Just recently I have been preparing a talk that I shall be giving at ACCU 2013 in Bristol. Luckily the Bath & Bristol chapter of the ACCU asked me to come and give a dry run of the talk recently and thanks to their many constructive comments I have just finished tweaking and finishing the talk for the main conference.
In preparation for the talk my main texts have been a combination of Henri Bortoft with his “Taking Appearance Seriously”, Iain McGilchrist and his magnum opus “The Master and His Emissary”, and finally- of more import for the techies among us – another magnum opus from Christopher Alexander, his “The Nature of Order” series (which I shall refer to as NoO!).
During the preparation I have been reading these works primarily in “reference” mode, making notes and actually trying to “study” them more. However, now that the main prep is over, I decided to jump forward to the last of the four books from Alexander. So far I had only got to half way through the second one.
Given the slides I had prepared for the talk, some of which included the titles “The Importance of Energy” and “The Foundation in Play”, I was surprised to see just how well they meshed with Alexander’s approach in his Book 4 of the NoO series.
I was particularly struck by his comments about Chartres cathedral and was desperately trying to relate it to software development when a particular thought struck me between the eyes. Although Alexander never mentioned the word, one of the main drivers that the artisans making cathedrals would have used would have been the LOVE of the job, particularly given the religious context so prevalent at that time.
I then reflected upon the background history of software development and realized that it has usually been the polar opposite of this approach, since its main roots are in the military and past war efforts, particularly WW2 and the work at Los Alamos on the atomic bomb. So I then realized that a major reason why I am interested in this more human approach is in order to counteract the lack of humanity that is prevalent in software development, an easy trap to fall into given the focus on technology, and its associated roots in the military.
I then remembered the root within the word amateur – i.e. doing it for the love of it – and realized that this is an important driver for taking the time to make software development truly become a craft and an art. Thus, in order to ‘heal the Cartesian split’, as I mention in the talk, we need to bring more of this feeling of doing it for the love of it, and this is exactly what Christopher Alexander is driving at. He has a great story about getting his students to paint Easter eggs in order for them to learn how to create buildings with good centres or beings as he is also calling them.
I have included the section entitled ‘Innocence’ here as I feel it says a lot about what is needed to truly be an ‘architect’, whether of a building or of software. But unfortunately I am not usually given the time for such exercises and have had to develop this perspective in the background throughout my career. I suspect this is a common experience. But maybe I am just too much of a dreamer…
Extracted from Book 4 of “The Nature of Order : The Luminous Ground” by Christopher Alexander. pp99-100.
12 / INNOCENCE
It may help for me to describe a class I once conducted, in an effort to improve the students’ ability to form buildings from beings. I first asked each student to give an example of an innocent process of drawing or making an ornament which they had most enjoyed. I was looking for something which had been truly joyful for them, not part of their student training. They gave various answers. As I listened, I noticed that the smaller the examples were the more true – that is, the more innocent they were, the less contaminated. Then one student said, in a very soft voice, that he had enjoyed painting Easter eggs in his childhood. That was something that was pure joy, unaffected by guilt, or by a feeling that he must “do well.” At first I could not hear him. He was shy about it, didn’t want to repeat what he said. I persuaded him to speak a little more loudly, and finally we all heard him say, embarrassed, that he had loved painting Easter eggs.
I felt at once that this love, of all those which had been mentioned, was one of the most pure. It was simple. In that work, there is nothing except the egg and the pattern on its surface, no mental constraints of what one “ought” to do – only the thing itself. No one really judges or censors the outcome – so it is easy and alright, not festering with complicated concepts about architecture when you do it.
So I asked each student to make holes in the ends of a raw egg, blow out the yolk and white, and then paint the egg, decorate it like an Easter egg. I made it clear that they did not have to use the fifteen properties. All I wanted them to do was to make the egg beautiful, to enjoy what they were doing. Here are some of the eggs they painted. The shapes and spaces in the ornaments took their shape, and became what they are, just to be beautiful and to have the maker’s depth of feeling visible and shining in them. That was the only principle which governed them. And this, I believe is what one has to do to make a serious work. Naive as it sounds, it is this, too – I believe – that the great traditional builders did.
