For a week in July, we stayed in an apartment in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s “old town” and some say the most ancient settled site in Sweden; and perhaps its antiquity is what drew me when all the other options seemed to be modern suburban apartment blocks. Like a magnet pulling me right to the heart of the matter; the first beating impulse from which this place grew, the Gamla Stan apartment seemed to declare itself non-negotiable as I considered how best to structure our week staying in a base from which we could easily get to all the other sights.
All the best bits
Tucked away on its own island at the point where the inland water of Lake Mälaren greets the Baltic sea, it is an idyllic old-world place of narrow cobbled streets and tall historic buildings painted in blush tones that are oddly reminiscent of a Tuscan hill town. Then, like the Cité of Carcassonne that I have come to know so well, it has the feeling of being a one-time citadel and now a world hidden within a world; walled away, in this case, by water and with a classic labyrinth of shoestring alleyways leading between the town’s main shopping streets, an array of boutiques, cafés and restaurants, towards a central cobbled square that has seen quite a colourful past. In a literal sense, those colourful buildings wouldn’t out of place in Riquewihr, the almost unfeasibly pretty town in Alsace where we spent another memorable holiday and, like that place, there were mentions everywhere of Gamla Stan hosting a Christmas Market, which was so easy to imagine even in hottest July. Even the picturesque cobbled street that where we stayed in Bruges last year came to mind as we approached the narrow cut-through where the smart black sign to our apartment block hung on its scrolling wrought iron arm above a substantial wooden door; we had arrived in our home for the week and I was just a little bit bowled over.
These parallels with other places that I had made such potent memories of before were so strong that I was initially disoriented; had I flown South instead of North? At the time of planning this holiday, there were images of thick snow carpeting this far northern place and I had come prepared for ‘fresher’ temperatures, even in July; yet we arrived in southern European heat, with hoards of tourists spilling out into pavement cafés and cobbled side streets so jammed with humanity that we had to zig-zag our suitcase-tugging way three times the distance to weave the steep route around them from the bridge to our apartment. None of this was what I had expected at all and yet it was so beautiful I was hardly going to complain. Perhaps there was purpose in this place reminding us of so many of our other trips; like it represented some sort of amalgam of “all the best bits” custom made into the perfect destination to suit us…and perhaps that was something we could get to know the feeling of and use as a benchmark for choosing what we really want in everyday life.
The potential for transformation
Like all those other so-idyllic holiday destinations that scrolled through the flashcard of my ever-comparative mind, it struck me that Gamla Stan’s modern-day tourist appeal is directly in proportion to how harsh its history has been, its “colourful” past feeding directly into all the things that now make it the paintbox-colourful tourist gem of today. Its most photogenic qualities are sured up upon the shoulders of some of the least desirable aspects of its past and, by the 1950s, its slums were considered such an eyesore, an unpleasant reminder of the cramped, unsavoury living conditions of the past, that it came to the very brink of demolition to make way for something modern. It took a pressure group to see its potential and save it for posterity yet its quite bizarre to think that what is now the hub of Stockholm’s tourist industry was once almost wiped from the map; the power of perspective and the ability to realise the potential for something great out of even the unlikeliest beginnings – this is how transformation is made possible and I liked so much that it had occurred here, in a place I had instinctively chosen to stay.
The mixed messages of the place, which I could feel come up at me from the very stones beneath my feet, were traceable to the bullseye heart of Gamla Stan where its square Storgortet (the oldest square in Stockholm, now the scene of the famous Christmas Market) was once the scene of a hideous ‘bloodbath’ when almost 90 local resistors to Danish control of Sweden were gruesomely executed, one after another, in that spot. Even down our beautiful backstreet, Stockholm’s recent underbelly was to be found just a layer or two beneath the surface. A couple of doors down from our apartment block (itself, once a tobacco factory) is the one-time address of the infamous brothel “The virgin cage”, a name evocative enough to stand hair on end yet now, together, this row of buildings are fully transformed into an extremely desirable residence, a location so stunning we could hardly believe our good fortune to be staying here, climbing that broad flagstone staircase overlooking an inner courtyard to our third floor light-flooded haven up above the rooftops of Gamla Stan.
Living in Grace
Our apartment (through no design as I chose purely on its more physical merits) was even called “Grace” and never a more apt a name could there have been. To us, its white and soft grey interior and roomy, uncluttered spaces came to represent a moment of stillness and light, a pause and a pull-back from the business of our holiday and of life in general. The fresh Baltic air danced freely between open windows on either side of the building and outside sounds carried in like wisps on that breeze as church bells played out their long-ago melodies and seagulls and swifts performed for us at eye level; the latter so daring in their their sharp darting turns that I half expected them to fly right through the apartment. There was an old irony, thus a healing, in the swifts being here: long ago, I rented a couple of rooms above the rooftops in a town where swifts also dash and dart around the skyline at window height in the early hours of the high-summer mornings and their eerie screech become associated with the most painful memory of my life, which had remained locked inside of me for many years until quite recently. Its a sound I hadn’t heard at such close proximity for years and always with a shudder but I had forgotten the delight of watching their aerobatics and knew, pretty quickly, that this was coming up as a healing, an opportunity and an outward sign that I was ready to dispense with outside cues to pain and truly get over this now. Yes, the chance name of the apartment and its graceful features…they were “just” a reflection of my own inner state reflecting back at me and I knew I was here as a way of shoring up the foundations of the far more sustained state of inner grace that I have recently claimed as my own.
So I found myself rising from my bed far earlier than I ever do at home, to sit beneath the arch of the rising sun that came directly into the open-flung window onto my adopted end of the sofa where I read or wrote, sipping tea, diving in and out of alternating conversation and contented silences once “the others” got up. Those mornings were amongst the most idyllic I can recall of any place I have ever been and yet here we were in the very epicentre of a substantial city…and, perhaps, like the eye of a hurricane it was because we were in the very heart of life that the stillness we found felt so exceptional, so graceful…a true state of grace.
Yes, this was more peace and tranquility, more “standing still” and pausing than I had ever expected of a city break; and yet it wasn’t that the place was devoid of noise. Endlessly arriving and departing cruise liners honked in the bay, seagulls cawed, we could hear the background grumble of city traffic and trains, people passing by in waves of clip-clopping feet and chatter, we were under a mile from an ugly transport interchange modelled on the shape of a four-leaved clover (which is so funny, for a reason that will become apparent later) and whilst the Swedes, like the Danes, seem almost litter free, we couldn’t help but notice they love their graffiti. Yet this apartment’s unwavering peace came from a quality of being gently suspended in time and space, a moment to breathe with no hurry or demands placed upon those who took pause there but, rather, an invitation to gracefully “be” in each moment (not racing to the next one or over-analysing the last).
