Looking at Looking

As I had my stitches out last week, I started thinking about the times life has shown me that the way I look at things is very different to the way other people see them. It depressed me slightly, because in spite of all the proof I came up with, I still have difficulty remembering that my perception is not yours.

One memory is of the infamous 1992 Three Month Retreat at Lerab Ling. Small bowls of honey were served at breakfast, specifically I think as an offering to local wasps who loved to commit suicide by diving headlong into all that sweet, sticky goo. Trying to save them made finishing breakfast a bit of a chore, to be honest. But, what to do?

Anyway, one morning as I sat contemplating the gorgeous colour and consistency of the wasp-trap honey, which appeared, to my eyes, to be the very food of the gods, a woman sitting on the next table started complaining to her neighbour about how cheap the kitchen was for buying the dregs of the dregs of the cheapest local left-overs. I was surprised and looked again at the honey I had just been admiring. It still looked richer, purer and more honey-like than any I’d ever seen in England. Not only that, but it had inspired almost the only appreciative thoughts I’d had during the retreat so far, and hard as I tried, I simply couldn’t see anything dreg-like about it at all. Same honey, two different perceptions.

Another memory was another from 1990 in Prapoutel. An English friend, Tessa, had driven me from England to the French Alps. One of the things I liked best about Tessa was that she was such a diva (we’d sung along with Maria Callas for large stretches of French motorway; her teenaged daughter, Sophie, barely survived the ordeal) and she expressed her enthusiasms with such conviction and authority that she made me feel safe.

One afternoon she went on and on and one about a Tibetan woman she had met who was not only supremely beautiful, but strong and kind, the very model of a perfect woman. The next day she pointed her out to me, but all I could see was an old Tibetan woman.

Of course, you must remember that I was something of a late developer on many fronts, not least in my perception of true beauty. For me, ‘beautiful’ meant the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique, or Debbie Harry, and this woman fitted none of those catagories. I tried measuring her up against the great beauties of my father’s generation, like Liz Taylor, or Ava Gardner, or even Nefertiti, but I just couldn’t see it. And it bothered me.

Where did Tessa, who had such similar tastes to me in so many ways, find beauty in that face? But she obviously did.

It was the first time I remember consciously accepting that someone else’s opinion could be different from mine, without them also being idiots, Tories, serial killers, religious fundamentalists or from the wrong generation (the ‘generation gap’ was still a big thing).

So, these were two pivotal moments in the way I look at the way I look. There are many more, of course, and it’s an uphill struggle, but it’s breakfast time and I’ve prattled on for long enough.

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