The students’ other architectural work improved greatly once they understood that making a good building is more like the joyous work of painting an Easter egg than like the practical task of being an “architect.”
“Peace should never be taken for granted.
The wise never forget this fact.
Frequently the young do – to their cost.
The pain of war passes unheeded through generations.”
When he first read the next note, he found it difficult to connect to its message. All that changed in the next six hours.
Edwin visited his mother.
His visits were far too infrequent but he had always blamed that on her being Difficult – Capital D – which always sapped his energy. He loved his mother of course but their relationship had always been strained. She was getting on now but still had a big enough collection of marbles. They had a lovely meal and somehow their talk turned to her wartime experiences.
Edwin always liked to hear about these times as he felt it gave him a window on a very different time in history. Little did he know that this story would have a big impact on him.
The subject was the boat trip that her parents, herself and her brother of four years had taken from the Mediterranean back to England in 1942. She had been eight at the time. The ship came under attack from enemy planes and she and her brother were placed in the care of two sailors as the aircraft began to strafe the vessel. As they were climbing up a ladder to another deck her brother and guardian sailor went first followed by Edwin’s mother and her guardian. But as her guardian climbed the steps he was killed by machine gun fire from the aircraft and fell back to the deck below with three red dots on his chest marking the exit wounds from the bullets.
It was at this point that Edwin almost dropped his teacup on the floor as his mother related this fact as if commenting on the weather.
He suddenly realized how such an experience must have affected his mum, only eight at the time, and it was as if a door had been opened onto another room of his mother’s psyche. No wonder she was Difficult. Capital D.
Edwin left his mother’s house filled with a new respect and love for her but with a sense also of loss. Had he ever really known her? Had her experience of an external war somehow unconsciously fomented his internal war?
When he arrived home and re-read the note, his tears fell on the paper as they washed away the scales from his eyes. He now realized how blind he had been to the nuances of one of the most important relationships in his life.
Things would never be the same.
Edwin felt like he was fighting for his sanity. Day by day. Step by step.
His new insight into boundaries seemed to start internally pushing him. He felt he was under psychological attack. Just what the hell was going on?
The next note arrived a month later. A bigger delay than normal as though he was being given time to be stretched further and further. But to where?
“The Threshold has been Crossed.
Outer has become Inner.
The War is now Internal.”
It now seemed that his life was in synchronization with the notes. Or was someone watching him? He looked outside the front door to see if anyone was around. Nothing. No one. It needed a distinct effort of will to stop himself becoming paranoiac.
There were a fair few capital letters in this note.
As. If. Every. Word. Was. Important.
His life was becoming more stressed, but since his conversation with Quentin he was finding a calmer way through the tangle of everyday living. But he felt he was splitting apart, the different parts of himself coming away from each other like the segments of an opened orange.
His thoughts were getting a life of their own, and taking wing. His feelings were swimming all over the place. The only rock in this realm of air and water was his will as he learnt to hold it all together by its strength.
Yet the insights in the notes were now starting to give him a glimpse of another world. One that was calmer, more sane – A shining realm of clear thought – like that moment in the pub with Quentin. His experience was starting to connect with the words from the notes. As though the author had already paced along the same path he was walking. And just occasionally, for a moment at a time, he would connect to the light, as if he had been looking at shadows all his life and was only just starting to truly come home.
A Threshold? It sounded a bit dramatic, but it did feel like he was crossing some internal boundary. And he knew instinctively this was going to get worse and he was going to need all the strength of will he could gather in order to hold himself whole.
An Internal War.
And Edwin was the battlefield.
“The unconscious path leads to repeating patterns,
until the hard lesson is learnt.
The pressure of the stuff of life on Edwin was building to breaking point.
Then this note turned up on his doorstep.
Work was getting ever more frenetic. More people asking for more help – same old, same old. He was thankful there had not been any more similar interactions with his boss, probably because he was doing more and more and was only keeping himself together by the sheer power of will. To cap it all he was also having financial difficulties that were making life look darker, bleaker.
