Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Suspension of Time

Prompted by the changes of the clocks going back an hour to coincide with the official end to the summer season, I reflected this week on the notion of time and how we define time. Why do we change the clocks and what purpose does it serve?

The practice of putting the clocks forward in March and then back again in October dates back nearly 100 years. Germany pioneered the practice during World War I and it was in the 90s that the dates for changing the clocks became enshrined in European law. As with so many other practices in the UK, we are out of sync with the rest of Europe. The question whether we should permanently move the clocks forward by an hour to bring us in line with Central European Time is as old as the practice of changing the clocks itself. One of the many benefits would be that we would work during the same business hours as other European cities.

So why did it all come about in the first place? One of the motivations was that it would give farmers more daylight in the mornings to gather their dairy herds, plough fields or take their produce to market. However, according to the various farming bodies this practice is perceived as fairly redundant. Not only have the changes in technology made life easier for farmers to cope with winter but also farming is not as important to British economy as it once was.

The changing of the clocks got me to think about the nature of time and most of the sources I consulted concludes that one thing we can be certain about is that time defies definition. Anyone would be happy to say that they know what time is. However, we do not have an in-built mechanism with which to perceive or sense time. We tend to associate time with the fact that changes are periodic. As we are reminded of this week, seasons come and go and are part of a wider system of change in which these patterns are repeated.

The ancient Greek philosophers believed that the universe had an infinite past with no beginning whereas the medieval philosophers and theologians developed the concept of the universe as having a finite past with a beginning, such as the big bang theory. Changes can therefore be thought of as small deaths and rebirths. We tend to think of time as a fraction of our overall expected lifetime and if our lifetimes were infinite, then all finite spans of time would be so small in comparison that we would probably not have the sense of time in the way that we do. This raises an interesting question. If we did not have a sense of time, would time therefore actually exist? Does time have an existence independent of our minds? These big questions have been part of philosophical debates for a very long time. This brings us back full circle to the question of what is the nature of time in the first place?

However, you may ask what have all these discussions about time got to do with the writing of my tribute to Eugene and Pieter? As I am nearing the end of completing and publishing my book, the reflection on time is very relevant. The thought came to me that for the duration of writing my book I have in fact suspended time and even turned the clock back. The process of reliving and reflecting on my memories of Eugene has turned back the hands of time and allowed me to relive the times we had together. I have been able to freeze time by keeping Eugene in a state of suspended animation. However, as the writing of my tribute draws to an end, I will also have to let go not only of time, but also of Eugene and step into a future time of which he will never form a part.

I was comforted by a quote from Einstein, the master in understanding the nature of time, who put it to a friend who had recently lost a loved one, “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Why mourn someone who lives?

The Light of Day

The tribute I have spent the last two years writing is approaching the time when it will finally see the light of day. Light of DayVery scary! It is not just Eugene and I anymore, but who knows how many potential readers who will share these memories with us. Although it was the purpose of writing the book in the first place, it doesn’t make it any less daunting.

Whenever I have written something, whether it be an article, manuscript or thesis, I have always found it difficult to put it out into the public domain once completed. Having spent months, and in the case of a thesis, years to complete, it is difficult to allow others access to what has been a very intimate relationship. During the creative process it is just you, your thoughts and the words that eventually emerge. The difficulty then is to send your brainchild out into the world to be prodded, questioned, challenged, criticized and hopefully also loved.

In my previous experience I would complete a manuscript; submit it to the publisher who then takes care of the various processes necessary for publishing. These include editing, proofreading and importantly, the design of the book cover. Finally, and probably one of the most important aspects of the process, the marketing of the book. I now face the daunting prospect of not only being in control of these activities, but also in finding the right people to support me. I have poured over many blogs and writing sites for inspiration as to how I go about finding these magical beings and determining the criteria to select the one from the many.

The next stage in the production process, as I have come to see it, is that of editing. Not only should the editor be skilled in a precise set of methods that will lead to a coherent, grammatically accurate and complete piece of writing, but they should also possess creative skills as well as skills in the art of human relations. The latter are not necessarily the skills one associates with that of an editor. However, I have come to realise how important it is for the editor to have some insight into the context within which my book takes place. They will then be able to understand the dynamics between the environment and the main protagonists of my book, namely Eugene and Pieter.

The skills in human relations are fundamental so that the editor can wield the scalpel with kindness and sensitivity. As an author one becomes very attached to the words you have written, particularly given the overall theme and motivation for my book. Any changes and editing therefore has to be done humanely as I have no doubt that some cuts and recommended changes will have the potential of inflicting emotional pain. WrestlingThe editor might need to wrestle some of those words from me and therefore have the skills of influence and persuasion that will make the changes more acceptable to both of us.

Having survived the scalpel of the editor, it is the turn of the proofreader to correct all those spelling mistakes that I have missed time and time again, despite having read every sentence at least a hundred times. Proofreading is also concerned with page and paragraph layout, page numbering and a final check for consistency. It is the ultimate stage the manuscript goes through before publishing. Then comes the icing on the cake, namely the book cover. Where do I begin? The options are endless and everyone I ask for input has a different idea.

