in order for free will to exist, our thoughts and actions must be the result of our will and our will alone. Yet, all things in the universe appear to be subject to cause and effect.  So why would our thoughts and actions be any different?  It would seem that in order to have free will, we would be defying the laws of reality, which is all events are caused by previous events.  And if we are capable of defying the laws of reality, then that would suggest that we are god-like.

Whyte’s attempts to resolve this dichotomy are refreshing.  “When we choose between these two poles of mythic treatment or fated failure, we may miss … that our future is influenced by the very way we hold the conversation of life itself.”  This – broadly speaking - humanist stance hinges on how we perceive the world.  “We are shaped by our shaping of the world and are shaped again, in turn.  The way we face the world alters the face we see in the world.” 

This applies just as much to a bad deal as it does to possibilities.  We always have a choice. “The sense of satisfaction involved and the possibility of fulfilling its promise may depend on our brave participation, a willingness to hazard ourselves in a difficult world, a certain form of wild generosity with our gifts.”  

We can be equal to whatever we encounter.  This is not the same as saying it is easy, but is saying that we can give the fates (for want of a much better expression!) a good run for their money.  It’s down to us: to engage with the “everyday conversational essence of destiny;” to know ourselves, and to be brave.

I leave you with one of Whyte’s poems:


Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving. 

~ David Whyte

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Postcard from Wales

When T and I packed to go to Wales almost the first thing to go in the car was what we call our Welsh box, containing out considerable collection of guidebooks and Ordnance Survey maps.

This was our eight visit since we first started going in 2003. We've been back almost every year since then. And ever since we discovered Bryn Aere Bach

We'd always stayed in mid-Wales - and in Powys in particular - but once we discovered this outstanding accommodation we've never stayed anywhere else. I'd be happy to try somewhere else, and in maybe a different part of Wales, but T is a creature of habit - and no mistake.He may have a point; there's a lot to be said for not wasting precious time (we only ever go for a week at a time) by finding one's feet. Everything felt so familiar on our arrival it felt like we were going to visit a home from home. Everything was just as we'd left it!

T is normally keen to do nothing much at all on holiday and in the past we've compromised by going out on alternate days. 

But this time we went out every single day; even on our first day when I accompanied T to the Co-op at Machynlleth.  As I often spend all week indoors at home I jumped at the chance to go out and about.  As the surrounding countryside is so lovely I was really pleased to see it, again.

I was pleased that the sun was shining, because I knew the weather forecast for the week was not good.  It had been outstanding throughout the UK during the previous week and I was rather sad that we'd picked the 'wrong' week.  However it didn't rain today, and nor did it rain all week!  We were even promised a nasty storm on Wednesday that either didn't materialise or just passed us by.

On Monday we drove to Aberystwyth and visited our usual haunts: the National Library and the Arts Centre.  

I managed not to spend too much money, save that I did buy some Christmas presents and I could not resist a divine lilac moleskin notebook.  

And T, who had already bought my Name's Day present, bought me a lovely pair of earrings to replace the other Welsh pair that I lost in Poland, earlier this year.  What a lovely surprise.  

There was a lot of see, but nowhere near enough time to do it justice.  We opted for a really good exhibition of images produced by students on a course called Black & White Photography and a Robert Mapplethorpe touring exhibition on loan from the Tate. 

In view of Wednesday's impending storm we decided to take advantage of Tuesday's good-ish weather and go over the mountains to Bala. I think the drive over Bwlch y Groes (Pass of the Cross) is probably one of my most favourite routes. I never tire of it. And the view are stunning.   

Fortunately, T enjoys the challenge of driving it, even if he's not so keen on looking at the drops to the valleys below.

A trip to Bala always includes a visit to our friend, Awen Meirion' s Welsh language bookshop.  He does a brisk trade in this town where Welsh is the predominant language and most people didn't being speaking English until they were obliged to learn it at school.  Fortunately not everything he sells is written in Welsh!  I finished my Christmas shopping and bought some greetings cards.  And then, for the first time ever, we walked down to the lake.  We'd never seen it from this vantage point before.

As we made our way home the weather brightened!

So, when we woke on Wednesday to another nice day thought we'd try our luck at Dolgellau before walking the Mawddach Trail, from the other end. Previously we'd always walked a part of it from Dolgellau; but first we had to buy some provisions from the local Co-op. Unfortunately we hadn't been to Dolgellau for so long that we'd forgotten how to get there. It must be the most out-of-the-way shop known to man! 

That achieved we drove to join the Mawddach Trail at the Barmouth end. Once we'd eaten out sandwiches I was very keen to cross the railway bridge over the mouth of the estuary into Barmouth. To be honest, I could not believe this was the bridge that we'd glimpsed - from the other end - for years (!)

It took us some time to get there (manual wheelchairs are slow going) and then going over the bridge itself was not a comfortable ride.  

But well worth it.  I knew it was a long way, but I hadn't realised how long until I checked it out when we got back in: 2253 feet.

It was hardly surprising that we didn't cover very much more of the trail after that. Phew!

It must have taken more out of me than I'd realised because it was that evening that I suffered the most painful attack of Trimaligin Neuralgia I think I've experienced.  This complaint had been with me - on and off - for several weeks, but it was now as almost daily occurrence and the discomfort was intense.  Previously it had occurred after I'd eaten or drunk something, but this time it came out of nowhere...

