Perfect Moments

Looking at old photos can be a bittersweet experience. There are often very mixed sentiments involved in remembering those captured moments. Perhaps because it’s painful to look back at a time that is lost and regretted. Or because the smiles were just for the camera and were hiding some personal turmoil. The pictures can only record a single moment, but looking at them can sometimes stir up a whole complicated set of emotions. I suppose its inevitable that as you get older you are increasingly remembering people that are no longer with us or a self that that seems long gone.

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A moment full of hopes and dreams from our wedding in 1974. Both sets of parent and Father Gerry Hughes, have since passed away, as has our marriage. But it’s a lovely memory nonetheless, and one I can look back on with fondness.

But you can’t keep looking back at the past and blaming yourself for the way things turned out, the if-only’s. I confess that sometimes that tendency is there in me. And then I have to remind myself that the only way to heal is to forgive yourself for your shortcomings and understand that you did the best you could at the time. It’s human to get waylaid by wishing that things could have been different. The trick is to remember that our history is what makes us the people we are today, inevitably older, but hopefully wiser and more tolerant too.

So, while there will always be a few ghosts along the way when we delve into our past, there are also, happily, some moments of perfect joy. Moments which encompass so much more than just the image, but all the emotions associated with it. For me, many of those moments centre around my children and grandchildren, from the instant I first held them in my arms to all the small childhood tragedies and triumphs along the way, when yet another little bit of your heart is captured and gladly given away.

One such instance comes from decades ago, a sunny day at the beach when we’d packed the children into the car for an impromptu picnic, not something we did all that often. It was when we were living in Holland near the border with Germany, so the beach was one on the banks of the River Rhine – there are sandy beaches along its length just at that point. Anyway, the children had run down to the water’s edge and were splashing each other, jumping in and out of the spray.  I have an idea they were wearing those plastic sandals called jellies – or maybe they were just wearing their good sandals!

It was such a lovely day, bright and hot, and I closed my eyes for a moment, breathing deep. I opened them to see the image that has stayed with me all these years – the sunlight sparkling on the water, a heat haze over the wet sand and my four children visible through it as they played on the shore maybe 40 metres away, the sound of their squeals of laughter floating towards me. All wasn’t well with our marriage at this point and I don’t have a photograph, but this was a perfect moment out of time which nothing has ever been able to spoil.

These moment, these tender moments of the heart, I think come much closer to our true memories than any camera can ever capture. Sometimes you look at a photograph and although you know you were there – the proof is laid out in front of you – you can’t actually recall how it felt to be there, how YOU felt. Or you know that the photographer has failed to record the real all-singing, all-dancing you but instead has brutally chosen the moment when you are looking uncomfortable in a badly chosen outfit or were squinting at the sun.

All in all I prefer to close my eyes and explore the inner pictures which are much clearer, much nearer to who I really am and how I remember things. Often those moments aren’t the ones that are imperfectly captured on film, but are instead indelibly imprinted on my heart and remembered with infinite tenderness.

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Reality Shift

I’d brought flowers, a card, a marker pen to sign the stookie.

A nurse asked me to wait a minute. “Just sit there,” she said. I watched her walk the length of the ward to the duty station, indicate me as she spoke to the ward sister. I lowered my gaze as they both turned to look at me, not wanting them to see me watching.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the sister approaching. She looked at her fob watch, smoothed down her apron, composed her face. I turned towards her. I knew that what she was going to say would turn my world upside down.

A Simple Matter of Right and Wrong?

I’m sure, like me, you’ve heard people being referred to as being “of their time”. It’s usually to excuse something about their lives that today we would find reprehensible or unacceptable. The Me Too movement is just the latest manifestation of our long painful progress towards the concept that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, colour, creed or orientation. And that it’s not alright just to sweep it all under the carpet and leave the burden of getting over it on the victim’s shoulders.

Does it make a difference when we discover that our heroes have feet of clay? When we learn that Charles Dickens had a secret mistress, Nelly Ternan; or that Chaucer is likely to have raped a woman, one Cecilia Chaumpaigne; or that the charismatic John F Kennedy turned out to be a terrible womaniser and numbered Marilyn Monroe among his probable conquests? I don’t know… Perhaps one does look differently at an author’s work when you understand more about the dark side of where it came from. Or can the truth, the art, stand independently from the artist? I am mindful of a couple of quotes from the late, great George Harrison:

I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me. The real me is something else.

Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because its the very best of me and the part I give most willingly.

I suppose I’m largely content to go with that and read a book or listen to music on the understanding that I am sharing a vision, a truth, wherever it might have come from. That is valid in itself. If I know or learn something detrimental about the writer, that may or may not cause me to look differently at the work. After all, many of the lessons we learn in life come from our mistakes, our dark times. And I still feel inspired by the words of JFK when he declared in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Whether or not he actually ‘borrowed’ that phrase from his old headmaster or was a less than faithful husband, they are nonetheless stirring words, worth repeating.

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And I still think of Charles Dickens as a great Victorian novelist who cared about the social conditions of his day and wrote most movingly about the plight of the poor. If he wasn’t in truth the unblemished family man he’d have you believe, he did on the other hand engage in many philanthropic deeds including setting up a home for “fallen women”. Perhaps I will read the cosy fireside scenes with a somewhat more cynical eye and make a mental nod to the hidden Ms Ternan, but I can still enjoy these marvellous books and wonderful writing.

 

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I wonder if we find this painting of Caravaggio’s any less beautiful when we consider that the artist’s short tempestuous life encompassed an arrogant and rebellious existence which included the taking of another’s life. For which murder he allegedly escaped justice by fleeing from Rome to Malta. His works are displayed in galleries throughout the world. Flawed genius or reprehensible rogue? I leave it for you to decide…

As to more contemporary transgressions. With each new revelation about the movie industry, I find there are now certain films I can never watch in the same way again, if at all. Fiction or not, I don’t want to be drawn into falling in love with that handsome leading man, or a director who, it turns out, sees sex as a weapon to be wielded. These are more than private indiscretions, this is an abuse of power, a whole rotten system which needs to be called out for what it is. Me too!

So I suppose I’m saying that moral ambiguity does surely make a difference and does force you to encompass a wider picture of what you thought you knew. You might think “How amazing that someone like that could produce something so beautiful” or “No wonder he says that, look what was happening in his life when he wrote it”. Of course all this only highlights how little we really know of another person’s soul, of their motivations – someone like what, exactly? We see everything through the prism of our own experience, understanding and yes, preconceptions. Not to mention what we read in the press or social media.

What about right and wrong, black and white? Yes, there’s that too. If a thing’s wrong then it’s wrong – isn’t it? It’s wrong to kill. Even if it’s in self-defence or to save someone’s life?  It’s wrong to steal. Even if it’s to feed your starving family? It’s wrong to lie. Is there anyone who hasn’t bent the truth or concealed it in order to protect the innocent? I suppose what I’m saying is that I always want to know the WHY; the story behind the headline, the circumstances, the mitigating factors, the actual facts and why they are being presented in the way they are.

Here’s a final headline for you to ponder: BODY OF PROSTITUTE FOUND IN ALLEY. I remember being stopped in my tracks by that one. I suddenly found myself feeling angry that some poor woman whose life had been cut short in the most brutal way possible had to suffer the final indignity of that heartless and judgemental headline. I found myself wondering what had happened to her in life to have brought her to the point where she was selling her body to men in a back alley. She could have been someone’s mother or sister or daughter or wife. She was a woman.

The paper could have chosen any of those words to describe her; they could have said ‘female body’. They could have had some consideration for the family who might have had to read about their loved one in such dismissive terms. But no, they went for the sensational. They summed her up in an attention grabbing headline for the sake of selling more papers and making the rest of us feel quite comfortable and safe, because, after all, it hadn’t happened to US, but to one of THEM.

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