It is critical that the book design matches the content of the book and herein lies the challenge. What visual representation will adequately be able to convey the depth of emotion and the content of the book? I have grappled with it for many hours and have been torn between reflecting the gravity of the theme versus the sense of humour and fun that permeated every aspect of Eugene’s life.

I have not as yet reached a final conclusion and will no doubt select and reject many possibilities before making a final decision. Wish me luck!

The End or the Beginning?

I am writing from France this week, surrounded by my stunning mountains and their ever-changing beauty that never ceases to leave me inspired and in awe. Autumn MountainsThis time of the year they are ablaze with the many autumn colours ranging from yellows to oranges to the deep hues of red, the preferred autumn colours of the many vineyards nestling in the valleys in the area. All set against the backdrop of a sparkling crystal blue sky. As the vibrancy of the autumn colours would suggest, it is not only heralding the end of another season, but it is also the time for reflection and stocktaking.

Just as the end of one season draws to a close, so does the end of writing of my tribute to Eugene and Pieter. I started the writing of my book in France and I felt that symbolically this is where I had to write the concluding chapter. I had always strived to finish the first draft on, or just before Eugene’s actual birthday, which will be on Monday, the 19th. In a way it was the last gift I would be able to bestow on him. We both loved the autumn with its many vibrant colours, so for many reasons it was the right time to write, The End.

I had squirmed, wriggled and procrastinated, doing everything I could to avoid writing the last chapter of my tribute mainly because it was also the last chapter of Eugene’s life. It is also the final chapter of so many chapters we had shared throughout the years. This reflection brought with it the realization that Eugene was the last person in my life who had known me from birth and who had therefore been part of all the events of my life since then. Writing the final chapter means that those shared memories will therefore be another one of many closing chapters. More significantly, writing the last chapter will be the final act of letting go of Eugene.

As a novelist in any genre, the author gets to choose the end of their novel. However, my book can only have one ending. Even so, the weight of writing about the inevitable ending was so much more than writing the final chapter of a book. It is surprising how many versions one can write of a chapter that could only have one immovable ending. Not only was it the end of a chapter in a book, it was the end of Eugene’s life, his life with Pieter and a life of so many shared memories and experiences. I felt a huge responsibility in closing the book in a way that would continue the celebration of his inspirational life.

Having made a drastic change to my career in order to devote myself to writing the tribute, it is also closing a personal chapter. It is time to reflect on the many options I have available as to what the next stage of both my life and career is going to look like. Having choices can be both liberating as well as paralyzing. In the absence of a crystal ball, one has to try and determine what the various choices may lead to and therefore which is to be the most appealing. The act of choosing also closes the doors on alternative realities and one will never know what living those realities might have been like. However, being an incurable optimist I do not waste time in mourning lost opportunities but instead immerse myself in the unfolding reality of the choices I make. The end of my book is therefore personally also the start of a new beginning.

QuestionsThe ending also means I now need to engage with the daunting process of editing and publishing. Having made the decision to self-publish this time, there is a whole new set of rules I have to learn. How much of this final stage of the process do I do myself and how much do I contract out? And if I do, how do I find the right people? Or, will they find me?

These are the next set of questions I have to answer on this journey. Not only are they practical decisions associated with the process of publishing but more importantly, it is making the right choices for Eugene and Pieter. Ultimately this is their book.

The Authentic Self – What does it Mean?

I have always enjoyed a good, philosophical debate as to the perceived rights and wrongs about life, the world Thinkerand our existence within it. Which is probably why I was originally attracted to academia. Academics used to get paid to pontificate such weighty subjects on behalf of society, but alas less and less so. I digress, a topic for another day.

Given my attraction to such matters, my eye caught the invitation from the local philosophical society to attend a debate on Authentic Ageing. Being of a certain age, combined with an interest in philosophical debate, it was irresistible. The speaker who set the scene for the ensuing debate was a Professor of Psychiatry, specializing in aging and its associated consequences. I was intrigued by how the speaker would be linking the idea of authenticity with ageing.

The question of authenticity is a fascinating one and closely associated with what we might define as our identity. As a coach, clients would often reveal an internal tug of war between what they perceive their identity to be versus what others, and often their organisations, expect them to be. As you can imagine, there is no simple definition of authenticity and philosophers have spent a considerable time debating what the definitive definition might be. In my simplistic and humble opinion authenticity is the unique way in which each one of us expresses and engages with the nature of Being. The challenge for all of us is to accommodate and integrate with the authenticity of others.

Often society, cultures and organisations make a value judgment as to what is deemed authentic or inauthentic.Masks Pressure is then exerted consciously or subconsciously on those within these structures to subscribe to these definitions and their associated behaviours. Ageing is no different and there are pressures on people of all ages to behave in what society deems to be appropriate behaviour for that age group. The tension then arises how one accommodates the expectations of society and the authenticity of the individual when these may be in conflict.

