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No. 145. Open up to an exciting new year!

Yesterday afternoon I sent a text to my cousin in Canada. 'It's amazing,' said my daughter who was sitting next to me, 'how we can do this'. As someone who remembers when the concept of mobile phones was first mooted, it amazes me even more! But only when I take the time to think about it.

The sad thing is that we are rarely amazed in our day to day lives. Habituation kicks in so very quickly. So, however appalled you may feel by the events of 2016, be thankful at least for feeling amazed, shocked, alive.

It's not our fault that we're neurologically wired to ignore sameness and to pay attention to difference. It follows, though, that our attention and aliveness is in direct proportion to newness in our lives.

Knowing that, why not take the opportunity to pay attention to what is habitual and to introduce some newness......

I have a friend who frequents the British museum and, when I mentioned to her that I had started a drawing course and was interested in seeing different styles of drawings, she asked me if I knew about the drawings collection at the British Museum. I didn't. It turns out that the British Museum, in its Department of Prints and Drawings, contains the national collection of western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is the third largest collection of its kind in the world.

To see any of the drawings you have to make an appointment. So it was that at 2 o' clock one Tuesday afternoon in November, the two of us arrived at the door of the drawings department and pressed the bell. We were admitted by a pleasant middle-aged woman who showed us where to leave our coats and bags and then took us into the vast vaulted study room to meet the person with whom we had the appointment. Long benches with enormous easels ran from one end of the room to the other. There were two or three individuals dotted around the benches, silent and studious, one or two drawings propped up before them. We were introduced to a be-corduroyed, sandy-haired man in his forties. He had asked, during the course of my friend's email correspondence with him, for us to have a look at the catalogue and specify which drawings we wished to see. For my part I wanted to see some landscapes, and some Rembrandts, some Leonardo, and my friend was also interested in Claude. We both wanted to see some Michaelangelo. But we didn't know which particular drawings we wanted to see - we wanted to browse rather than specify. The be-corduroyed, sandy-haired man in his forties was not happy.

'This isn't how we normally do this,' he said, with no attempt to hide what he thought about people that didn't do things how they were normally done. 'Usually people say exactly which drawings they want to see.'

Having grown up in a family where we rarely did things how other people did them, this did not have much of an impact on me. My friend was similarly undeterred. We looked blandly at him.

'Well, I suppose I could just bring you a box of drawings?' he said reluctantly. We smiled and said that that would be lovely. He sauntered off, a little cloud of disapproval disappearing into the depths of the museum, leaving us sat at one of the benches. A few minutes later he reappeared with a large box - about three foot by two foot and three or four inches deep - marked 'Rembrandt'. I felt a thrill of excitement.

He presented us with a pair of cotton gloves that we were to use when handling the drawings, opened the box and showed us how to pick up a drawing by its edges and placed it on the easel in front of us. This first was a drawing of the Dutch countryside - a farmhouse stood in the foreground on the left, simple fine lines depicted the slight rise and fall of the landscape in which it was set, trees and fields stretched out into the distance and a hint of a windmill's fine sails could be seen on the horizon.

He left us and for the next hour or so we drank in this box of Rembrandt drawings, of streams and rivers, windmills, country lanes, market-places. Then we did the same with a box of Claude landscapes. The pantomime disapproval and foot-dragging from our corduroyed friend could have marred the experience, but that we were doing something slightly forbidden somehow enhanced it, made me smile inside with mischievous delight.

'Could we see some Michelangelo now, please?' we asked our grumpy friend, once we had come to the end of the second box, all drawings carefully replaced inside and the lid closed.

'Well we don't have many,' he said, 'and several of the best ones are out on loan.' We were obviously meant to say, 'ok, well, we'll leave it then,' but we were good now at the bland faces, which didn't push, but just sat there, waiting. With a poor grace he set off once again into the bowels of his archive and returned a few minutes later with another box, this time marked 'Michelangelo'.

I asked my friend if she would mind if I donned the gloves for this box - I just had to touch a Michelangelo! I opened the lid.

Nothing prepared us for the impact of these drawings, many of which were little more than penciled doodles, often several to a page. It was as though we had opened the lid on something alive. There was a fierce head of a satyr, hair flowing, eyes wild, real enough to set us back on our seats; a series of male torsos, every muscle bursting with life, asking to be touched; an anatomical drawing of an arm, more real than anything I had ever seen in an anatomy laboratory. We were awestruck, exhilarated, transported.

I saw my friend a couple of weeks later. We were walking along the Charing Cross road and she turned to me. 'You know, I still can't get over sitting in the British Museum looking at those Michelangelo' drawings,' she said. 'Just us, and them. Private. Uninterrupted. Michelangelo, in these hands.'

'I know,' I said, smiling at the memory, 'hard to believe.'

Try this:

  1. What have been some of the most thrilling experiences of your life? When have you felt utterly honoured and privileged? Incredibly lucky? Filled with wonder? What experiences will you never forget? What, if you had any, would you be proud to tell your grandchildren? Things that would make their eyes widen and their mouths form 'Os' of amazement?

  2. Choose one of these experiences and take a few minutes to remember it in detail. Let yourself re-experience the feelings, and notice what those feelings are.

  3. What were your three most life-enhancing experiences from 2016, and how did they come about? The nature of thrilling experiences is that we rarely know that they're going to be thrilling in advance. I had no idea that the Michelangelo box was going to be such an extraordinary experience, or seeing Niagara falls would have such an impact, or giving birth would feel like such a miracle. When walking along the South Bank one Sunday afternoon, I had no idea that a young refugee girl would stop at the edge of the path, press play on a small music player, and start to dance a sad and beautiful dance. We can't plan our special experiences, all we can do is open our lives to new ones, and keep our senses alert during the ones we have.

  4. Taking a few minutes to look to the year ahead, let your mind explore your usual (and probably unconscious) expectations of the next twelve months; the usual things you will do, the usual responsibilities you will fulfill, the usual trip to work, the usual way your days pan out, the usual kind of company you keep and the usual way you behave and experience all these things. Notice how you feel as you do this.

  5. Now open your mind way beyond your normal expectations and imagine a year with endless opportunities for new experiences, new people, new places, new activities, and also new ways of doing and experiencing the usual things. Again, notice how you feel, and notice what possibilities start to arise - some new things you might do, some old things you might stop. Play with this for a while.

  6. Plan three new things to do, or do differently, in the first week of January.

Wishing you an exciting and wonderful new year!

With much love


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