Monthly Archives: August 2015

Breathing Space

There is a little spring in my step on Fridays. Not because it is the end of the week but because it is time to nudge aside the tome and ponder on the stray musings that will travel to you as murmurs. Friday is Murmurs of Mole day, but not this week, it seems. What should I have found when I tootled into my office on Monday but a little envelope, propped against the typewriter. M.O.L.E, it said, as if the letters of my name stood for some sinister multinational company or secret society. The note inside, faultlessly typed by my amanuensis, no doubt at a cracking 70wpm, told me that after all the excitement of the journey north, this week had been declared a Breathing Space. My amanuensis is terrifyingly strict in such matters and brooks no contradiction. Concentrating on the tome is allowed, even encouraged, but no books, no wireless, no films, no murmurs.

And so, dear friends, this is all there is this week. Any more and my amanuensis might think I am murmuring. Meanwhile I do encourage you to take Breathing Spaces. Perhaps I shall mull on them in my next post. Same time, same place.


I am packing. My ticket is bought, my boots are polished. From time to time, but much less frequently now, I hurtle around the world to where night is day and summer is winter, and visit my ancestral fields. Between those journeys I am a homey sort of mole and define my boundaries by the distances my hind legs are willing to venture.

The journey I am embarking on today is not an epic one. Not geographically, that is. But it is on several other fronts. Its prospect brings up a funny feeling in my chest, a bit like a choppy sea and for the last week or so I have been trying to disentangle the flotsam and jetsam it has churned up.

One of the reasons for my choppy state is the journey itself: things on wheels – especially on highways, give me the heebeejeebees.

The other is the destination. I am travelling to a place of my past, a place I was reluctant to move to, and eager to leave. At first I feel that I have no memory of my time there, just a sense of unease. Then I sense that the unease of that time is brought on because I allowed expectations of the outside world to shape me. The creature inside my pelt had been a numbed thing, not me. But from this I can see that it became a time of transformation with all the prickly discomforts and mistakes inherent in trying out new pelts. And as I remember those hapless but momentous times, I remember some of the joys. My purpose for today’s journey is joyful, too. I am heading off to the other end of the island to celebrate my Sprössling’s graduation.

This is a graduation hard won. An immense challenge to start out with, this endeavour incurred set-back piled on set-back. Each time she dusted herself off and started again and now, years later she has achieved what she set out to do.

It is only recently that we are learning that is the struggle that develops our abilities, not the binary measurements of success and failure that blighted schooling in the past. When I was a young mole we were lined up at the front of our classroom each week according to our academic achievement. I was near the bottom. In the gym class we were lined up by height and I was at the bottom. I failed even at growing. In the schooldays of Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty I imagine there were even harsher methods of ignominious comparison. Although not for Uncle Ratty’s sister who was taught down river at a dame school. What a dame. An ancient otter with a wall eye, she would only teach the offspring of canal and riverfolk – and Romanies. Her charges were untethered by boundaries and somehow knew they would make their mark in the world. Now neuroscience can show us how the brain lights up like a Christmas tree when it is set a challenge: the greater the challenge, the struggle to work out the problem, the more neurons fire up, new pathways are forged. The brains of those who solve problems quickly are only dimly lit.

There is no room anymore for the concept of failure. It marks the soul with a thick line of finality. And I am thinking that if it is a bit of a struggle to venture on this journey to a place where I had a different life, then it, too, provides an opportunity to fire up neurons and forge new and stronger pathways.

This place, the other end of the island is where my graduand Sprössling is making her home. Who knows, there may be more Sprösslings to come. Would I allow the path to my molekin to atrophy by shying away from the challenge of a journey?

I shall still my turbulent chest, open my little moleheart.

Do I need a snack for the journey?


When I was small, just old enough to to take gleeful pride in being able to read, I was farmed out to a family of pious moles near the Welsh border. The days were long and wet and the highlight of the week was a visit to the church. Unlike the burrow, which was bare and chilly and gloomy and dim, the church was cheerfully whitewashed and the walls were decorated with biblical texts framed in colourful painted borders. The one I could see best from my spot in the pew was ‘Cry aloud, fpare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet and fhew my people their tranfgreffion, and the houfe of Jakob their fins.’ I never expected to understand all the words and I hadn’t known that humans had fins. But as I sat pinned between the adult members of a family which held firmly that small moles were to be seen and not heard, what had my little lungs swelling with emotion was the exaltation to cry aloud and lift my voice like a trumpet. From that moment I knew I could be wildly transgressive on the inside and no-one would know, and that words could change how I felt.

So perhaps it is not surprising that from time to time have the urge to plaster the walls of my burrow with advice to myself: in text, but perhaps also in images. The kind of advice might vary a little, but just now it is about the little matter of delaying gratification.

