Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A profound shift in perspective.

I write here a great deal about the Perspective Police. I invented the Perspective Police a few years ago, and was so proud of them that I even featured the entire brigade in Backwards. I love utility, and they are nothing if not utile. They are the ones who bash down the door when one is sliding into the slough of self-pity or melancholia, and remind one sternly of all the blessings and good fortunes. They are an excellent corrective and I am always glad when I hear them get their battering rams out.

Now that I volunteer at HorseBack UK, I get a visit from The Perspective Police pretty much every day. It’s as if they have moved from their headquarters in some distant place, and camped out in the garden.

But this morning, I heard something which went even beyond their remit. It was a story which ran so far past my imagination that I don’t have good words for it. I don’t really have any words for it, and words are my life and my love. All I thought, as I heard it, was that this should never, ever happen to a human being. It is too much for one heart and mind and body to bear.

And yet there was this gentleman, who, despite having been blown up three times, as he told me in a matter of fact voice, looked fit and strong and real. Part of the difficulty is the gap between his outward aspect and what has happened to him. I cannot tell you the details, but you may get some sense of it when I say that being blown up was the very least of it.

He tells his story with no mawkish self-regard, no grandstanding, no look at me. It just comes out, as we talk together in the shade of an ancient stand of oak trees, with the blue Scottish hills glimmering in the distance. His voice is quiet and even; he uses no long words, no cheap dramatics, no hyperbole. He is long past hyperbole.

One of the things I feel strongly, although I do not say this out loud, because I think it would sound stupid, is that I am overwhelmed by a keen sense of privilege that he would choose to tell it to me. It is the worst story I have ever heard, yet I am glad I know it.

I want to say something clever and wise, about all this. I want to slot it into some kind of good life lesson, weave it into a parable. I want to say something about collective psychology, and societal fears and guilts, about averting the eyes from the unimaginable, about the daily gift of being able to live a normal life, to sleep at night.

I want to say something about the unheralded gift of the things not seen. There are men and women out there who have witnessed things which no human eye should have to witness. And those pictures never go away, ever. They are seared into the brain, flashing and lurid and constant.

But my fingers stutter and stall over the keyboard, because it is here that language fails, and imagination fails, and even the human heart, in which I have such faith, fails. There is a ragged, humming disbelief that such people can go on putting one foot in front of the other, can get out of bed in the morning, can function at all in the world. And yet they do. They can stand, in a quiet corner of Scotland, and tell their story to an unknown woman, in words of such clarity and authenticity that it takes the breath away.

‘Sometimes it is easier to talk to a stranger,’ the gentleman says.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I understand that.’

At least here is something I can understand.

‘Well, everyone has a story,’ he says, drily, wryly, looking out to those indigo mountains, which were here before he and I were ever dreamt of, and shall be here for thousands of years after we have gone.

Not everyone, I think, has a story like that.

My sense of perspective has undergone a profound shift. I feel it physically, in my body, as if the very atoms that make up my corporeal self are moving around, reconfiguring themselves.

I shall carry his story with me now. It is stitched into my heart.

I shall think of that quiet gentleman. I shall think of his dignity and fortitude.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, I shall remember.


Today’s pictures:

Afterwards, I went and stood with this person for a long time. She is very happy today, and she has taken on her calmest aspect, as if some deep stillness is at work in her. It is a profound, spreading authenticity, as if she is at one with her world, as if she is her most real, horsey self. It is another of those things which is hard to put into words, but it communicates itself like smoke across the species divide. It goes from one equine spirit to one human one, and brings back a sense of the simple fact of existence, of living and breathing and being alive in this precise moment. It anchors me back to the very earth on which I stand:

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That is her daily gift, which she gives with simple generosity. When people ask -why the horse? – that is why.

And then I looked at these:

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7 Aug 3 3024x4032

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And I stared at the hill:

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And I cannot tell you what I felt.


  1. Your heart has neurons too. That's why some things are beyond words. Strange but true. The Horseback work speaks to that concept, without words of course.

  2. Once there were two entire generations - one now wholly gone, the other well on the way out - of European residents (and people from far beyond) who had had such searing experiences, in the first war and the second, those two huge upheavals of the C20th. My parents were young in WWII, my father served in the Royal Navy. Their fathers served in the trenches of WWI. But rarely did they - could they - speak of what they saw. It was rather left to us who followed to read, and study and learn what had happened, and imagine them taking part or witnessing it. The reticence of those previous generations often meant they took their tales to the grave with them. Whether that increased or alleviated their suffering i guess it is too late to know.

    We do things differently now. Difficult experiences are much more often spoken of - be they of war, or genocide or illness, or divorce, or cruelty or madness. Ours is perhaps the listening generation. is that the difference? That therapy tells us such things should be said, not swallowed and choked back.

    All I think is - I hope it helps. And when we are confided in, i hope we all have the strength and common humanity not to push those harrowing stories away for the sake of our own comfort.

  3. Thank you for a beautiful, moving post. I was having a frustrating day over little things. Now I see how insignificant those annoyances really are. I love how eloquently you wrote about being the person to whom the man told his story. I love how you have drawn a very profound encounter.

  4. Odd that you and I should have such similar experiences, on different sides of the world, on the same day. Mine was not in person, but it hit me the same way. I was indulging in my guilty pleasure, watching one of those shows where women shop for their bridal gowns. A girl came in with her husband, a soldier who had both of his arms blown off (later reattached) the day before he was to come home from Iraq. They had only had a civil ceremony before he went off to war, and they wanted to really celebrate their wedding with a white dress and the works. They had no money at all, and a veterans charity was helping them buy the dress. The folks at the bridal salon discounted a beautiful dress, and paid out of their own pockets for her veil and other accoutrements. At the end of the show, they aired the wedding... and then as the credits rolled, the screen went black and showed the words "In Loving Memory of Kevin M. Hardin..." - the soldier ended up dying of the shrapnel left in his brain last year. I wept and wept, then went up to my computer and found YouTube videos that his family posted to commemorate his life. I wept some more. So many, so many stories - so many people - the heart wants to crush under the weight of it all. But I'm so glad they had their special wedding.

    And I'm so glad you listened to that man's story, and shared it with us. It links us all.


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