Saturday, 21 September 2019

Sand and Other Things I've Found in Pockets

When I started this blog in 2007, it was full of things I found in my sons' pockets, pre-facebook escapades and book reviews. This blog followed us from the rainforests of Trinidad to to beaches of Bournemouth. Not much changed about us, but the things we found in pockets did, from interesting beetles and snakeskins to conkers and bus tickets. Now, those boys do their own laundry, but my pockets are often full of sand and other beachy finds.

Like life, this blog is evolving. I'm better qualified than I was a decade ago, older and wiser you might say, but I'm doing the same stuff: writing, educating, trying to make the world a little bit better. But getting sand and other interesting things in my pockets will always be a thing. I don't see any point in acting like a grownup all the time!

Monday, 2 September 2019

The UN Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations vs the WHO Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes

For full article PDF, with introduction, citations and footnotes please see Linkedin.

Global Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility 

The international ‘Human Rights’ concept was advanced in the UN Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1945, and was built upon in subsequent covenants, with concepts focused initially on protecting individuals and groups from abuses by states. The idea that corporations should not violate human rights evolved as a result of expansion of industry and trade supply chains into the competitive global market economy . Increasingly, business activities take place outside of the country where the business is registered. Transnational corporations (TNCs) are one step ahead of the globalisation phenomenon and their influence continues to grow, to the extent that their budgets and sphere of influence may exceed those of the nations in which they operate. Breaking up their spheres of influence between different countries restricts state ability to ensure corporate accountability and domestic social welfare.

The development of a legislative framework for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been challenged in several ways. International law is increasingly shaped by transnational corporations, and some authors are sceptical of the real potential for good behaviour by corporations without binding legislation to keep human rights abuses in check. Corporations’ stated commitments to responsible behaviour is linked to broader respect for accepted norms in human rights laws, such as the right to life, children’s rights and environmental sustainability. These goals are often in tension, however, with existing binding legislation such as the World Trade Organisation’s rules for reducing barriers to trade, which may result in weaker states compromising national health requirements  and consumer demands. In the absence of any global authority for regulating CSR, attempts have been made in domestic courts to litigate against corporate violations of human rights.

Historical Justice Litigation

The Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), also known as the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), was first presented in 1789 as a means of litigating in the United States (US) between non-US citizens, in any violation of the laws of nations or US treaties , in hopes of avoiding international disputes. Few cases were brought to federal courts under the ATCA between its inception and 1980, but with the rise of globalisation, commercial activities between diverse nations saw a renewed need for such litigation. 
The use of the ATCA resurfaced in 1980  in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, wherein the court ruled that international law or jus cogens, known in the USA at the time as the law of nations, was a fundamental part of United States federal law. This expanded the scope of the ATCA to redressing non-domestic abuses. Thus, while the treaty’s original intent may be unclear, and this move to adjudicate on the matters of foreign states was probably not an intention of the original drafters of the ATCA , its evolution into a vehicle for actions between foreign entities has served a purpose, partly to litigate but also to highlight the difficulties involved in litigating in any nation against international human rights violations. The scope of the ATCA was further developed in the case of Kadic v Karadic , when abuses committed by Karadic were deemed to violate the laws of nations, whether under the auspices of a state or as a private individual, and in the 1997 case of Doe v Unocal Corp, setting an important precedent where a corporation was treated for the first time as a legal person under the ATCA. 

In 2004, a landmark case, Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, began to narrow the terms of the ATCA. The court held that no international norms were violated in the holding of Alvarez-Machain and this limited the scope of the ATCA to more serious abuses than the reported detention and transfer by law enforcement agencies. A further dispute has been seen to reduce the scope further. In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., the corporate defendant Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) was held not to have committed unlawful acts which concerned the US, despite those acts including torture and murder of community leaders. A related case, Wiwa v Royal Dutch Petroleum Co, was dismissed as ‘forum non conveniens’, on the grounds that another state may be a more appropriate forum for the extraterritorial case. In a press release, the Centre for Constitutional Rights expressed concern over what was seen as a limitation of the extent to which US Legislation be used as an example and aid development of international law. 

The Royal Dutch Petroleum Co cases are ongoing in the Dutch courts, and it has been suggested that the tarnished corporate image and bad PR surrounding the human rights abuses by Shell, along with investor pressure, may be enough to encourage the corporation to behave better. Indeed, recent moves by Shell may point to a better awareness of social and environmental responsibility but under the current legislative environment they still may not be held accountable for future human rights violations. The ATCA remains one of the few regimes where individual victims may seek damages for international crimes, and there is a concern that the US courts may decide not to accept a case, if the matter might adversely affect economic outcomes in the US under the ‘political question doctrine’, a limitation enabling the dismissal of a case on the grounds that US governmental interests may be impaired in politically sensitive cases. 

Out-of-court settlements can also undermine the development of corporate limitations. They can be kept confidential, thus maintaining a favourable public relations image and keeping details of the case out of the media, and settling out of court also prevents the setting of legislative precedent, so that future cases are unable to draw on rulings . The out of court settlement of Doe v Unocal Corp was seen as a human rights victory but an unfortunate development in terms of strengthening the existing litigation and answering legal questions. A holocaust victims’ case against banks alleged to have profited from Nazi slave labour was similarly settled out of court, affecting later slave labour cases. Thus, despite some successes, it appears there are ways in which corporate bodies can avoid punitive damages and precedent-setting judgements in cases where human rights have been violated under the ATCA, and few other litigation options exist. The global corporate battle for self-regulation and its undermining of potential for binding legislation on social responsibility is well illustrated in the history of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (the WHO Code), discussed in the next section. 

The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes 

The World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (WHO Code) is a non-binding health policy framework to regulate the marketing of infant formula. It was developed after a libel suit was filed in the Swiss courts by Nestlé against the publisher of a 1974 report, ‘Nestlé Kills Babies’, documenting the deaths of infants in Africa resulting from Nestlé products . While the Swiss court found that the report was indeed libellous , the judge cautioned the corporation on its grossly unethical behaviour, and the evidence presented to the court and ensuing public media discussion highlighted severe abuses by Nestlé knowingly causing thousands of infant deaths internationally and prompted an international boycott against the corporation . In 1978, the Health and Scientific Research Subcommittee of the US Senate, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy, held investigatory hearings on the marketing of infant formula , which determined that the marketing practices of the corporation had led to the use of the product in situations where it should not be used, and this led to the drafting of the WHO Code in 1981, providing a framework for legislation to prevent the marketing of breastmilk substitutes . In discussions at the World Health Assembly in 1981, regarding whether the WHO Code should be a ‘regulation’ or a ‘recommendation’, the softer language of a non-binding code was favoured despite unanimous support for the WHO Code and some calls for stronger language. 

Today, an estimated 823,000 infants and 20,000 mothers die annually as a result of inadequate breastfeeding rates, and it has been reported that reducing formula use would prevent more infant deaths than any other health policy. