…the golden ratio

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‘The golden ratio is one of the most famous irrational numbers; it goes on forever and can’t be expressed accurately without infinite space.’
Live Science


You are reading the scene in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things when Ambrose Pike discovers the garden at Alma Whittaker’s grand house, and asks ‘what mad genius took such pains to fabricate this garden according to strict Euclidian geometric ideals?’ He goes on to declare ‘It’s the golden ratio!’, describing its ‘recurring nets of squares’ and the boxwoods ‘[serving] as equation marks to all the conjugates.’

You don’t understand these words but you become absorbed in the beauty of the idea and the passion of Ambrose Pike, his wonder at the mathematical perfection of the natural and human-made world. And you know that you’ve heard about the golden ratio before. Only days before. You remember rectangles within rectangles, one character drawing ever diminishing shapes for another character on screen. A film? What have you watched that could contain such a strange scene? And then you remember. You watched Pi at the beginning of the week, Darren Aronofsky’s film about a mathematician who is slowly driving himself insane with unprovable theories. He meets a man in a cafe who draws these rectangles to demonstrate the golden ratio, and shows how these rectangles create the Golden Spiral which is evident across the natural world; snail shells, flowers, pine cones, storms, human DNA, the ever expanding universe.

And then you remember a radio program only a day or two before, a scientist describing the discovery of a snail shell with an anticlockwise whorl, the reverse of all other snails. The scientist explains that they search for more but only two others are found in the world, and when the anticlockwise snail finally has offspring, they are clockwise snails. So, the scientist explains, this is not genetics, this is just something that is. This makes you wonder if the universe is merely exploring its own creativity with this snail, activating the unknown, feeling its way into a new expression of itself. The whorl of the universe ever expanding.

You sit for a moment with the knowledge that the golden ratio has been brought to your attention via three different routes, three different stories, three different media. You have heard about the Rule of Three, the smallest number needed to create a pattern.

Does a pattern have meaning, or is it just another demonstration of the universe exploring its creativity? If it does have meaning, then the universe is trying to tell you something, but you don’t know what it could be.

Or, perhaps, this is what the universe wants you to know. That she has unlimited creativity, that the patterns are there for a reason, and that reason is her.

Yes, that is an answer that feels so true you sense the pieces slot effortlessly together in your heart.

You return to The Signature of All Things, and continue to read.

…things people say

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—Your Grandad lived by the phrase Moderation in all things. His garden contradicted this with its abundance of fruit and vegetables, but any excess found its way to the kitchens of friends and family. Mostly you remember the black grapes hanging like jewels from the ceiling of his greenhouse. They were full of pips and left a dryness in the mouth, but still they were highly prized.

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I’m going to teach you how to play but I tell you now, you will never ever beat me. This is what your father said when he taught you chess at the age of ten. You remember how this cooled your interest in learning, the thought of only ever being on the losing side too much for your child’s mind to bear. You remember little about the game now, except for the way the Knight moves, two then one. You prefer to play backgammon instead.

I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive believe that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

—Before you became a writer your then husband (now ex-husband) said, You saying you’re going to be a writer is like me saying I’m going to be a rock star. You are a writer, but he doesn’t appear to be a rock star.

Marriage […] closes the door. Your existence is confined to a narrow space in which you are constantly forced to reveal yourself.
Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude.

—Someone you know well says, It’s obviously a good thing the Nazi’s didn’t win the war, but I tell you something, they wouldn’t have stood for all the advertisements we have now. You are shocked but still find yourself laughing at this line, and afterwards you wonder at the strange juxtaposition of these thoughts, pondering on the hazy alignment between advertising and propaganda. You love that this person is able to shock you, make you laugh and make you think, all with one sentence.

— It’s bad taste to be wise all the time, like being at a perpetual funeral.

D.H. Lawrence

—When your daughter was 17, her teacher said If you drop out of school now you’ll only ever work in a shop. She continued to drop out and spent a fair amount of time working as a waitress, a job she hated and was bad at. But she also had a bigger vision and worked hard on this when she wasn’t waiting tables. She is now an artist and a tattooist.

It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
Leonardo da Vinci


When I read great literature, great drama, speeches, or sermons, I feel that the human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language.
James Earl Jones

…after bed

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When Joan Didion writes about her migraines in her essay, In Bed, she reveals that doctors believe there is a ‘migraine personality’, which includes being inwardly-focused, ambitious, rigidly organised and a perfectionist.