I found myself doing yoga because I really wanted to, once or even twice a day; which then helped me adjust to a different bed and all that walking up and down Stockholm’s hilly streets. I luxuriated in the spacious shower with its broad jet that felt like standing in a summer waterfall and would make an unhurried ritual of self-care each morning after a long and leisurely breakfast. There was never a race to get out of Grace’s door and coming back to it elicited the same kind of whole-body sigh that normally tells me I’m home though I’d been here such a short time. I approached each new morning without pressing agenda; had expected to write reams, even packing an extra notebook which I never got to take out of my suitcase. Though I wrote a few disjointed lines as reminders to string together another day, I mostly read and gave myself to the kind of mental spaciousness that delivered far more than I could capture in words…so I didn’t even try. It was just the holiday I needed; right place, right time and I allowed it to happen to me.
How to let grace in
It struck my ambling thoughts how things that would have been a blot on my landscape or inconvenience at home were taken without complaint, an acceptable part of the holiday “view” here. Television aerials protruded up from grimy chimneys, uninspiring city blocks rose up on the horizon across the water, there was plenty of noise and a perpetual smell of seared meat to offend our vegetarian noses from the restaurant down the street, not to mention other people’s’ music. Mountains of glass were sometimes tipped into a bin very early in the morning before I was really awake and noisy revellers would occasionally stagger home after we had gone to bed but did we mind? Not a jot though, at home, those same irritants would have me gnashing teeth and venting bile at my noisy road where dawn refuse collections, articulated deliveries and 2am drunkards are the ever more frequent melodies over the base boom of perpetual traffic and heavy vehicles that make the house shake. Here, at least, the whole district was pedestrianised and yet “quaint” cobbles make for even more noise as suitcase wheels come and go and the city’s mixed noises rang all around us during the busier times; but then this what we had chosen, wasn’t it – to be in the cultural hub of the place? Nobody made us choose this over a beach or a mountain (a choice that, of itself, I had found fascinating to notice about myself given I always profess to be in search of more tranquility). This was exactly what I had been drawn to and it felt perfect in all its ways; so, what did this tell me about the life I had also apparently chosen back home; were there ways that I could be reappraising that familiar life through the eyes of someone newly arrived and forgiving some of its more aggravating foibles in lieu of its many graces? Was it fair to be more forgiving here than on my home turf and, meanwhile, what was I overlooking at home that could be more deeply appreciated?
And what, if anything, was any different here; why were those very things that had me clawing up the wall back home more than acceptable in this other place? The difference had to be down to how I was spending my time, where I was placing my gaze. Do I get up this early at home, when the world is at its quietest? Earlier than we used to but the urge to rise even earlier has been coming over me lately, making the most of our days, especially since we gave up drinking in the evenings. Would we be sitting in morning sunshine as we sipped our tea? Harder to do in our house as the sunny room is also the noisiest…but we have started following the sun around more and especially using the garden, even to work in as long as its not raining.Would we be alternately reading our books then bursting into animated chit-chat about the most extraordinary things, all kinds of wild and wonderful topics; intuiting when to talk, when not to in a rhythm that is almost telepathic? Oh yes, its one of the things we do so well together…talking about absolutely everything under the sun but also knowing when to be quiet without reading anything into it. Would we gallop out of the door without checking in with ourselves “do we really want to do this, go there” and quite prepared to alter or cancel plans if not? At the weekends, yes, we’re pretty good at inventing our own pace, being flexible, working and not working to natural rhythms rather than a timetable but the ability to do this all the time is work in progress. Is our home as light and airy as we can make it, do we use our spaces as well as they could be used, painted in fresh-light colours and made as uncluttered yet comfortable as the Scandinavians always seem to know how? Lets just say, we are getting there and two more rooms have been utterly transformed since returning home.
Making gentle shapes
The week before, we were in Copenhagen (another haven of phenomenally pleasing interiors) and the journey that we made due north from one place to the other felt significant in a way that I couldn’t quite pinpoint when I initially planned it. Then, brushing against the “history” of the two countries, their perpetual squabbling that was the excuse for what happened in Gamla Stan all those centuries ago, it suddenly struck me as an interesting contrast that by using Copenhagen as a starting point, we had travelled that same route as those one-time invaders on our plane packed with holidaymakers and so many small children it could have been a crèche with wings. Was my tourist itinerary and that of all these people a modern-day invasion of a kind, helping to heal an old wound; trailing new light through heavy old energetic pathways? The square in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, once the scene of a “bloodbath”, now with its Nobel Museum, is such a magnet for tourists that we tended to dash across it without attempting to stop and look but one very early morning we arrived when it was completely empty except for a couple having wedding photos taken on the cobblestones and, when we walked through half an hour later, they had been replaced by the first bus-load of oriental tourists who looked exactly like they were performing tai chi…arm stretched up and forwards, leg swung behind, back arched, crouching down low, every movement slow and studied…only what they were actually doing was holding out their phones and cameras to get that perfect photo of all the iconic buildings around the square. It made me smile that the graceful movements of tai chi had dressed themselves up as this obsession with conquering a place with photography; like a trojan horse to ensure whole busloads of people move around on some sort of perpetual world tour, performing unwitting tai chi in all of the world’s most historically stuck places and, in the process, accidentally healing gnarly old wounds held rigid by bricks and mortar and the endless retelling of old old history. Without having to know the exact part we play as bearers of light charged-up with the holiday-maker’s intention to have a good time, perhaps our tourist behaviours actually do help to anchor something new, something more light-hearted and trivial, more accepting of other people, in all these places.
The idea that modern-day tourism provides the gentle ceremonies that are unwittingly healing the world, a tipping point of happy new memories digitally anchored to these places by all the endless photographs we take, made me smile. With that smile still on my lips, I sent my own blessings out into the square of Gamla Stan, placing my hand under the clear running water of the fountain and silently bowing my acknowledgement of all the hurt these bricks and cobblestones had witnessed while invoking something fresh to fill this space…and all those others across the world where pain and loss have ever been experienced. Places like Paris where we made some of our happiest memories en route to our holiday just three years ago, or Nice where my tiny daughter made sandcastles on the beach adjacent to the very seafront road that so recently made headlines on what was her first holiday abroad (and which is how I still choose to fondly remember it). When we allow memories of horror to stick to a place then…guess what…they stick and they become the sore that is never allowed to heal. Perhaps by keeping ourselves moving, flowing through these places by the smiling tourist busload, we help to heal stuck energies around “wounded” places all the quicker in spite of what anyone else might be doing to paralyse us with the kind of fear which, left to stagnate in a place, becomes as malignant as any unattended hurt held in the body. Keeping movement free and energies circulating helps to prevent such malignancy at the root; and a culture of open tourism certainly does that.
In the familiar word roots, the place names and even the street plans of Copenhagen and Sweden, I found the one-time invaders of my own English birthplace, a classic riverside settlement with a strategic water route to the North Sea that began its most cohesive development as a town and then a major city with the arrival of the vikings who, in making it one of the five boroughs of Danelaw, created its marketplace and the spider’s web of streets that led to it. That blueprint for a town, whose history and culture I gobbled up as a teenager, seasoned the very “flavour” of a place that influenced everything I came to know during my formative years of growing up in a vibrant city that I could feel like a frequency vibrating up from the very ground under my feet. Whatever that frequency of “Nottingham-ness” was, it never left me and still colours the way that I look upon the world; still arriving in a new place and finding myself drawing comparison with my home city (though I haven’t lived there for decades…) like some sort of benchmark for what a cohesion of people looks like; and there was certainly something in these Scandinavian places that felt akin to what I knew so well.
