While London suffocates under a horrific quarter-inch of snow, here the worst part of an Alpujarran winter has kicked in for the second time: wind so forceful it’s upended our wheelbarrow full of firewood, and almost made it impossible to close the front door. It drives rain through the gaps in the not-very-energy-efficient window frames, leaving puddles amid the Lego on the kids’ bedroom floor. The children are up and down like the FTSE all night, while a mysteriously clanging pipe by our bedroom window chimes the hour.
As usual, I have been unprepared for the effect that all this has on my overall degree of bonkersness. I start entertaining wild notions that my skull is actually made up of millions of hairline fractures, invisible even to an MRI (not that I’ve had one) into which the wind miraculously creeps – bypassing the masonry entirely – rendering me significantly more irritable, depressed, argumentative, critical, and – to use the scientific term for it – unbearable. Under the influence of this stinker of a bad mood which no amount of essential oils, chamomile tea, dark chocolate or videos on YouTube of babies being scared by farts could subdue, I finally had one of those moments in which bloggers
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I started asking myself, ‘if I include a stock photo of models wrestling with deep and meaningful thoughts, will it help me finally become the life-coaching guru I’d always dreamed of being? Will I finally be able to sell an e-book explaining the meaning of everything that will pay for my early retirement? Will my words be printed in mock typewriter font over evocative photos and shared virally on Facebook? Could this even be – dare I think it – Oprah-worthy?’
At this point I laugh heartily, then have to stop when my belly hurts so much I worry I’ll go into labour a month early.
This was the actual thought: that there is nothing so tremendous, elemental, powerful or terrifying as the wind. Rain you can avoid with gumboots and an umbrella. Sun you can revel in, or escape under shade if it gets too much. Heat can be beaten with A/C or a plunge into cold water. Thunder and lightning? Electrifying when experienced from the inside of a house.
But you can’t just avoid the wind. Even inside a building it makes its existence known. And if allowed to come to its logical conclusion, it can turn into a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami…Meteorological caprice might make it a soft and refreshing zephyr one moment, or a landscape-changing titan the next.
It also struck me, as my mind went on its habitual meander into hypothesis, that for people whose landscape is dominated by desert, the wind must be even more unavoidable. Imagine being in a tent, or a small, cramped stone building with a palm-leaf roof, as the ancient Arabs would have lived – and indeed some still do – when a sandstorm hits. The word for wind in Arabic is ريح, rih, with a hard, pharyngeal h that even sounds like wind thundering through a crack in a wall.
Interestingly, the word for spirit in Arabic is from the same root: روح, ruh. The linguistic relationship reflects a semantic one: both are invisible forces only discernible by way of their effects – the things they drag along in their wake, the trees they tousle and uproot, the resistance they put up when you try to drive against them with hard, flat surfaces such as egos. It is a foreshadowing (you could cal it a ‘fore-shuddering’) of the powerlessness we feel at the unavoidable approach of death.
It’s quite a different picture to the classic Western notion of ‘spirit’, which has always conjured up images for me of dull conferences on esoteric themes, and women (or men) with long floaty hair who don’t say ‘hello’: they simply gaze meaningfully into your eyes, burning their greeting into your psyche like they’re tearing open a portal for you to comprehend what ‘hello’ really means.
When the early Arabs considered Allah breathing His ruh into each human being it must have seemed more like an inexorable power racing through every atom of their beings; for the average English person I imagine it feeling more like a pleasant summer breeze, carrying the scent of bluebells. Perhaps a song by Enya plays softly in the background.
Yet our word ‘spirit’ is also derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning ‘breathing or breath (respiration, or of the wind); breath of a god’. It appears in English referring to a supernatural entity from the mid 14th century on, and from the late 14th century to mean ‘state of mind’, ‘Divine substance’, ‘Divine mind’, ‘God’, and so on. The 4th century Latin Vulgate Bible used the term to translate the Greek psykhe (sound familiar?) and the Hebrew ruah (a not-so-distant cousin of ‘ruh‘).
In my home town, which swirls with thousands of people with long floaty hair and penetrating gazes who will talk to you at great length about the awesome power of raw food, coffee enemas and ayahuasca detoxes, there is an undercurrent of belief in the New Age notion of ‘manifestation’. That is, that whatever you are going through has arisen because of your mental state, your negative emotions, your attachments, traumas, toxic thoughts etc. etc.
Which can generate, on the one hand, a kind of god-complex in which people think they are capable of anything, and on the other a great deal of blame and guilt when someone is suffering from some major affliction, which must have been caused by their un-enlightened thoughts. As my mum said, “Whoever it is who cured themselves of Stage 3 terminal cancer by eating a macrobiotic diet, I’d like to meet them;” they’ve spawned an entire industry, one that is often trailed by stories of failure as desperate people pin their hopes on repeating someone else’s miracle cure.
While it’s certainly true that stress and anxiety contributes to ill health, and I’m sure we do have far greater power than we are aware of, there is a point at which things go beyond our control. We aren’t the centre of our own personal universes; we aren’t the masters of our destinies. That idea is so terrifying to the five-year-old narcissist in us that we block it out with the delusion that if we build up enough money, a glorious enough reputation, a beautiful enough body/wardrobe/home, we’ll be safe. There’s even a longevity diet for people who want to eat their way to immortality.
Surrendering into the knowledge that you are in far better hands than your own ends the deep argument that your mind is engaged in when it tries to be in charge. We need need, just as we need illness to make us stop and rest, or disasters to make us take stock of our blessings, or annoying people in our lives to teach us how to deal with them in a more mature way than clocking them on the head with a chair. When there’s a giant great hole in or lives, there’s the chance that extraordinary things might fall into it. When you’re stuck you start looking for openings; when you’re down you start to look up.
If Oprah calls, I’ll be outside double-pegging my washing.