On a flight between Bangkok and Shanghai in 2009, I sat next to a German who was going to China to give a lecture on Feng Shui. What do you suppose he was going to tell the Chinese that they hadn’t worked out for themselves in the past 3000 years? Even though it was an unusually long flight I never found out. But it goes to show that not even the Chinese have the corner in everything.
My son recently bought me a laptop. Just like that. No reason. It made me rather unpopular with the rest of the family (particularly when the exact same model went up 20% in price over the weekend) and it made me question the meaning of life. I’m talking about books.
I immediately rearranged all the furniture in the house. Maybe it is a girl thing, but for me a new object like a chair, a picture or even an electric toothbrush generates ripples of energy that affect everything else. So I have to move things around until they reach a kind of state of equilibrium. (My Feng Shui advice for Dummies is, therefore, give your wife a new piece of furniture and a big rubbish bag and she’ll soon get your chi flowing.)
In the process I had to move a bookcase, which meant unpacking all the books, moving the actual bookcase itself and then repacking it. It took forever.
At the same time I was exploring my new laptop, copying photos and charging my Kindle (another girl thing – multi-tasking) and kept accidentally creating shortcuts that wouldn’t shift. Then I discovered a tool called Shred. So I shredded the icons. No prizes for guessing what comes next.
Actually it wasn’t that bad. All I lost was the content of my Kindle, and I could simply re-download it from source or copy it off my PC. So nothing was “lost”.
My friend has an “internal” librarian who helps her find things. Apparently we all have one. This friend comes from Mauritius, so hers is French and efficient. Mine is South African, speaks one of eleven languages (possibly not English) and is (I suspect) almost always on strike. So finding things doesn’t come easy for me. The discovery that I could download the content of an entire virtual library in a few minutes as opposed to the hours it took me to move a bookcase of actual books made me rethink my values. Perhaps ebooks are the answer. You simply can’t “lose” them, no matter what filing system you use or how bad your friends are at returning things. They don’t need dusting and they weigh nothing at all. This realisation has brought new meaning to my life (and increased income to Amazon).
To get back to Feng Shui: Seriously now, some people (even Germans) do have a better sense of the spirit of place than others (even the Chinese). Call it a sense of history if you like – they get a feeling about places; they “sense” or, simply, “notice” stuff the rest of us overlook.
In simple terms, we all obviously sense far more than we take in through our eyes alone. This is why, I believe, our photographs sometimes tell a story that is very different from what we remember – and can also influence the way we do remember. Even without artificial lighting, or the benefit of photoshop, photographs can give a deceptive or “enhanced” image. I mean, by virtue of its very honesty in portraying what is visible to the eye, photography omits the atmosphere that we are conscious of at the time and asserts its own idealised version of the truth. Smells, sounds, size (ie perspective) and other signals that our senses pick up are absent from the pretty picture recorded by the camera. Ergo, ironically, the real artistry and deliberate design it takes to create a truly realistic photograph.
My two fairyland examples are a simple illustration of how unenhanced photographs can create a false reality. One is just a case of relative size. The enormous tree ferns dwarf the subject and shrink the stream to a mere puddle, producing an elf among ordinary garden ferns.
The message of the second photo is similar. People who find snow commonplace might not experience this as a magical fairyland, but my South African friends were enchanted and, looking at it now, I also appreciate its spell. At the time, though, I experienced things very differently.
I’d been there several years before, when the trail was lined with prayer flags for a father and his two children who had been buried by an avalanche – not because they were there at the wrong time of day, or had strayed from the official route, but just because Nature decided to do her thing. Unlike me, my South African friends didn’t register the ominous grumblings in the mountains. They didn’t notice the runnels of water or trickles of stones indenting the snow with little tooth marks. For them, my Valley of the Shadow of Death was simply a Winter Wonderland.
I recently discovered an intriguing Swahili proverb: “Much silence has a mighty noise.” If we could only abandon all agendas and expectations, and approach our environment with nothing more than raw sensitivity – before we get busy redesigning reality at some virtual drawing board – we might hear what the spirit of place is trying to tell us. Yes, I know exactly you’re thinking: No wonder her inner librarian went AWOL.