At some level that I was able to recognise, as I watched them on the metro trains, sat beside them at dinner or chatted in their shops (and their English was unfailingly perfect), these folk were my very close kin…like first cousins where some cultures can feel more like distant relatives several times removed…and yet I see how, in realising this, I was being shown how all people everywhere are my relatives somewhere down the line. It made me realise (again) that however far we travel, landing in places we have never set foot in before, it is still possible to find ourselves “at home” surrounded by qualities and nuances, decencies and kindnesses that we recognise from the soul; travelling very far only to boomerang right back to where we started. It can arrest us when this happens but, really, far more surprising is that we ever expected it to be otherwise; that we could have been deluded for so long into thinking that people in all corners of the world are not our extended family, quite regardless of culture, colour or creed.
When culture fits preference
In some ways, we felt far better assimilated to this culture than our own because, being vegetarians bordering on vegan and as impassionadoes of the organic, ecofriendly, consciously shopping way of life, we so often feel like misfits stranded on an island of people who largely “don’t get it” back home where convenience, cost-cutting, meat-culture, big brand labelling and “who cares about hidden ingredients or processes” still drive the mass consumer mentality. Where we live, there are no vegetarian restaurants for almost forty miles and the nearest big “wholefoods” store selling literally everything we would want to buy under one roof, like the equivalent of going to a mainstream supermarket, is in the centre of London, which makes shopping laborious in the extreme if not quite as difficult as, say, in Italy or France.
As such, its easy to feel, with a certain amount of despondency, that the world is not yet cut out for our way of living. Yet here, staying in the tiny square mileage of historic Gamla Stan, with its typical array of meaty restaurants catering for the masses, we found two truly wonderful vegetarian restaurants: Hermans, with its terraced gardens overlooking the water and colourful hammocks under trees, and The Hermitage – a small family affair delivering an unfailingly high-standard of vegetarian loveliness by the “help-yourself buffet” scoopful…both within a few minutes walking distance of our apartment. Like a bigger version of The Hermitage, Hermans puts on the most incredible buffet every night, including a veggie barbecue in one of the lower gardens and so you just pay for your plate and wander around the place, loading up with food and helping yourself to endless cups of Ayurvedic tea until the sun sets over the water. We really thought we had landed in food heaven on that first night in Stockholm, listening to brilliant live music from the deck of one of the boats down below watching an amber sunset behind church spires. As a result (and another reason I was able to relax more fully on this holiday than any I can recall), I was able to joyfully ditch my usual “busman’s holiday” resolution to cook all our evening meals in our apartment and eat out every single day; heaven indeed!
High vibe living
Which, actually, was almost a shame given we had far better access to the kind of food we choose to eat in stores here than anywhere we had ever been including home; the first (of several) wholefood stores we got to was big enough to warrant escalators up into the massive top level where, though we were no longer seeking ingredients to cook with, I still managed to find some lovely organic products to bring home to England and could have happily spent another hour browsing its array of toiletries and household products, supplements and herbal remedies, bakery and dry foods, massive counters of ready-to-eat delicatessen dishes, healthy frozen meals, cereals, nuts and seeds to buy by weight, lactose free deserts and ice creams…you name it; all with an additive free, organic and ecologically sound twist. When it came to finding vegetarian cafés for lunch, we managed to discover a possibility of three or four in a square mile and the one we stopped at delivered a delicious gluten-free roll and an array of smoothies, juices and teas to choose from; we felt utterly spoiled compared to what we are used to as even London doesn’t deliver this!
The feeling of swimming upstream that life can seem like, back home, was suddenly eradicated and like when a very loud noise suddenly turns off, I almost didn’t know how to recalibrate to the sudden absence of it. What had been a problem became the way to be amongst all these other people seeking our kind of products; in fact, it felt “cool” (not ridiculous) to be part of the healthy-eating crowd. You can become so weary of having to check the small print on packets, the manufacturing credentials of suppliers, the carbon-footprint of your veg, of asking “is the cheese in this actually vegetarian?” or “do you have anything that’s gluten free that isn’t then over-compensated with sugar, caramel colourings or other chemical additives?” (Scandinavians seemed much more clued-up about healthy alternatives for those with food intolerances than I’ve seen back home where “gluten-free” doesn’t often equate to “healthy option”). These people were, quite literally, speaking “my language” and everything in the shops and restaurants was so thoroughly labelled plus there was always somebody ready to help with any questions. Life was suddenly full of ease….it became easy; this was grace in action.
In Copenhagen too, we were quite spoilt with the variety of vegan and even raw restaurants on offer plus a wonderful organic breakfast buffet in our hotel that included so much fruit, a variety of smoothies, chia seed breakfast bowls, lactose free milk and the most delicious gluten free bread I’ve ever tasted (I tried, and failed, to get hold of the recipe…) that we could easily build an incredibly wholesome breakfast to start our day. It can be such a profoundly moving sensation to find that you are a perfect match with the culture around you…and this had nothing whatever to do with geography, language, colour, politics or religion…certainly nothing to do with where I was born. It felt much more fundamental than all that and yet it was nothing anyone would ever start a war over, I don’t want to pick a fight with people that eat food that I choose not to…but it just felt so great and liberating to feel catered for instead of like the awkward or weird one in the shop or restaurant. The practical business of living became easy, smooth, aligned with my principles, yes graceful.
What I took away with me, which was so encouraging, was that there are clearly enough people in the social mix to make these kinds of business viable, thriving and obviously very successful and, one has to presume, the more these kinds of businesses exist, the more the masses start to reconsider their consumer options and try other things to the mainstream products currently rammed down their throats by the marketing of corporate supermarket chains. People are presented with genuine choices and then they can go with the heart (and their taste buds, not to mention the health benefits). It was bizarre to see just how busy these places were that would be considered “off-beat” back home… the aisle of the wholefoods supermarket as full as any Tescos and the 310-seater vegetarian restaurant teeming with people any night of the week. I started noting brand names of products I really loved (like the gorgeous, totally natural lactose/sugar-free pistachio ice-cream on a stick I enjoyed at one of the cafes we went to) in the hope of buying some of these things back home. Finding I can’t…yet…I realised, with an ironic smile, that this is one gentle invasion I really hope comes to our shores some time very soon; and I’ll be waiting!
Creating through visualisation
Having been made this much at home and seen our aspirational way of eating and buying natural products come to life, it felt like I was colouring-in the outlines of dreams I had long-ago sketched out on my mental drawing board; like I had got the coloured pens out and made the flat version seem a little more three-dimensional now and all it needed was a puff of life to get it moving around as an actual reality in my day-to-day world back home. Newly flooded with the first-hand reality of such a world, we could take this feeling back home with us and, like a caterpillar must hold onto the idea of a butterfly until it becomes one, we could envision, with all-new gusto, how our own world would soon catch up with this taster from abroad…which is, I suppose, the mechanism by which great ideas sweep in from other cultures to refresh our own in an endless process of cross-pollination (assuming we don’t barricade our borders). I’ve now witnessed, first hand, the genuine passion of some of these business people running restaurants, cafés, cooperatives and shops, those making alternative foods because there was a gap in the market and their success stories of first making this product at their own kitchen table (like that vegan ice-cream I mentioned; a tiny cottage industry just a year ago…now sold in boxes in that huge wholefood store we went to). The sheer enthusiasm and go-get attitude to be found around the topic of eating healthily and consuming in a way that is in far closer harmony with the well-being of the planet is quite contagious and it “makes you feel good” to be involved in it in ways that are far broader and less easily explained than “just” the positive effects of consuming far healthier products; like your very soul is also receiving a higher-level of nutrition, a feel-good factor that is traceable all the way back to the source of the product. The products themselves vibrate at a higher level is how I would describe it though its more than that and its quite tangible; it uplifts, enthuses and connects people. It was thrilling to feel this in action and bring it home with me; its already made me work harder at considering how locally I source my organic food, how I can support entrepreneurial businesses that match my ethos and many other ways I can really make this lifestyle happen for us as a family on a day-to-day basis, knowing it’s the way forward to a far healthier lifestyle in every way possible.
We had truly loved Copenhagen, its streets, shops and market, its sculpture, waterfronts, green spaces, eateries and art galleries and enjoying some unforgettably golden moments there and yet there was a sense of not delving quite so deeply into the culture of it, perhaps because we stayed in a hotel rather than an apartment. Hotel culture reinforces the sense of passing through a place and we felt like we were on an island of English-speaking tourists sailing through “foreign” seas, not fully immersed as we were in Stockholm. However, being vegetarian often takes you off piste and we spent our first evening, rather than heading for the glossier centre of town, wandering around the more bohemian, studenty area of what used to be considered the working-class district and we loved its colourful and relaxed pavement vibe of eateries and slightly mad shops; the trip wouldn’t have been the same without that first evening’s walk around Nørrebro.
On our third day there, by which time we had walked countless miles of its streets and parks in the completely rambling way that best suits us, a tour-load of Americans arrived from a cruise ship and sat around in the lobby after breakfast, planning their day ashore. I smiled to overhear how one couple were attempting to “do” everything recommended in the guidebook in their single day ashore and became anxious to the point of falling out with each other about how best to achieve that, which boat tour or museum ticket to buy to get the most out of their day and whether they had worn the right clothes for the so-called unpredictable weather (actually, it was almost consistently warm and sunny all week). They were in quite the bad mood with each other by the time they left because all they had managed to achieve was to argue themselves around in circles. The human urge to “have a plan and stick to it” and to “not risk missing out on anything” can be all consuming but what they had in mind sounded exhausting and would have hardly scraped the surface of whatever they managed to see given they would have been in a race against the clock and looking at only those things the guides point out by rote.
A week later, in Stockholm, I opened the front door of our apartment and was waiting for J to come down….only to find our building was the focal point of a tour that was gathered in a semi-circle around our doorstep. As the guide continued to pour out her rapid-fire words in a language I didn’t understand, her group impassively scrutinised the doorstep and me on it, taking pictures that included me as though I was just part of the holiday scenery, a real-life local caught in the act of emerging from my residence with my everyday hessian shopping bag folded up under my arm ready to go to the eco bakery for my gluten-free loaf; it made me smile. It also made me realise I was at least starting to feel like a “local” rather than a tourist; although, of course, I was only kidding myself…was no less the tourist than they. What, I suppose, made me feel “other” than the majority of tourists, those that would arrive on tour buses or cruise ships and suddenly sweep through the tranquil streets like a tsunami at almost exactly the strike of ten each morning only to retreat en masse at around four, was that I try to tread softly into the cracks of a place, to veer away from those crowds and stay closer to where the locals seem to go, into hidden places, the least obvious corners using intuition as my best guide. I find that, like watching a bird, you get much closer when you step into the space quietly and assimilate to the surroundings; that’s when intimate moments just seem to happen and you witnesses things that will affect you for so much longer than any of the spectacles that are really only put on for outward show. Its then that you realise the potential for there to be many “realities” to be playing out simultaneously in a single geographical location…and that we get to choose which we want to make our own by feeling into the potential that is offered at each and every street corner. Using intuition, its like navigating yourself through a labyrinth that leads to your own personal grace-moment, the access points on some sort of personal map that feels like you have truly arrived somewhere that is so much more than its physical attributes and is meaningful to you in ways that speak to you across multi-dimensions. Such a journey can be suggested to you by outside prompts but can never be forced or dictated by them; its your intuition that leads you there, however much those other signs and symbols may tug and pull at your sleeve.
Making it up as you go along
Where we crossed paths with guided tours or ticketed entries, we more often than not didn’t bother with them at all, not because we had to pay but because any previously unspoken reluctance would then surface as we considered “is this worth it, do we want this” and we found that we took notice of these instincts far more than we did in the past rather than ploughing on with what we had “planned” regardless. The sheer blast of many “ought to”s on holiday can come at you with unremitting force; everywhere you go has its list of priority “must see”s that guidebooks and signposts will try to tell you about, people will even hassle you on the streets offering you boat rides and tours you never even considered. We watched the receptionist at our Copenhagen hotel reel off the same list of “must sees” to every new visitor that asked, marking crosses on a map but then, when more closely questioned by one savvy visitor, admitting she hadn’t been to some of these places lately or even at all; they were, you could say, just for the tourists but then, by choosing them, that’s what you reaffirm yourself to be.
The more interesting conversation I overheard was about the street where she lived; this more savvy traveller was another American looking for his family roots and it turned out the receptionist lived in the very street named after his grandfather. He was overjoyed at the coincidence as you could just tell he so wanted to stand there, where his folks had once stood, and feel into the place. We did that too, wherever we went…feeling into the place, asking if it had anything it wanted to show us… and would turn around at the very threshold if it didn’t feel like a match, regardless of any effort gone to to get there (one day, I walked straight out of a gallery that I had made some real effort to get to as a quick look around the walls told me it wasn’t what I felt drawn to at all). There was no blame, no embarrassment, no apology necessary when we did this – we just listened to each other’s intuition and stopped right there or, on the other hand, if one of us saw something they really wanted to do we considered it and many of these ad-hoc diversions provided some of our very best experiences. You could say, we went on the most up-to-date intelligence received “in the moment” via our instincts, the kind of information that only ever delivers in the moment of acting upon it, which made planning our day a fairly useless occupation.
One place we turned right away from (which almost felt like committing some kind of heresy…) was Copenhagen’s beloved Tivoli Gardens, which I had only the vaguest concept of beforehand, expecting (I now realise) a sort of Edwardian version of Hyde Park with a lake, some swans and a couple of carousels and so I planned a gentle afternoon walk there. What I found, instead, was more akin to Disneyland with a ticketed entry point (in fact, Walt Disney drew his original inspiration from a visit there) and the sweet-sickly smell of “food” vendors and the garish, plastic artifice of “fairytale” turrets and multicoloured everything seen beyond the payment booths and thick crowds had me pulling right back to catch my breath and recalibrate.Thankfully, we were all unanimous that it wasn’t for us and so we resumed our spontaneous tour of some of Copenhagen’s more introverted places, the make-it-up-as-you-go-along tour that is always free and full of wonderful surprises.