You pause to reread this list, noting that you probably tick all of these boxes. You have suffered with migraines for as long as you can remember, your mother claiming that your incessant crying as a baby suggests they started when you were in nappies. When you were older you were prescribed tablets that she crushed with the back of a spoon, mixing the grainy powder with a spoonful of jam to make them more palatable. But nothing could stop the inevitable. The migraine was a runaway train with you as the only passenger.

In the first thirty years of your life you were given fair notice of an attack, with the ‘aura’ beginning as a spot of absence in your vision, expanding to become a thread of fairy lights strung through your left eye, blinking and flashing as though they were floating on the rippling surface of a lake. The headache would come a swift half hour after the lights faded away, as punctual as you are perfectionist.

You haven’t experienced the aura for many years now, and you feel almost nostalgic for its flag-waving here-I-am bravado. Now an attack begins with a quietly persistent tiredness, an ache that may begin in your right eye, or ear, or temple, expanding slowly slowly slowly to fill the right side of your face, your jaw, your cheekbone, your neck, by which time you know what it is but it’s almost too late to take the medication. Almost, but not quite. Now you have medication that works, quickly if you have an empty stomach, much slower if you’ve eaten, the stomach gradually ceasing to function. This is why migraine often comes with nausea, sometimes vomiting. There are also other symptoms, such as intolerance of sensory stimulus, confusion, hallucinations, sweating, stomach pain.

Occasionally you don’t take the medication in time. Or you take the medication and continue to drink red wine, so what comes next is entirely your responsibility. You go to bed, curtains closed, press the right side of your head to the pillow. The pain escalates until you find yourself rocking to comfort yourself, and when you stop you feel a moment of deep tranquility in the stillness, until the pain pushes you to begin rocking again.

At the highest, most relentless period of pain, you always ask yourself if you’ve got it wrong this time, if you really should be going to A&E because this time, this is surely a brain haemorrhage and you are dying.

If you are lucky, the fog of fatigue and temporal distortion will lead you to sleep, drooling onto your pillow with abandon.

Didion makes note of the hereditary nature of the illness, hers acquired from both grandmothers and both parents. She also has ‘bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers and wrongthink’, all of which she considers to be potential triggers.

Your own familial link is tenuous in comparison, your grandmother the guilty party, whose triggers were cheese and chocolate. Your own are stress, fatigue, an array of alcohols and once, the smell of White Musk Cleanser. And of course there’s always your rigidly organised and perfectionist personality traits. Did they begin when you were in nappies, you wonder? If you’d allowed the tower of bricks to tumble across the carpet in any haphazard fashion, would you have grown a more relaxed brain? And would that have changed the course of your body chemistry, your mechanics, your spirit, your thoughts, your intelligence, your life?

Once upon a time you thought you were in control of all these things, but now you know this is a classic case of wrongthink. The only thing you truly have control over is your perception of the truth.

And the truth is that there’s something startlingly beautiful about the migraine.

Didion elegantly describes its aftermath as ‘a pleasant convalescent euphoria’.

I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.

In the aftermath, you too feel a powerful sense that your body has pressed the reset button and you can see the world for what it truly is; a vivid, gentle and generous place. You eat with a sense of grace. You are filled with wonder when you go outside. You feel generosity and love for everyone you see, strangers and friends alike.

You feel blessed.

You imagine now how it would be for every person to feel this way. If time could be paused for communities to rock together in a vascular hiatus. The universal button would be reset, sensory feeling would be washed clean, and the perceived goodness of this world and everything in it would shift on its axis.

And after, when the pain has subsided and we return to our bodies and our lives, we’d emerge into this vivid, gentle and generous world as new beings.

We will be reborn.

You think of this and you know that even in the midst of pain the good will always be there, waiting for us.

…a life in libraries

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— From the age of 8 to 12 a mobile library stops outside your house. You remember the smell of dust and rubber and paper, and the ridges of wood that edge the shelves to stop the books from sliding out. You borrow a book about boys marooned in the jungle who survive by building their own shelter, killing their own food. You have never forgotten this book, but you have no memory of its author or title. You seem to remember the cover was pale blue.

— The largest library in the world is the Library of Congress in Washington DC, which contains over 170 million items in 470 languages. As well as historical texts from around the world, it houses film and recorded sound, posters and photographs, sheet music, maps, telephone directories, and the world’s largest collection of comic books, including an edition of Popular Comics, from 1936.

— When you’re an adult, your friend has a new boyfriend who is wealthy and has a library upstairs in his house. From floor to ceiling there are thrillers with boldly coloured spines and block-lettered titles. You are reading John Irving, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, so you can’t help but see this library as a missed opportunity. But then you remind yourself that your own reading began with The Beano, then magazines like Jackie, novels by Catherine Cookson and Jackie Collins, so who are you to judge? And who is the person who decided what is good reading and what is bad? Whoever they were, they didn’t understand reading.

— In the UK, nearly 800 libraries have closed in the last 10 years. In 2018 there were fewer than 15,500 paid librarians, with 51,000 working as volunteers.

—When you begin to write you follow your obsessions, catching a bus to the nearest town to research the Black Death. The library is modern, open plan, and you sit at the octagonal tables to pore over books, scribbling notes, absorbed. You use this research to write a novel, which sated this obsession for a while, but thirty years on and you’re still writing about the Black Death, although now your research is carried out in the Rabbit-Hole Library that is the internet.

— The Osmotheque, in Versailles, France, is a library of smells that houses over 3,200 scents, all donated by parfumiers. New York is home to a Magician’s Library within The Conjuring Arts Research Center, which holds rare texts going back to the 15th century, and 20,000 items of correspondence between magicians. Also in New York, you can visit the Public Library to see the original Winnie-the-Pooh, a stuffed bear bought by AA Milne for Christopher Robin in 1921. It is comforting to know that this bear, who is surprisingly long limbed and flat of tummy, is still in the company of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and Kanga. You like to imagine they often sit together to muse on the world and the philosophy of Good Things, with regular breaks for a smattering of honey.

…case studies

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— In 1997 Janis Schonfeld, a Californian interior designer, volunteered for an antidepressant drug trial. She had suffered with clinical depression for many years and was desperate for a cure. She took the drug for eight weeks and felt significant improvement, although she did suffer with nausea, the side-effect of the drug. The EEG recordings taken during and after the trial showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which supported the truth of her recovery.

But Janis Schonfeld had been taking the placebo. It was not the drug that made her better (or produced the side-effects), it was her mind.

— In the 1970s, Sam Londe, a retired salesman in the US, was diagnosed with metastatic esophageal cancer and given months to live. He asked the doctors to keep him alive so he could spend one last Christmas at home with his wife, which they did. One week after Christmas he was back in hospital with pneumonia and died within 24 hours.

The autopsy showed that his body had only small nodules of cancer, and his pneumonia was mild. Neither was enough to kill him.

Sam Londe died because he, and everyone around him, believed he was going to die.

— In February 2020 you have routine tests, one of which shows a deficiency in Vitamin B12. You have been experiencing symptoms for months, including fatigue, pins and needles, nerve pain, depression, dizziness, problems with walking. You wait another week for a 2nd test to be carried out and in the meantime your symptoms worsen, but you feel glad that you have a diagnosis and the treatment is simple.

But the second test comes back negative, your B12 levels are within normal range.

You are floored by this, confused, and for several hours you sink into despair. What is wrong with you? Why can nobody help you?

You call a friend, who says you’re feeling sorry for yourself. At first these words sting, but after a while you realise his words have pierced the truth, and you wonder if you are ill because you believe you are ill. And if this is possible, perhaps the opposite can also be possible.

In that moment you make a decision. You will sleep deeply tonight. Tomorrow you will wake up, and you will feel well. You will have energy. You will do all the things you want to do.

So you sleep and you wake up the following day and all these things come true.

You do this every day, and every day your symptoms diminish.

Three months later and you now believe you are fit and healthy.

And you are.

(The case studies of Janice Schonfeld and Sam Londe are taken from You Are The Placebo, by Dr Joe Dispenza)

…the festival-goers

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For many years your sister works as a nurse at Glastonbury Festival. She and her family camp in their yurt in the field reserved for medical staff, which is clean and spacious with an abundance of toilets and showers.

In the hot years she treats sunstroke and dehydration. In the rainy years she treats hypothermia and alcohol poisoning.

In the year she isn’t able to go she holds a festival in her garden, constructing a gazebo and hanging a bed sheet at one end where live TV coverage of the Pilton fields is projected. There is a makeshift bar for cocktail-making, and a pizza station in the kitchen where you stretch your own dough and top it with piquant tomato sauce, creamy white mozzerello or goat’s cheese, mushrooms, peppers, anchovies, pepperoni, red onions, olives, whatever you desire in that moment. When you have built your pizza you begin the tricky business of sliding it onto the paddle to carry through the mingling festival-goers, down to the pizza oven at the bottom of the garden, its fiery mouth open wide and waiting for your offering. In two or three minutes it is cooked, the crispy crusts mildly singed, the cheese melted and gooey.

You remember the festival in the garden as endless food, laughter, music, dancing, a mood of togetherness and celebration.

And now, years later and six weeks into lockdown, you think of that day with longing, wondering if your sister does too.

She works as a school matron, but soon after the pandemic began the school was closed and the children sent home, so she signed up as a bank nurse with the NHS. So far your town seems to be evading the virus with little news of reported cases, but your sister says it’s only a matter of time.

The hospital is near your home, and when you walk past you see an elderly woman at the Respiratory Assessment bay outside, trying to adjust her face mask while a masked medic looks on. Another day you see a car ambulance with a mother and child in the back, both anonymous in their own masks.

Your sister waits to be called in. Her husband waits. Her children wait. You and your younger sister wait. Your mother and step-father wait.

You all fear the call that says the hospital is no longer coping. Your sister is needed.
In this waiting time you do not think about what will happen when the call comes.

Instead you imagine a new festival.

An afternoon of summer heat. There are homemade pizzas and a table for cakes and puddings topped with cream and summer berries and shaved chocolate, there is ice-cold wine and cider, there is a live band playing folk music, the female lead a soulful singer whose voice sweeps between the festival-goers like a ghostly soul. All your family is there. Every single one. And as the afternoon moves into evening you light candles, switch on fairy lights, keep warm around a fire-pit.

The unwatched clock moves towards midnight and the grand finale. You don’t know what this magnificent ending is going to be, but you are happy in your waiting. You are sitting with your family and you drink and eat and talk and laugh. You wait in this moment, and you are happy to wait forever.

The grand finale will come in its own time, in its own way.

But right now you are together.

And nothing else exists.

…things you’ve inherited

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— Acceptance of people as they are. Your mother lives her life this way, her face young with the kindness she shows others. She runs a social club for the elderly, organising quizzes and lunches, speakers and performers. She is in her seventies herself, and can also be feisty. This is another trait you’ve inherited.

— A book of diagrammatical drawings titled Italian Architecture, published in 1882, which is so hefty you have to brace yourself when lifting it. The spine is broken and torn to expose corrugated stitching, and the dark brown covers are ragged with age. This book was given to your grandfather by the man who trained him to be a stonemason, whose name was Mr Earp. Family legend goes that he was the cousin of the infamous deputy marshall, Wyatt Earp, who killed three outlaws at the OK Corral. Your grandfather passed this book onto your father, who also became a stonemason, and it is filled with the penciled tracings of archways and pinnacles done by your father or grandfather, possibly both. You rarely look at this book, but when you do it is these drawings you gaze at, feeling the presence of both men and wondering if the meticulous shapes were ever carved.

—Migraines. This you inherited from your grandmother, whose triggers were chocolate and cheese. Your own are wine and fatigue. As a child there was no medication that worked to stem the haemorrhage-like headache, and you grew up believing painkillers didn’t work. Now you know better.

—A birdwatcher’s spirit. Many of your childhood memories involve birds; peering through binoculars to see a crossbill perched on the branch of a pine tree in Scotland, the agony of rising at 5am suddenly falling away; hunched in a hide beside Chew Valley Lake watching the great crested grebes, your favourites, their distinctive heads bobbing with the gentle ripples; the jackdaw abandoned by its mother that your father bought home in a box. You kept him in the garage, shaking a tin of seed every time you fed him so when he was old enough to be released he would return home when he heard the noise. He did for a time, until he found a new flock.

—Polygenic Hypercholesterolaemia. Even though you are slim and eat a healthy Mediterranean diet, you’ve had high cholesterol since birth. You only discover this later in life, and when the doctor tells you what this means the only words you hear are multiple gene mutations. He asks if you smoke, and you confess to one or two a week. Stop, he says firmly. This is what you find most shocking, that so little smoke in your lungs can cause so much damage.

