Tag Archives: hope


head heavy on the soft void of my pillows
I think about hope, as my tired mind
tries to construct pleasant futures
out of the broken fragments of old dreams

yet staring me in the face, (interrupting dreams
with all the subtlety of an alarm clock’s frantic buzz)
is the knowledge that hopes, thwarted, bring pain
my eyes (still gritty from last night’s weeping)
squeeze shut again, looking for sweeter dreams

yet the sweeter the dream, the harder the waking
into a world that knows nothing of my dreams
why hope? why search? when finding nothing hurts so
and yet what point is living without searching or hoping?

with a sigh, I throw back the covers
stand up, begin to face the day

perhaps hope
is not dreaming
but simply taking one step
after another


alchemy of flame

lost in a labyrinth of mirrors
the lives I chose not to live
tease me with their gold-red glitter
and against their glazed silence
the cries of long-faded passion echo
suffering and joy indistinguishable

where is the thread to guide me?

I have been seeking that tantric alchemy
that transforms the bitter almond tang
of old love’s pain into rich bright mead
now the drink simmers before me
its scent brims with sweet intoxication
saying wisdom has tempered the poison

does temptation cloud my seeing?

in the crucible metal shivers and curdles
before melting in consummation
to be shaped by the whim of the vessel
into which it once chose to throw itself
the first hot breath of that forging
traces my skin with sensual intent

should I give myself to the fire?

This started with a readwritepoem prompt about other lives… and took off in an unexpected direction.

The photo is Goblet of cognac, originally uploaded by Andrejs Jegorovs.


Not one of my own poems this time, but a favourite:

Sometimes things don’t go at all,
from bad to worse. Some years muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives;the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

Sheena Pugh (b.1950)


This poem has been knocking at the back of my mind for a while. And thanks to google, I managed to fetch it out – and having found it and felt consoled (if a little weepily!), I wanted to share it with all my patient readers out there. May it happen for you, indeed.


I wander lost in the maze of my life
Not knowing which way I want to go
Not knowing how to get there if I did
Not even knowing if it’s already too late
If the choices I’ve taken so far mean
That some of the exits I might hope to find
Have already been blocked long ago.

It’s dark down here between the walls
Lonely too. Sometimes I see others passing
Eagerly following their Ariadne threads
But when I seem to find a thread of my own
It vanishes into a dead end, leaving me
Crashing headlong into the blank wall
With the force of my enthusiasm.

Some days I sit still, unable to face
Even the simplest choice of forking paths.
Sometimes there are better days,
When I stride out positively. But it’s hard,
Being so wearily lost for so long,
To keep starting again, seeking new hope
And losing it again in the maze of my life.

But though the maze is infinite and dark
I am not trapped in a prison cell
Still I have the power to walk
To try to create out of confusion and fear
A path out into sunlight that I have found.
It’s dark down here between the walls
But still my hopeful feet keep walking.

I wrote this in a dark time a few months ago, but decided it was too depressing to publish. I revisited it again while going through old drafts, and thought that it did capture something very real to many people in this day and age. With the addition of the last, more verse, I feel it’s worth sharing with the world!


I’ve been reading Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness (for some of the key arguments, see this TED.com video), and thinking about the idea that our level of satisfaction depends on our expectations. 

Gilbert quotes a startling experiment that shows how important our expectations can be. One group of participants was promised a reward (e.g. £3) for their participation, but then told that there was a mistake and they would receive less (say £2). The second group were promised a lower amount (e.g. £1) and received exactly what they were promised. A rational argument would say that those receiving £2 were still better off and so should be happier than those receiving £1. But in practice the first group were more unhappy than the second – because they didn’t receive what they had expected to receive. One group thought themselves £1 better off than nothing, the others felt they were £1 worse off than £3.

It’s one of those ideas that starts to apply itself to all sorts of areas of my life and thinking.

One of the most difficult aspects of my current work situation is that people feel that they were promised more (by my predecessor) than I am able to give them. So unfortunately what I am able to offer, although generous if considered objectively, is deeply unsatisfying to them because it’s less than they were expecting.

It’s also relevant to relationships. Before my last relationship, I was getting along fairly happily as a single person, having been single for several years. Yes, I wanted a partner, but my life was interesting and fulfilling and overall I was happy. During the relationship I became used to all sorts of things that were better than in my single situation – having my self-image reinforced by compliments and attention, opportunities to discover new things, someone who was always there (by mobile if not in person) when I wanted to talk, and all sorts of other benefits. I didn’t need all those things – I’d got on perfectly happily without them. But their sudden withdrawal was a shock. And while I knew that I could be happy as a single person, it took me some time to get back to that state of mind, because I had expected that the relationship level of comfort would continue. Again, it was harder to cope with the withdrawal of something than it was to cope with its absence.

It also occurs to me that this may be why some religious people view the life of an atheist as necessarily miserable. If you have been promised, and come to believe, that you will meet your loved ones again, it must be difficult and painful to accept the idea that you will not. Whereas if you always felt that death was final, you simply don’t feel the same level of disappointment, because you never expected anything more. Obviously the belief in heaven can help to make the initial grief easier to bear, and will continue to do so so long as you continue believing that. But there’s no real evidence for that belief, so it’s a risky basis for comfort. If that belief ever falters, dealing with the withdrawal would almost certainly be far more painful than it would have been to deal with the initial grief without this apparent consolation.