Very often, we seemed to find ourselves in parks and gardens, along the lakes and in the botanical hot houses, wandering the market stalls and noticing street-corner sculpture, the small details of buildings and the subtle oddities we might otherwise have missed. Even the iconic sight of Nyhavn didn’t hold us for all that long because its cafés and pavements were just so solid-packed with people we could have been in Venice in high season and, like that favourite place, I suspected it would have far more atmosphere when the crowds went home to be replaced by winter’s sea mists. By the end of that week, I was laughing my socks off at how the top half dozen things I had expected to “do” in Copenhagen were the very ones we didn’t do at all…and, in fact, the best adventures of all were entirely spontaneous, unpredictable and made-up on the spot.
Our best memories are made up of synchronistically occurring gems of perfectly timed experience that we could never have know would happen until they did, in fact we would have missed out on all of “the best bits” of our holiday had we stuck religiously to some sort of tourist agenda as they would have made for a completely different Copenhagen experienced through a different lens. There’s something deeply relaxing and graceful about seeing this multi-layered reality unfold in practice, especially in a place where there is such a lot going on (such as a city) as it means life always “arrives” tailor made for our particular preferences and with as much grace as we are prepared to ask for, regardless of how frenetic outside circumstances can seem…like living in our own fully portable, entirely customised reality that meets our best expectations. Realising this level of grace is available to us…no matter what…is perhaps the greatest gift we can receive in physicality and I took my version of it in both hands this holiday, cherishing it like I had never done before because it never once let me down.
Use of space: blending work and play
One of the unexpected gems of this part of our trip was an exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre which I chanced upon on the way to one of Copenhagen’s “must see” places, Christianshavn’s free town (and which we never quite got to as all the subtle and some more blatant clues along the way put us off until we decided to turn around). The harbour of Christianshavn was pretty enough for a visit in its own right and, actually, it felt so much more likely that we were “meant” to have found this exhibition at the Architecture Centre as it could have been tailor-made for my daughter’s interest in architectural design and even for my own range of interests (the exhibit below; a quote stuck to a window juxtaposed with the church seen outside the exhibition centre, captures something of its essence). Its focus on how work and play could be mixed; how exercise and fun could be introduced into those so-called “unavoidable” activities of modern life such as working in an office or commuting, allowing adults to break up the mundane with better health and increased enjoyment of life, easier access to nature and positive sensory stimulation. It examined how the rigid concepts that we have of “sport” and “play” have evolved, moulded by so-called necessity since the industrial revolution but now open for reinvention as soon as we stop pigeon-holing them as concepts (“I am doing sport”) but, rather, integrating them into ordinary life and daily activities. It questioned, why do adults feel that playing is something only children do, that they must give up; also, why “doing sport” and “playing” are considered the domain of those meeting certain criteria and not an equal opportunity for all, regardless of age, income or social status. It was a perfect example of an apparently custom-made outcome that we didn’t see coming and yet there it was, one of the best things we went to all holiday, delivered by “accident”.
Letting life come to you
So, of course, we carried the same make-it-up-as-you-go-along mindset to Stockholm and I don’t know when I’ve ever had less of an idea how we were going to spend our time at the beginning of a week’s apartment rental. On Gamla Stan, we were close neighbours to the Royal Palace, one of the biggest in Europe and a mere minute’s walk from our door and yet (somewhat guiltily…) we all admitted on first glance that a visit inside really wasn’t grabbing us; nor was the Nobel Prize museum five minutes away in the square. Admitting this allowed such lightness to flood in to our schedule as we were now free to let this place unfold its deeper layers at its own pace rather than spending our valuable time doing these other time-consuming things that felt like they were shouting us down and yet weren’t our genuine priority. There are no missed opportunities and so I knew that if there were any parts of these things I was ruling out that we were “meant” to be doing, they would present themselves to us one day, making themselves so obvious we would almost trip over them, and I was right. One evening, as the sun was lowering so much that the peachy-coloured buildings were all softened and the cobblestones standing out like rows of glowing orbs, we accidentally tripped upon the changing of the guard in the shaded courtyard of the palace so we stood there in the sunshine watching the display alongside just two or three other couples who also happened to be there. Clearly this was something that was being drawn to my attention and I certainly noticed how many females were amongst those guards, dressed up in full regalia, bearing arms, a sign of the ever changing times or was it? Once the display was over, we stepped into the space and I found myself in front of a statue of Kristina Gyllenstierna, a slightly-built woman known as the “defender of Sweden” for having taken control of the Swedish forces and put up a very good fight against the Danes five centuries ago during a conflict that also saw the second stronghold in the hands of a woman at Kalmar. It was a timely reminder for me that stout hearted women have often more-than played their part in a man’s world and that the goddess takes many forms. That changing of the guards ceremony, by the way, turned out to be one of the guidebook’s “must see” spectacles; usually delivered to a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at midday and so our accidental front-seat view felt like such a gift.
When inanimate objects speak
Taking it easy for the long weekend as we settled in to the apartment, we spent our time wandering around close to home and on nearby Södermalm which, by guidebook standards, is little more than a suburb of Stockholm – a one-time working class slum made better – and yet we immediately liked the feel of its cafés, wholefood shops and eateries, its relaxed square named after Mary Magdalene (whose church was enveloped in scaffolding undergoing a very thorough renovation nearby), chancing upon sculptures in the park that spoke to me far more than anything we could have had planned to see because, like great comedy, the timing of these encounters was all.
In fact, the unexpected sculpture to be found around almost every street corner had been “speaking to me” all the way through this Scandinavian holiday…and we finished off the holiday at the Millesgärden, one time home and spectacular garden of Stockholm’s most famous sculptor Carl Milles (but that’s for another blog). Back here in the Mariatorget Square on Söder, we arrived just as the late afternoon sun happened to come through the trees to the side and light up the figure of a girl, a statue that I now know to be “The Snowdrop” by Per Hasselberg, and in casting violety-green light over her form, seemed to trigger off the same process of transformation in me that I was watching take place before my eyes. Transfixed, I felt deeply involved in the process I was witnessing as her bronze edges softened into pools of light and her chakras lit up one by one, the light hovering and exploding like a rainbow orb over her heart and then hovering for a sustained time as a dazzling turquoise circle over her throat. The message this delivered to me felt personal and powerful, stood in Mary Magdalene’s square close to a memorial to Stockholm’s famous scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (who once lived nearby) who “saw things” that other people missed and who took other people’s breath away with his predictions. There was something very potent about this square mile on the north side of Söder and it became one of our favourite places to walk.