The note this time sent his mind into a frenzy of self-doubt. Was he just repeating things? Was he learning anything? Did he really know himself? Perhaps this was to be expected given his introspective nature – he knew that about himself at least. When he confided in his friends, some said that they knew others in the same boat, so it was not just an isolated phenomenon.
Same boat indeed: Up the Creek – Capital C – without a paddle.
He was beginning to see that it was a matter of knowing himself, mainly knowing his limits, and being clear about his boundaries. Once he gained this insight he felt justified in pushing back at people and saying No. He just hoped he didn’t sound like a two year old. Then there was his best friend Quentin. He was as eccentric as his name sounded and, boy, did he have some funny ideas. He said that Edwin needed to do more. At which point Edwin went ballistic.
More! Yes More. Capital M.
Once Edwin had returned to Earth, luckily he had not achieved escape velocity, he managed to calm down from swearing at Quentin and finally ended up sharply berating him for his lack of empathy. As he drew breath, Quentin pointed out that Edwin had to do More Of The Right Things. Activities that gave his self more fulfilment, more energy. He must carve out the time for himself Consciously. Edwin heard Quentin put the capital letter in the sentence.
It was then that Edwin went very very quiet. A mood that stayed with him all the way on the walk home, the previous frenzy of his mind replaced by an ethereal calm. As he walked he calmly breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out.
The latest note went on the clipboard. This time with more than just the date. At the bottom he annotated it with the following word:
© Charles Tolman 2012.
The next note arrived a week later:
“As scales fall away from eyes left too long in the dark,
Stunned inaction may be the blind response.
But change will not stop and only the wise will understand.”
The previous day had been Not Good.
Capital N. Capital G.
Edwin had been on the receiving end of a tongue lashing from his boss who clearly knew absolutely nothing about the problems he was daily facing in his job. As the note had intimated, Edwin had indeed just stood there in stunned inactivity allowing the words to roll over him while mumbling something about doing better in future as he left his superior’s office.
As if it was Edwin’s fault.
The company had fired half the work force the previous month thanks to the recession and he was supposed to be grateful to still be in a job. All it meant was that he was stuck with doing twice as much work which didn’t always get done in the way the managers wanted. So much for being indispensable.
This time he did not throw the note away, but made a special place on his pin board for the two notes, and dated when they were received. He pondered whether this was a wise response. One thing he knew was that he didn’t understand.
However he was nothing if not organized.
© Charles Tolman 2012.
Having written already about what I have called Boundary Problems (Home Life, Bringing Work Home) and the multiple issues connected therewith, I decided to try my hand at some fiction to express these wide ranging concepts. To this end I have invented the character of Edwin who gradually awakes to changes in the world around him and journeys, hopefully, from bystander to participant. We will have to see how he does. It will be as much a voyage of discovery for me as it will be for him!
Initially I expect to be able to provide new stories weekly, but I may reduce the frequency depending upon the presence or otherwise of my muses!
I hope you enjoy the stories and let me know what you think.
Anyway, I must get back my story keyboard…
The cryptic note had turned up on Edwin’s doorstep that morning:
“A change unnoticed by most mortals.
A change with silence to mark it’s passing.
A change blown by the zephyrs of time.”
He wondered just who might have sent it. It didn’t sound like hate mail but it was definitely mail he hated.
He hated the sender trying to manipulate him.
He hated people who tried to mess around with his mind so he just threw it in the bin before storming out of the front door to go to work. Work he also hated if he was honest with himself.
Work was just another one of those days, slightly worse than most, where he wondered about the sanity and judgement of those that ran the company. But what the hell, he was just a hired hand so he did as he was told, as long as it paid the mortgage.
But through the morning the contents of the note did indeed mess with his mind. It was as if he was looking at one of those drawings that could be seen two ways and his work was the drawing that, so far, he had only seen one way. The note had shown him another way and he did not like it.
During the busy morning he stopped and looked around at his colleagues and started to wonder if work used to be this frenetic in the old days. He was sure life must have been slower. But if so was there indeed a wind of change that had gone unnoticed?
When he got home he went to the bin and extracted the note, placing it on the kitchen counter and read it again while he prepared his evening meal. He could not stop the words rolling around in his head.
He did not sleep well that night.
© Charles Tolman 2012.