However, I also believe that our authentic selves evolve through our interactions with others and life experiences and that this is both desirable and necessary. It allows us to define, develop and express more of who we are. EinsteinThe challenge for each one of us is to take ownership of what constitutes our authentic self and organize our lives accordingly. I subscribe to the suggestion of Kierkegaard that there is a time to break out and not only become authentic, but possibly even eccentric. Being less inclined to conform as we get older, it might be the right time to do just that.

What I didn’t however expect from the debate on authentic ageing was that it would prove to be a very significant topic for me on a number of different levels. Those of you who have been following my blog would know by now that the purpose of it is to share with you my journey of writing a tribute to my brother, Eugene and his partner, Pieter and their challenges of coping with terminal cancer. So, in the first instance, as gays the concept of authenticity is probably even more significant to them than for heterosexual couples, in particular during the era and culture within which Eugene and Pieter grew up.

My original interest in the topic was that being of a certain age and adjusting to a different cycle in life, I was interested in exploring how I would now define my authentic self. Would it be different from say five or ten years ago? If so, what would change and how would I now express my authentic self? It is both scary as well as exciting and there is the hint of an opportunity to redefine or rediscover aspects of my self that may have been hidden beneath layers of conformity to external expectations.

Finally, the bonus was that it also helped me to explore the challenges of writing and made me reflect on what authenticity might mean to me as a writer and the act of writing. I have taken the time to explore the many do’s and don’ts of writing as I perceive them. However, I have come to the conclusion that being an authentic writer means I need to first and foremost express my authentic self. It is therefore, as I have alluded to in previous blogs, part of the journey of finding my own voice as a writer and interpreting, accepting or rejecting any perceived rules of what constitutes good writing.

In the words of Shakespeare, To thine own self be true!

Deep Diving

During my days both as a lecturer as well as a coach, I would often draw on metaphors to help explain concepts to students and clients. Metaphors offer a very powerful method in helping us to make sense of our world and experiences. In a previous post entitled, The Garden of Writing, I explored the power of metaphors in aiding the writing process. This week I was once again reminded of the insights to be drawn from metaphors.

On my bucket list has Diversbeen the desire to experience the thrill of diving and to have the opportunity to explore some of the many wonders hidden below the surface of the sea. My brother-in-law, a keen diver, finally persuaded me to realize my dream and to enrol in a trial dive with his diving school in Spain. The first challenge was to try and pour myself into a very tight fitting wet suit, followed by unbelievably heavy weights and all the necessary breathing equipment. I was convinced that I would sink like a stone to the bottom of the ocean and never be able to make my way back to the surface. I also came to the conclusion that it was not an elegant sport as wet hair and diving gear doesn’t show off your best qualities! I just hoped that all the energy and effort in getting kitted out was going to be worthwhile.

I was surprised at how difficult it was to draw the necessary air through the mouthpiece and it was a technique I had to first master before attempting Divers 2to go beneath the water’s surface. A very patient instructor finally persuaded me that I was ready and adjusted the buoyancy of my suit that allowed me to slowly slip deeper and deeper below the surface of the water. I had some moments of panic and had to resurface to try and deal with an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Eventually I succeeded. It was worth the effort as even in the shallow area where we were diving, the variety of sea life was breathtaking.

I was reminded of the ancient poem of Beowulf who set out to rid King Hrothgar of the threat of Grendel, a monster who lived at the bottom of a nearby lake. He had brought fear and death to King Hrothgar’s kingdom for many years. Beowulf successfully slayed the monster, but unbeknown to him and the Kingdom of Hrothgar, Grendel’s mother was plotting her revenge hidden in the dark depths of the lake. After a faithful advisor of King Hrothgar was taken and killed by Grendel’s mother, Beowulf once again set out to seek revenge. In order to destroy Grendel’s mother, Beowulf had to face his own fears and follow her into the depths of the lake to her lair.

As writers we too have to plunge into the depths of our subconscious minds and face and overcome our fears represented by Grendel and his mother. We have to gird ourselves with the courage of a warrior to slay the fears that may paralyze us and prevent us from bringing to the surface the hidden treasures of our minds and emotions. These monsters can seem so frightening and fearsome and it is easier to remain on the surface where it is safe and secure. However, if we are to do justice to our writing efforts, we need to have the courage to seek out the monsters and face them head on.

These monsters represent many fears and each one of us will have our own demons to slay. They may include the fear of failure, the fear of not being good enough or endowed with the talent of writing. I believe if we are to produce writing that will inspire or evoke debates and discussions we need to dive deep into the swamp of our emotions.

Just as my experimentation with diving required courage and managing an overwhelming sense of survival, so does delving into the depths of our emotions require enormous courage. Like Beowulf we need to confront our demons in order to surface the hidden treasures jealously guarded by the demons of our emotional swamps.