As though to reiterate what I could almost have passed off as a nothingness the first time a statue burst into light, the next day we happened upon a courtyard in Gamla Stan which caught my eye for being as lit up by sunlight as the street we were on was now surrendered to the grey shadow of late evening. We diverted along the narrow passage into the complete circle of buildings, a public area designed in the 1940s to incorporate several of the criss-crossing alleyways that came from the town’s original medieval design; probably, I suspect, of far more antiquity than that. At its centre, where those ancient pathways presumably intersect, it has an elaborately carved pool with a west-facing figure of a woman held up high at its centre, called “Morning” by Ivar Johnsson, ironically encountered at evening on this occasion though I found the accident personally meaningful because of the way it suggested a union of the two polaritites into one. As if to extrapolate this theme, the sun (which “shouldn’t have been there…it was a reflection from a window; which became one of my themes throughout this holiday) was actually coming from behind the woman’s figure, which should have been a dark silhouette against the light…but in the moment we arrived the sun became perfectly aligned to pour light between her legs and ignite her from the base chakra upwards, contradicting the dark silhouette which provided a blank canvas for all the colours that were now moving around her light-animated figure. As on the day before, our timing couldn’t have been more perfect to witness this extraordinary display and I felt her transformation as though it was mine…and it was.
These two extraordinary encounters and many others assured me that the sacred feminine was accompanying me every step of the way on this holiday; her clues were everywhere, in the endless stream of wonderful sculpture we followed like a trail of breadcrumbs (enough material for another post) to the endless theme of swans (actual and symbolic) that we had encountered everywhere from the smooth golden waters of Copenhagen to the decoration on the front of our hotel to the ones we saw valiantly bobbing along on the choppy saltwater beside our boat out on the Stockholm Archipelago (I had no idea they adapt to swimming in saltwater). Birds and butterflies – as usual – delivered many of my themes…in “real life”, in art and so often caught behind glass, even a bird I went to some lengths to rescue that was trapped inside a shop shut up for summer (a whole other story). Iconography, as usual, delivered multi-layered meanings to me through signs and clues everywhere; the sacred feminine, especially, revealed herself everywhere I went, wearing many disguises but never far away from my path. Then, George and the Dragon (and other permeations of the serpent-battling theme) followed us quite literally everywhere we went; it was almost funny how many times we came across this one, not least an enormous statue of the same at the end of our street in Gamla Stan. None of this felt at all accidental from the perspective that I choose, which is that all experience is meaningful to us as soon as we open to this possibility.
In fact, since the very beginning of this holiday, I had noticed how I had begun to read the narrative of my journey by means of chance encounters with statues and bits of installation art, flourishes or details on buildings, signage and even window displays, road signs, the play of light, the accidental juxtaposition of two or more of these things that spoke to me in a coherent way…it all read like the clearest transcript. The synchronistic flow of this narrative and it’s highly cohesive messages, which felt entirely personal (customised, you could say) to me, were as clear and audible as anything that could have been delivered by more conventional means. These “chance” encounters seemed to give the thumbs-up to all my “accidental” routes, encouraging me to trust in my own “way” like never before. In following the so-called arbitrary routes that my feet seemed to want to lead me; I never felt more on track.
Holding space for the metaphysical
These routes took me on metaphysical journeys as palpable as they could be; but then I was always open to things happening beneath the obvious surface. One day we walked through a modern part of Söderhamn that felt quite different to where we had been a few minutes ago happily eating lunch in the sunshine and, for some reason, I felt deeply uncomfortable and out of sorts in this modern urban place. We read on a board that in this site, which is a dip between the very steep heights and cliff edges of the perimeter of the island, there used to be a naturally-fed lake but it became a “stinking pool” surrounded by slums and was filled in during the nineteenth century to use as a freight train terminus above and, beneath it, one of Sweden’s busiest train lines. In the 1980s, houses were built right on top of all this, with rubberised foundations to tolerate the endless vibrations emanating from below…a so-called masterpiece of modern architecture but, to me, I couldn’t help thinking this was what felt “off”, like a sticking plaster had been slapped onto a sore in the hope it would get better. Wasn’t that stagnant pool, once a natural lake, quite typical of all those other natural water sources that I tend to tune into and have written about before (beneath London especially), where what has been done to hole-in the sacred feminine aspect that is the natural flow of water, and all in the name of progress as determined by a man’s world, is simply asking for some attention to the fact she is still trapped down there, buried and forgotten. As an expression of the feminine, “unhappy water” is simply asking for some acknowledgement of her plight through times that have not been in her favour so that she can begin the process of deep-healing; this was what I was tuning into here and the “healing of it” was simply the transformation that was possible when I “saw” what she had been through on behalf of all unseen hurts doled out to the feminine aspect in our charge towards what we have long-considered to be progress.
At the time, all I knew was that I wanted to move very quickly from this place and, as it happened, the promised big-black rain clouds of the day had just gathered on the horizon and you could just feel the imminent thunder storm crackling in the air. Then, around a corner, we chanced upon Katerina’s church, which offered such a palpable feeling of sanctuary and calm as soon as we stepped into her emerald-green churchyard and made a bee-line for the flight of stairs up to the door. The church’s insides – dashed into just as the rain started pounding – surprised me for being one huge, white-washed space flooded with natural light; its interior had been completely gutted by fire in the 1990s and it was strangely devoid of that feeling of heaviness that so often steeps the inside of a church with as much energetic clutter as it has motes of dust. This one felt recently refreshed; its seats were inwardly arranged towards a huge open area where a small piano was being played with such incredibly emotion and sensitivity by a mop-haired youth that we were stilled into reverently watching him for quite some time. All of a sudden, I had tears welling up as though I was releasing something so I just let it happen. His performance was obviously spontaneous, his backpack and phone dumped haphazardly on one of the pews by the wall and then he almost ran away at the end (perhaps he hadn’t anticipated an audience) but the experience was one I will never forget; the blue-black skies outside those huge open doors, the dazzling white interior with gleaming brass chandeliers, that music against the contrasting melody of a blackbird still singing away outside in spite of the now pouring rain…It was an unspeakably powerful experience and felt something like the very reality I was standing in was a carpet being drawn up through the eye of a needle and rebirthed out of the other side. You could just tell we all felt altered by it, whatever “it” had been; that something more than the storm had just shifted by the time we stepped back down those ornate steps to the outside pavements of Söderhamn. It stands out for me, now, as yet another exceptional moment of grace, a literal eye of the storm…and I have found myself revisiting it many times since that rainy Monday in Stockholm, for all the day made no holiday headlines in terms of where we had been or what we had “done” that day.
Green spaces and many pavements
As in Copenhagen, we seem to naturally gravitate to green spaces, whether the unexpected town squares or our unforgettable jaunt to the botanical gardens on the outskirts of Stockholm bordered on two sides by the Baltic sea. There was the island of Grinda’s green paradise in the Archipelago and then, the highlight of it all for me, the Millesgärden (more on that in another post) with its Italianate terraces, fountains and hidden corners high-up over the water stuffed full of more fantastical sculpture that I have ever seen in one place; quite unforgettable!
Overall, we must have walked for miles after endless miles over the almost two weeks in Scandinavia and yet none of this felt arduous and my health felt bizarrely “in neutral” compared to how unwell I had been in the two weeks prior to our holiday. In fact, I was just a little amazed at how energised I was day after day, always fully rested and ready for more each morning. Usually there comes a point when I feel a little over my expiry date, ready to go home now but this time I was completely reluctant to think about going home and could have taken on at least another week in Stockholm or in another new place, which was very interesting to observe in myself. There was a something very different about it all this year…but I have come to believe that the real difference was truly in me!