But I was right as rain on Thursday (my Name Day).  For my treat I wanted to go back to The Railway Inn at Abergynolwyn and to see the sea.   First, thought we needed to go into Machynlleth.  There were a couple of shops I wanted to visit.  But, the shops I wanted to visit were closed.  However, there was one shop I'd noticed earlier in the week that was open; namely The Deco Shop.  And I wasn't disappointed: what an emporium.  I did spent money here - on art supplies - and it was here that I found a bathroom tile that I actually liked.  And would you believe it?  The tile is manufactured in Devon!

Lunch was a disappointment, but the weather most certainly wasn't. We stripped off and sunbathed at  Tywyn.  What a treat!

Friday was our last day, and in the past I wouldn't normally have so much as considered packing until early on Saturday morning, but my health no longer permits me to push the boat out, so once we'd been out for a short trip to Machynlleth after lunch I began to pack. I'm glad I did; it took me some considerable time.  My reward?  The delicious freshly picked blackberry dish that T had helped me prepare that morning.  It's years since I've cooked anything, so that was a real treat.  I used to love cooking....  What a shame T doesn't!

We set off home at 9:30 on Saturday morning in the best weather of the week (!)

But we still had another treat in store.  We called in at Hay-on-Wye to see our friend A. The weather was so warm we had lunch in a pub garden. And then I was so glad that I'd persuaded T I wanted to see the Black Mountains on the way back to England.  The view is every bit as stunning as everyone says it is.

What a shame I had to spend Sunday in bed, in recovery; and in dreadful pain.  We had enjoyed a really good holiday.  Minimal internet access and no television, but lots of opportunities for photography and reading.  

I also did a lot of reflecting and came away feeling resolved to implement a lot of long overdue changes in 2016.  A good holiday can change one; and this one was no exception.

Monday 28 September 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Despair

I am no stranger to despair; I know what it is to lose all hope. 

But my despair is a mere drop in the ocean compared to those who despair because they have nothing; nothing at all.  I’m an affluent white, middle-class woman who lives in a large house, who always has enough to eat, who enjoys fresh running water at the turn of a tap, electric light at the flick of a switch or heating when the weather demands it; I have lost no children, I have never lived in a war zone; I am not running in terror for my life….  The list goes on and on and on.

And yet.  And yet, despite enjoying all these advantages, when despair has me in its grip I am blind.  Everything before is hopeless; I cannot see the point in carrying on.  To all intents and purposes I’m lost – to myself and to the world.  Attempts to pull myself together are worse than useless.  Not least because I am not owning where I am.  As Whyte acknowledges in his book, Consolations, the first step when promoting a recovery is to let despair “have its own life, neither holding it nor moving it on before its time.”

However, earlier in his essay, he also says that despair is a last resort.  I confess I have never thought about it like this, before.  Nor have I ever considered it a haven; a haven is a place of safety and a refuge from the storms of life.  I think I can honestly say I would never choose the harbour of despair over life on the open seas, no matter how tempestuous the storm.

But, perhaps I am kidding myself; perhaps I am talking about depression, which Whyte differentiates from despair, “Despair turns to depression … when we try to make it stay beyond its appointed season and start to shape our identity around its frozen disappointments.” 

I begin to think I don’t know what despair is - unless we are differentiating between a temporary and a permanent feeling.  But who’s to say what’s temporary?  If I feel despair for more than three days – and fail to emerge healed and recovered – am I depressed? 

Of course not.  Grief is a “necessary and seasonal state of repair, a temporary healing absence … the time in which we both endure and heal,” when it takes take time to find a new form of hope. “

Even so, I can’t help but think that Whyte is guilty of romanticising the concept, despair, even though I can resonate with his thinking that despair, “has its own sense of achievement, and despair … needs despair to keep it alive.” 

But how can he possibly think that “despair can only stay beyond its appointed time through the forced artificiality of created distance;” that we would ever choose to keep it alive by “freezing our sense of time and the rhythms of time.”  I take it as read that “when the season is allowed to turn, despair cannot survive,” but how much of this is down to our own deliberate choice?

Yet, I do know that in order to “keep despair alive” that it “needs a certain tending, reinforcing and isolation;” and as long as we are talking about despair - as Whyte understands it - I think he’s right.  And that by “paying a profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath, independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even … to despair itself, and the way we hold it,” we can feel a degree of relief.  I remember when I fell upon this strategy, almost by accident, as I lay on my bed feeling crippled by my reaction to bad news.  Indeed I took my “first step out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in [my] wish not to be here.”  I let my body and the world breathe again.  Indeed despair couldn’t do anything, but “change into something else.”

Whyte postulates that despair is but “a waveform passing through the body,” because a season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.”  I can’t disagree with this, but I am left wondering about those people who have been traumatised by the effects of unrelenting despair that they can never recover from.  Without wishing to refer to specific individuals I can think of several people who, like me, read Whyte’s essay on Despair, and despaired.

Saturday 26 September 2015


© Sophia Roberts

Seth Godin often inspires me and this post on Pathfinding is no exception.  From this I gather that my skills as a pathfinder have a way to go, but I that am at least an explorer <grin>

Indeed as Mark Matousek  says, There’s a myth among amateurs, optimists and fools that beyond a certain level of achievement, famous artists retire to some kind of Elysium where criticism no longer wounds and work materializes without their effort.

We never stop needing to take risks.  But, I nevertheless, take comfort that, “Very few have the guts to find” new paths.