I have been battling with myself recently. I am not sure whether it is I or Myself who begins the argument, but one of the two is all for staying snuggled in bed, and the other can imagine the glorious sunrise from the top of Knocklofty. Snuggled-in-Bed closes its eyes and ears to the coming day and the stiffness and inertia brought on by inactivity. Sun-Rise knows that inspiration comes on the Knocklofty heights, that the brain will be clearer, the body more limber after an early morning walk.

I have seldom seen the tension between instant and delayed gratification manifested more clearly than in the filmed studies based on Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment. Small moles are left in a bare room. They sit at a table with a marshmallow in front of them and they are promised a second one if they can hold off eating the first for fifteen minutes.

I can feel their battle so keenly I almost become one of them as they pick up the marshmallow, look at it, smell it, turn it around, put it down, pick it up, put it down again, look at the ceiling, hyperventilate, squirm, pick it up again, squeeze it, put it to their snouts, put it down again, put their heads in their paws, hum, make faces, turn away, sing, tap at the table.

But what if we are talking about more than the fifteen minutes for the marshmallow, more than the day of the walk. How about a year or ten? Two things have to be in place for such self-discipline: the abstract idea of future reward, and trust that it will be granted. Or the abstract idea of something negative in the future if we don’t do something to mitigate it now. But this abstraction cannot be vague. It has to be so strong visualised it feels utterly real.

When one small mole was unable to stop herself from eating a marshmallow, Mischel suggested she try again but to imagine a frame around it. She held out, and when asked why she didn’t eat the marshmallow she said it was because it was a picture. There was something about this observation that unsettled me in the same way as Magritte’s ‘Treachery of Images’; his painting of a pipe captioned ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.

This is the encouragement I want to paste to the wall of my burrow: something that represents that small mole’s strength of vision and willpower.

‘Ceci n’est pas un marshmallow’.


I have an ageing postcard propped up against the lamp next to my bed. On its face it has a reproduction of a tomb painting depicting Osiris, Anubis and Horus. I have the postcard propped where it is not because of the image – the printing is so rudimentary it appears pointillist, but because of the message, a piece of text cut and pasted on the back:

‘Do you think that I count the days? There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us a dusk’. Written in a bold hand with a thick black pen there is the acknowledgement: Jean Paul Sartre The Devil and the Good Lord (1951). There is no signature but I don’t need one. This is my one and only communication from Uncle Ratty’s sister. Her visits to Great Uncle Mole were infrequent and seldom coincided with mine. In fact I could count the number of times I’d met her on one paw. ‘She finds us fearfully dull’, Uncle Ratty once told me. He was much older than she. I thought her one of the most intriguing creatures I’d ever met. She had studied at the Sorbonne just after the war, and kept a base there but was rarely there. She did something elusive that took her to places like Egypt, Vienna and Shanghai.

The postcard has been leaning against my lamp for so long now that I often forget it is there, but just recently the quote has pierced me again. Each morning I wake up to a new day and begin the struggle of uniting the creature who resides in my moleskin with the mole I’d like to be. I have to confess, though, that from time to time I mistake attributes of the ideal mole for my own. It can then come as a shock when a fellow creature draws attention to the gap. My first reaction might be a sense of outrage that this ideal moleself has been so impugned, although the greater my sense of outrage, the more I know, deep in my little moleheart, that the admonition is justified.

It was not really an admonition, just a sad statement of the status quo as perceived another. Had a friendship so dwindled, this dear one asked, that it was time to move their tendrils of friendship to more fertile ground?

It can be tricky being a mole with a solitary streak, one so quickly overstimulated in company and taking so long to re-find equilibrium. And I sometimes fall into thinking that nothing I can give to a friendship can ever be quite enough, and so it is safer to hole up in my burrow.

To be found wanting as a friend rattled me. I tried to recall something I read once, something about how tempting it is for us mortals to avoid the instability of our boundaries, our unsettling status as a work in process. So we fix upon some definitive sense of self and try to hold ourselves to it, rather than to courageously embrace the changes.

I wanted to find more about this and wondered whether it, too, had been Sartre. I trundled down to the cellar where I knew Uncle Ratty’s sister’s copy of Being and Nothingness was in one of his trunks. I remembered her flinging it across the room in disgust one Christmas because the translation was so bad. The book was in bad shape, not only dog-eared (she always folded the corners of pages to mark them), not only filled with underlinings in emerald green ink, and indecipherable marginalia. I should have remembered, given the postcard beside my bed, that any passages she had found pertinent were cut out entirely, so that when you held the book upside down by its arthritic spine, lacy paper entrails drooped beneath the cover.

But there was something about the anarchic vandalism of the book that cheered my little moleheart into braver living. I can see that without nourishment tendrils will atrophy, and I shall venture forth and cherish an important friendship.

And as for Uncle Ratty’s sister, I haven’t seen her since her brother’s funeral decades ago. She might be still alive, a grande old dame in some Paris apartment. I shall make it my business to find out.