Something to bring home
If I had to summarise the great feeling I have brought back with me to my noisy, trafficy road as I wake up in my own bed in England, it’s a feeling of having travelled many such fluid yet highly meaningful pathways that felt predestined or a perfect match in what they delivered up to us as our holiday experiences. I could never have orchestrated our holiday the way it turned out, not even with my keen organiser’s mind; in fact, the more I let go of the urge to plan ahead, the more meaningfully it unfolded and we experienced just so much in a relatively short space of time (this post hardly scratches the surface of everything that happened). It’s a feeling of having bridged many things and also experienced the healing of them; the ironing out of many stand-offs and calcified viewpoints, fixed ideas…all within me but, then, everything important starts to happen within the “experience adventures” of ourselves before spiralling outwards to join with the experience adventures of others forging their own unique paths. This is how we each make a difference in this world, “joining in” with the group effort whether we realise or not, regardless of whether we share our unique experiences, as I do in my writing, or just live out being the newly evolved person that we are, every day, as a result of what we “happen to” have processed for ourselves. Its because of this that our most personal experiences and epiphanies play their own significant part in our mass evolution in ways we hardly understand with the mind.
Being a highly concentrated form of experience compared to “everyday life”, every holiday or trip outside of our comfort zone holds the potential to deliver even more meaningful pathways of experience than does the familiar turf of our “ordinary” life. By both stretching-out and concentrating our experience (which is what a holiday does), we expand our horizons and our aspirations, our very take on what is possible whilst asserting our own sense of the self that is experiencing all of this and which holds the potential to take all this fresh stimulus back home with us and make new things happen with it, as the very focal point of creation that we each are. We literally chose new neurones to keep and let go of ones that are now obsolete; coming home with a brain that is freshly wired to embark upon a life that is better equipped to evolve for being infinitely more conversant with the broader array of choices laid out on life’s table. By throwing ourselves out into a broader mix of people, we boomerang back to ourselves and gain a better sense of what is is to know who we are as both the collective and as the singular. By being taken out of the familiar, we get to newly appreciate the differences between this exploratory world and our own world back home…but also the many similarities; and the potential for both to be beautiful, without contradiction. In perceiving the collectiveness of experience, spotting the similarities, we help to iron out the creases of the world; all whilst enhancing and speeding our own evolutionary process as we gain the broader view of everything, including a broader perspective of our own “small” world, as though looking in at ourselves from a great height or a pulled-back perspective. At the end of our travels, just like something attached to a long piece of elastic, we ping back into our own life and find that the real gifts arrive in all the days and months ahead as we reconsider all our newly expanded options from within it’s so-called confines. Nothing ever really is the same again; in reappraising ourselves and our options through other people’s’ eyes, we have rediscovered parts of ourselves that we never really knew we were missing and brought them back home with us.
The ultimate grace
Its been years since I wore a watch and the days on this holiday really began to blur until it was suddenly time to consider being back at the airport. Of course, some things – even in Nature – are unavoidably scheduled and the full moon of our week’s stay was something I had been looking forward to, planning to coincide it with a revisit to Herman’s high-up garden terraces overlooking the water for, hopefully, another sunset and the moon rising as we walked our way home from a blast-out meal on our penultimate evening. We had intended to head out into the archipelago (Sweden’s 30,000+ small islands and islets) the day before but the predicted cloud cover and thunderstorm put us off by a day…and then, when our postponed trip out on a boat brought us to the most idyllic green nugget of an island with a perfect bay and a rock sloping down to the water, the sun so hot that, though my feet were dangling in the super-chilled Baltic, my head kept trying to tell me I was on a Greek, not a Swedish, island, I knew this was exactly the right place and right time. Just knowing the full moon was building up overhead completed this feeling; of course I would want to be somewhere near water that day, I couldn’t have “planned” it any better. It was only after I had been lost in deep meditation, my back on that smooth hot stone for quite some time, that I realised that my resting platform was completely encrusted with quartz, its secret stash suddenly revealed as the sun came around and turned on all its lights; and now I really knew why I was there, what I was tuning into…which was simultaneously turning on all the lights in me.
The journey back on the deck of a highly polished old-girl of a boat was also unforgettable, the sea turning to molten platinum with birds lit-up on the wing and even a seal passing close by but it was a later than planned return to Gamla Stan due to our reluctance to leave that perfect green island behind. A quick supper at the more local eatery of the two now felt appropriate; so, no full-moon in a garden restaurant…yet I found that I really didn’t mind this sudden change of plan and might have known another one was just hovering in the wings. The much smaller Hermitage shut at nine o’ clock prompt and, as we stepped back into our apartment rather earlier than we’d imagined and the sky not even dark, the wide vista through our double windows was presenting just the slightest slither of a white crescent above the buildings across the water on Söderhamn, a view that we would have had our backs turned to had we been in Herman’s garden as intended. Riveted to the spot, I was able stand and watch as the sheer immensity of this big white balloon rose up in increments so obvious I could measure its progress against those self-same “interruptions” to our perfect view as earlier (the chimney pots and aerials…), even laugh at its comedy moment as it poised momentarily on the church spire (could that be the spire of Katerina church…?) and then continued to mature its way into that ever deepening sky as the sunset lit up the incredible cloud formations that followed in its wake. Suddenly, that setting sun – not visible from our eastern-facing window – ignited all the windows of the buildings that make up Söder’s panorama and I had both the full moon and more than a dozen suns all at once, a yin and yang dancing party and a front-row seat I really couldn’t have planned for if I’d tried.
It was only after I returned home to England that I remembered with a stomach flip that the rescheduled day on the island and the evening of sun and moon had been the twenty year anniversary of my mother’s passing, in fact the moon must have poised on that church spire at almost exactly the time that she slipped out of her body. Of course, I had registered the coincidence of our holiday with this anniversary some time before we travelled and yet, a measure of how much I had lost myself to the gentle rhythm and natural currents of our trip, I had completely let this “appointment” with nostalgia go and am so glad that I did. The perfection of how the occasion unfolded is self-evident; it called for no pathos (my mother had no time for that), only celebration and appreciation, perhaps a bit of humour; and my heart was full of all of these watching the spectacle of that moon. Those aspects of my mother that never left this dimension (and there are many…) would have so enjoyed the little joke of flagging up clues for me to piece together much later on, like a quiz to see how well I scored by being attentive to what was literally happening right in front of me. She taught me so many things, most of which I came to learn far better after her passing when, in ways hard to explain, she often felt more real to me than the very big personality that I knew her as in her lifetime. The years after “losing” her were hard…very hard indeed…and I felt desperately lost and lonely, being the tender age of twenty eight when it happened and yet she “talked” her way back into my life through the very skill set she taught me (and which I least took seriously) in her living years, being the ability to notice meaningful patterns almost without trying. In through her I came to notice that by not trying at all, everything that I most needed in this life just came to me, presenting itself before my very eyes with perfect timing and without the constant, wearying need for me to chase it down.