My experience of having never believed in heaven is therefore vastly different from the experience of someone who has believed in heaven and has ceased to do so. But Gilbert also argues strongly that we also tend to strongly underestimate how well our coping mechanisms help us deal with disappointments like this. Over time, the de-converted seem to get used to the idea that there is no heaven, that they will not see their loved ones again. But a religious person trying to imagine what it would be like not to believe in heaven, is likely to completely overestimate the impact of losing their faith, let alone the experience of a life-long atheist like myself.

Somewhere in the blogosphere I came across someone describing how angry they felt with someone who told a child that there was no Santa Claus, feeling that shattering the child’s illusions was cruel. But I was mystified why they were angry at the person that shattered the illusion – rather than the person who set up the inevitable disappointment by telling that child the original lie that there was a Santa Claus. The experience of living in a world without Santa Claus is completely different depending on whether we were told that a world with Santa Claus was possible.

So what does this mean in practice? It should be reasonably straightforward to avoid making promises that can’t be kept in a work situation, and I’ve definitely had a very clear lesson in why this is so important. It’s harder in relationships – because the nature of a long-term relationship is the hope that it will continue, and the mutual commitment to trying to do so. But still, I think being aware of this will help in future relationships – to know that the horror with which the mind contemplates being single from within a relationship is not a realistic perception of the actual experience of being single. And finally this understanding might come in handy in trying to explain to religious people why the non-religious life is not, in fact, as dark and miserable as they have been told.

The mind does work strangely at times – but it does help to get to know its peculiarities!

Clouds make the sunlight more interesting

And the dark times in our lives make us appreciate the good moments even more.

Evidence and expectations

I saw a fascinating film recently about a young boy with quadroplegic cerebral palsy. Because of his severe physical disabilities it was incredibly difficult to establish any method of communication with him. His mother devised all sorts of ingenious techniques for overcoming the physical blocks to communication, but was often met with scepticism from professionals who were not convinced of her son’s intelligence. Part of the challenge was that he was only able to communicate with physical assistance.

The film was powerfully put together, and I was very moved by the way his mother had to struggle against a system that seemed very rigid and unresponsive.

But I also watched with some doubt in my mind. (It’s not pleasant to doubt things that other people with so much more knowledge of a situation clearly believe so strongly, but sometimes holding back on asking difficult questions is a fake respect, implying that you don’t think they’ve considered the issue. So while I try to be polite and open minded, I am trying to have the confidence of my own doubts, and not worry overmuch about what people will think about me for asking.)

Anyway, I have recently (for example, here) been looking into new-age claims for dowsing and similar, and in particular the ideomotor effect. (There’s a good article on this at: http://www.randi.org/library/dowsing/). Essentially, the movement of the pendulum or other device is influenced imperceptibly by the dowser’s state of mind, even though they are not aware of this and do not intend it. The effect is very misleading, so people dowsing are often sincerely convinced that the pendulum is reflecting something in the outside world, because they have no conscious intention of influencing its movement. Nevertheless, under double blind testing dowsing performs no better than chance as a measure of what is going on outside the mind of the dowser.

So in watching the video, I was worried to what extent this effect might be intervening in assisted communication. I sympathised deeply with the mother, but also with the professionals whose scientific training trained them to doubt, to demand consistency and exclude all possibility of experimenter bias. The ideomotor effect is so insidious – with someone who has to be physically supported for communication, how it is possible to be absolutely sure that the assistance isn’t affecting the message? How is it possible to design a test that would prove beyond reasonable doubt that this was not taking place? To what extent did the professionals have cause to be doubtful?

The film addressed this difficult question of how to be sure directly. Some of the people most closely involved with the boy spoke of their moments of doubt. But they felt that the real problem was that those who were assessing his intelligence were unwilling to challenge their preconceptions about what people with such severe communication barriers were capable of mentally.

Someone asked an interesting question at the meeting – is there training that could be given to professionals to suppor them to design their own ways of testing in these unusual circumstances? I like that idea – looking for tests that are as innovative as a loving mother, whilst still rigorous enough to give real certainty by excluding any potential for bias or randomness.

Our expectations will inevitably colour the way we interpret what we see in the world around us. And people with differing expectations will see the world differently. So the challenge is to set aside our attachment to our expectations and design tests that will bring us closer to the truth, whatever that is. It’s hard to do, but I can’t help feeling it’s crucial.

Of course it’s not always possible to reach that level of certainty, so sometimes we do have to deal with situations that really are ambiguous. In which case the only way to proceed seems to be to choose the viewpoint which is least likely to do harm if untrue.

When it comes to assessing intelligence, there seems to be a lot more harm in a false negative than a false positive. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to be an intelligent human being for whom communication with others is such a struggle. Making that struggle unnecessarily worse through preconceptions and overzealous scepticism is abhorrent. So it seems far safer to work on the basis that the person is intelligent, and draw on the experience of those who know the person best to understand what they wish to communicate.

One final thought – the woman who made the film was herself severely disabled and could only communicate with assistance. And her distinctive voice could be heard in the clear structure and strong message of the film. Which for me is a very powerful testament to the fact that difficulty in communication may obscure intelligence, but should never be assumed to mean that it’s not there.

With the best will in the world, our preconceptions about what is unfamiliar to us can easily get the better of us. So I am deeply grateful to her, and to those who participated in her film, for the way in which they have opened my mind.