Pause for thought

ClockTerm 5

This week I went looking for words.  I found hundreds of them, at the cashpoint, on buses, in shop windows and open spaces.  A chorus of adverts and notices shouted for my attention and instant action:

Touch screen to begin
Start the adventure
Get the app
Swipe right
Go binge

Find your new job
Do something you love
Please say hello
Call our team today

Press up
Sit up
Drink up

Now available here
Open all day
Open every day
Same day service
Available now

Buy one get one free
Have you swiped your Nectar card?
Clean up after your dog

I don’t have a dog, but came home overwhelmed by possibilities. The next day I went out again, on the lookout for things not to do:

No ball games
No parking
No entry

No stopping
No smoking
No dumping
No dogs

I couldn’t find as many of them, and I didn’t have to (not) do them immediately. Instead this was about keeping me in my place, ensuring my behaviour and my body stayed within boundaries. I had less freedom in the outside world than I thought. Still no dog.

The Alexander word for ‘not doing’ is inhibition.  I’ve struggled with it and find it hard to put into practice or describe, but it’s central to becoming a teacher. I think it’s about habit and choice.  If we automatically obey an instruction or react to a stimulus, we’re more likely to do it in our habitual way.  Habits are what we want to move away from, because they encourage us to act or move unthinkingly, without paying attention.

By ‘not doing’ we allow ourselves breathing space between stimulus and response.  This gives us time to choose how to react: we can do nothing, carry on with what we intended, or do something else altogether.  But in the pause for thought we’ve allowed a moment to make a conscious choice, and that’s the key.

My sample of words on the street is just a fraction of the shout-outs for action we come across each day.  ‘Doing’ is seen as positive, natural, a necessary part of everyday life – otherwise how would we ever achieve anything?  It’s also time-bound, deadline-driven, urgent.  The idea of ‘non-doing’ seems largely negative and constraining, even lazy and out of step.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s difficult to explain or understand Alexander’s ideas, because they run so counter to prevailing thinking. There seems little room for the Alexander concept of not reacting, stopping and pausing or for seeing ‘non-doing’ as a welcome chance to catch our habits on the hop before they take over.

The only instruction I came across where the mainstream and the Alexander world were in unison was a road safety slogan. The three words made me smile, breathe and pause:

Stop.  Think.  Live.



Black mirror walk

Sheila Ghelani summons us from scrying with her black orb
Sheila Ghelani summons us from scrying in the square with her reflective black orb

Summer holidays

I’ve been on two nature wanders, as I experiment over the summer with looking and walking in different ways. The first, with performance artist Sheila Ghelani, complements the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition on nature.  Twenty of us, one barefoot, set off on an overcast afternoon into the roar of London’s Euston Road. Holding small round black mirrors Sheila had made for us, we wondered how to find nature so close to one of the capital’s most polluted streets.

Sheila was one step ahead.  She had determined our route in advance by placing her own black mirror on a map, drawing round it and picking ten places to pause.  We would be walking through hidden green spaces under the shadow of the mirror. No going beyond the edge.

Map for a black mirror walk
Map for a walk under the shadow of a black mirror

Black mirrors, or Claude glasses, are practical and mysterious.  They have been used by landscape painters and travellers to frame and appreciate views – their dark reflection saps colour, giving an abstract quality to what you see.  John Dee, the 16th century mathematician and astrologer, kept his in a sharkskin case, and would ‘scry’ or foretell the future by peering into its depths.

Sheila Ghelani's photo of John Dee's scrying mirror
Sheila Ghelani’s photo of John Dee’s scrying mirror

Under a threatening sky we held up our mirrors like 19th century tourists, contemplating the view behind.  In a garden square we paused to sketch like landscape painters, drawing obliquely through the glass.  And we walked backwards in the damp grass, holding mirrors up to check the path behind, noticing the quality of our steps, the uncertainty but also the freedom from our usual walking habits.

Hiroshima memorial tree
Hiroshima memorial tree where we scryed for foresight

Close to the end of the walk we paused by the Hiroshima memorial tree to look more deeply into our Claude glasses and ‘scry’ into the future, pondering ageing, mortality and change.  I still have my mirror, in its velvety drawstring case. It will travel with me for reflection and new perspectives.