She showed me this in many ways but the most direct was the way that she taught me to use all my senses to chart rhythms and anomalies; the “sameness” and “differences” that form patterns of meaning. She could find a four-leaved clover in a whole field of three leaved ones without even seeming to pause for breath as she stooped to pluck it from the patch…and I never could, however hard I tried (and I did). That is, until four years after her death when, suddenly (because my unfocused eyes were gazing down at the ground from the tree stump I was sat unhappily ruminating on…I was going through tough times) I found one right there by my foot. Of course, it was this jolt of surprise that alerted me to the fact that it was — that day (again) – the anniversary of her passing. After that, it was as though a portal to seeing patterns everywhere, without even trying, opened up for me and, like her, I found four leaved clover everywhere I went from then on; literally hundreds of them that still spew from all the books on my shelves where I brought them home to press. This new skill set was like a bridge leading me towards doing this with far more meaningful things and, once I no longer relied on this sense of being communicated with by the mother I so desperately missed (feeling, after another few years passed, that I could let this reliance upon her melt away) my tendency to find four-leaved clover also disappeared as abruptly as it first visited.
These days (my eyes no longer fixated on the ground), the patterns I encounter are all around me, just as my mother’s presence has become broader, deeper, a sense of her being everywhere that I need her to be, not least inside of me. She would have asked nothing more of me on this anniversary than to think of her with a knowing wink and a smile and (eventually…) I did; a point scored to her that it took me two days to make the connection and I gracefully bow to her guile in playing with me so cleverly, just as I bow to the event that broke my heart twenty years ago and now accept that, heartbreaking as it was, it was the making of me. Like all those places we come to associate with the trauma that once happened there, we do this also with the hurts of our heart and, where we mark a sense of loss in our bodies, we only calcify that feeling into a leadenness that becomes the heavy heart-rock of our life long after we can easily recall the original event that thew up the first hard-sharp pebble that wounded us. With this two-decade anniversary now over with (and transmuted into something balanced, celebratory and utterly accepting of the way things turned out), it feels like all the relentless time-counting around even the most auspicious events of my life – birthdays included – can be thrown into the recycling bucket along with all those other markers of time that I have recently dispensed with.
Integration with ‘real life’
The final pattern that came up for dissolution was the ritual by which I usually expect the holiday to, at some point, be over…why? Why not just carry it on into life, continue playing with its threads (or, those that feel most intriguing, leave me wanting more…) as the newer routes into everyday experience, no cut-off point necessary but, rather, a full integration of all the best bits into the world that I newly create every day. In countless ways, I’m already seeing how I’ve injected a breath of fresh air into “ordinary” life and a rejuvenated sense of there being unlimited new possibilities hovering in the wings, I’m revitalising ways of spending time or using our living space, am freshening up rooms and painting walls. I’m bringing fresh perspective into my eating and consuming habits, examining where I shop for my veg, ironing out any remaining compromises to achieving purchasing habits that are fully aligned to my principles, seeking alternative suppliers, supporting smaller initiatives and introducing those elements that we loved the most about our Scandinavian diet, such as the wonderful fresh smoothies (which I now make from local organic fruit and veg, not those “big supermarket organics” that fly in from the other side of the world). I’m reconsidering our degree of spontaneity and the ways that we define and mix-up so-called “work” and “play”, looking at other ways to soften our routines and go with our natural impulses more. There’s been no sign of the typical nosedive into anticlimax and crashing exhaustion, that post-holiday boxing day feeling that can seem like I have all the wrapping paper to clear up and none of the thrill; after all, every day deserves for that feeling of excitement and relish to bubble up through it and for the places where it is absent to raise the question “what could I do differently, where are my stuck points, what better use could I make of my resources”.
Like a city we have never been to before, life can seem quite labyrinthine at the ground level; not all of its areas feel the same, they deliver quite different things and we can’t even see where we are going most of the time so we like to pretend that we do by having a plan or holding a map. The thing about maps and guidebooks is that they can only ever take us where other people have been before, to the routes and sights they have already marked out (and sold tickets for). We can choose that, of course…but then we pretty much know what to expect; it tells us in the guidebook and we only get to see the same things that turn up in everybody else’s photographs; rarely anything exceptional. Our own unique journey may have some twists and turns we hadn’t even thought of and feel utterly daunting, lonely even, if nobody else seems to be going there. It runs the risk of being a non-event, a crashing disappointment if we head away from what is tried and tested and away from the reassurance all the crowds…this is why we all tend to follow where others have gone before.
Yet, when we surrender to those most intuitive moments, regardless of who else is heading that way, that’s when so many stand-out moments of grace start to present themselves; moments that are quite outside of the ordinary…though they are, to all intents and purpose, happening in the very same places as all the other crowd-driven stuff that makes you feel part of something yet, so often, like you don’t really belong or experience very much meaning or joy. Then its surprising how, if you keep walking your own personal route, others will soon “accidentally” cross paths with you and you will find yourself in a crowd of different people, ones with whom you share things in common and with whom you can work to make the world a better-fitting place. This is another version of how grace becomes part of your daily reality.
When grace happens to you, it is like a moment of poise that you just know is exactly where you were destined to be; one you will never forget and will continue to draw upon at times when life drags you back into its slip streams. Like portals between layers of space and time that tell us we are unfailingly on track, can’t even be off-track if we tried, these appointments with our own self-created destiny are powerful nodes of experience that communicate back and forth across time and space and make life feel unimaginably coherent, even in the midst of the most tragic or unexpected things happening around us. Nothing can truly shake us out of this sense of coherence once we plug into this personal journey of the heart. There is true power and strength to be found around so many unlikely street corners on such a journey through life; one which takes us far closer to the true epicentre of our own heart-maze than anything we could experience from following somebody else’s guidance on where we should be going, what we should be doing. Listen to the advice, yes…but then heed your own inner guidance first; and take some of those detours down less trodden streets and be amazed at what shows up in some unexpected places. That’s when we realise that grace is, ultimately, an inside job and entirely portable, wherever we happen to be. From that space, we realise, place is just a matter of perspective; that the inner work is where it all happens and that, through the attitudes we adopt, we really are the true architects of our world, the creators of our own skyline view and (when we allow life to unfold for us) we are always, unfailingly, in the right place at the right time.
To see the full collection of photographs from this trip (and I am still adding more daily…) use these links to visit my Copenhagen and Stockholm photo albums on Flickr. All photos are (c) Helen White.
Places we loved
The Avenue Hotel Copenhagen
42 Raw, raw restaurant, Copenhagen
Cafe N, vegan cafe, Copenhagen
Simple Raw, raw café Copenhagen
Gyptoteket, art gallery Copenhagen
Residence Perseus apartments Stockholm
Hermans, vegetarian restaurant Stockholm
The Hermitage, vegetarian restaurant Stockholm
The Old Orangery Café, vegetarian-friendly café, Stockholm Botanical Garden
8T8 vegan cafe and wholefood store, Stockholm
Paradiset wholefood store, Stockholm
Grinda, a small island in the Stockholm Archipelago
The Millesgarden, Stockholm
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