—Double-jointed thumbs, also from your grandmother. Making them dance is your one and only party trick.

—The ability to let your children be. Your parents only ever wanted you to be happy, and you raised your children the same way. They now have their own understanding about inheritance; the illnesses and defections, the personality traits and belief systems. These children, now adults, are a conglomeration of DNA and lived experience, but they also have a luminous streak of spirit that is entirely their own. You think you have raised them to cultivate this streak as they both live unconventional lives, keeping true to their own nature.

You cannot change your DNA inheritance, so you follow medical advice and pass this on to your own children.

You can change your belief inheritance, but it takes many years for you to realise this. Finally, you stand back from the beliefs that have hampered you, and you see them clearly as excuses, the stance of a victim. Then you spend time cutting these ties to the past, to the tainted stories you’ve repeated many times throughout your life.

And you find, miraculously, that you are free.

…break or be broken

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Have you ever been in a relationship where the pressure builds incrementally until you want to tear it apart, just to see what remaining fragments are important to you?

Have you ever picked a groundless fight, or maintained your rightness when you knew you were wrong, or pushed and pushed to see how far you can go before the other person pushes back?

Some children do this to their parents. Some people do this to their lovers. Some workers do this to their colleagues.

There is tension in the status quo when the status quo requires an acceptance you never knew you were giving.

Eventually the answer NO will come at you with such force you are compelled to explode it. Tear it apart. Then look at the shreds to see what really matters between you.

Perhaps this is what the earth is doing to us right now.

Or perhaps this is what we have done to the earth.

…still life with Frida

Each morning you visit the cupboard to fetch the things you need for physiotherapy. If you’re away from home for more than a day or two you take them with you, but otherwise they stay tucked away, out of sight. Some of them you’d have to explain, some are perfectly normal things that you’d find in anyone’s home. You appreciate the adaptability of everyday objects, how you are surrounded by tools such as cushions, shoes, towels.

In her essay, A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light, Sinéad Gleeson describes visiting the V&A to see a Frida Kahlo exhibition of the paraphernalia of her life. Gleeson is poleaxed by a glass case containing her surgical corsets and plaster casts, what she describes as ‘the objects that both helped and constrained her, […] the source and symbol of her suffering.’

At the age of eighteen Kahlo was in an horrific traffic accident. She described how a ‘handrail pierced me as the sword pierces the bull’, going on to endure multiple surgeries including the amputation of one leg at the knee. While incarcerated in a full body cast she painted its surface, guided by a carefully angled mirror. The majority of her art, until her death at the age of forty-seven, was focused on depicting her damaged body. You read how Gleeson sees the exhibition as a stark reality of Kahlo’s endurance, reminded of her own spica cast worn as a child.

You’ve had only one plaster cast in your life, on your left leg after a car accident. For some reason this memory reminds you of the head brace your sister wore as a teenager to straighten her teeth, a thing of straps and wires that was fastened around her head while she slept. You probably made fun of her at the time, so you try to imagine how it would feel to wear such a thing yourself, and you understand the discomfort, shame and possible pain that your sister experienced.

Now, you bring your own paraphernalia out most days:—
A white styrofoam roller.
A heavy paperback book (Teaching Today, by Geoff Petty, a god amongst your university students).
Several tennis balls.
Lycra cycling shorts.
A t-shirt that covers your shoulders.
A tightly rolled towel secured with elastic bands.
A red Converse trainer with matching red resistance band tied around its middle.

In the past you have also used bags of sand or rice, aqua-blue massage tools, a massage chair, a yoga mat, a hot water bottle. Your bed is also a tool, and a dining chair, a wall, a floor.

You have only recently understood that you are not your body, you have a body.

You are not your mind, you have a mind.

Your body and mind are tools, just as versatile as the objects that surround you, and all these things can create pain or joy, anxiety or freedom. They can help or constrain you.

And you can decide which it is. All you have to do is rest with the truth of yourself, the self that has freedom of thought, that can choose hope or despair, that asks the questions and listens for the answers.

This is a place you revisit each morning, a pause before you begin your day when you feel both gratitude for the tools you’ve been given and willingness to learn more about them.

You know you will never stop learning about this world that is full to the brim with objects, but full too with the intangible, the unmeasurable, the incomprehensible.

Because as Frida Kahlo said, Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?

(Extracts from Constellations, by Sinéad Gleeson.)