My second walk was briefer, with haiku poet Annie Bachini.  Ginko or haiku walks are an integral part of the Japanese haiku form of poetry.  You go out into nature, alone or with others, notebook in hand, and take a short walk to observe, listen and draw inspiration from your surroundings.  Despite the rain, our brief trip into another of London’s garden squares was surprisingly fruitful and we came back with a starting point for our first haiku.

Reflecting in water
Our barefoot walker had not worn shoes for 30 years



Observing, listening, following

Silverton (left), singing with Laurence Corns on guitar and Brian Edwards on sax
Silverton (left), singing “It’s a Wonderful World” with Laurence Corns (guitar) and Brian Edwards (sax)

Summer holidays

The other evening I was watching a small group of musicians and noticed how well they were observing, listening to and following each other.  I was at the Spitz Charitable Trust Summer Party.  The charity brings musicians into nursing homes and day centres, playing live music for and with older people or residents, many but not all with dementia.   I first came across them when they played for my mother, who had dementia and spent the final six months of her life in a nursing home they visited.

At the party, the Spitz had invited three of the older people they had previously worked with – Henrietta, Silverton and Victor – to play or sing with them during the evening.  All are in their nineties. On each occasion a member of the Spitz team escorted them to the microphone, ensured they and the other musicians were comfortable with the chosen tune, and gave them a rousing and affectionate introduction.

Victor (guitar), Ben Hazleton (double bass), Laurence (holding the mic) and Brian (sax)
Victor (guitar), Ben Hazleton (double bass), Laurence (holding the mic) and Brian (sax)

Whatever the tempo, the musicians were highly attuned to the pace, needs and personality of their older companion.  There was a gentle attentiveness that continued throughout each piece, as they responded easily to pauses or changes.  Sensitively they were able to follow or guide the tune to its natural ending, allowing the soloist to take their well-earned applause from families and guests.

Henrietta takes to the microphone for one of several musical slots, Laurence on guitar
Henrietta takes to the microphone for one of several musical slots, Laurence on guitar

I was particularly aware of this for several reasons.  It reminded me of the musical overtones in the hands-on sessions in our Alexander training. Under the eye of an experienced teacher, we practise with fellow students, observing ourselves but also responsive to others.  Becoming a trio or quartet, the teacher leading, we work in the moment or from memory. We follow the verbal instructions by ear, while fine-tuning our capacity to listen with hands as we work on colleagues.  Each of us takes a turn in the spotlight, the dynamic of the group changing subtly as we perform. As with musicians, we have to pay attention – if we don’t, or over-concentrate, the rhythm is lost.   And we can’t hurry the pace or work too slowly either.  Nonetheless, somehow we all reach the end together.

The evening also brought to mind that musicians from the Spitz had visited my mother in her nursing home just three weeks before she died.  I wasn’t present, but they captured her reactions on a short film, and I’ve seen the difference their singing made as her capacity dwindled – she is alert and able to speak, rising to the occasion, and brought to life one last time by the power of music.  Watching the group playing live at the party with their older soloists, I recognised the attention musicians working in care settings must demonstrate in their playing – a desire to connect or bring people out rather than showcase their own talent, a delicate sensitivity to the needs and forgotten skills of older people or those with dementia, coupled with flexibility, humour, tact and attentiveness.

Finally, I remembered with sadness the slow and subtle duet I played with my mother as she approached death in those last six months.  We both knew she was dying, but didn’t need to speak of it.  I observed and listened to her, and knew her part was coming to an end.  She was often unable to talk, or kept her eyes closed, but listened to my voice as I chatted or read to her.  There were long pauses or silence where only our hands made contact, and I tried to still or stay with her tremor.

In the days before she died, she kept her eyes and lips tight shut, unable to see or say anything, but still listening for her cues, the insistent melody unfamiliar but not unwelcome. I followed her as far as I could, the music stopped, and she was gone.

One of the violinists from the Spitz playing for my mother in her nursing home a few weeks before she died (illustrator Joanna Layla)
One of the violinists from the Spitz playing for my mother in her nursing home a few weeks before she died (illustrator Joanna Layla)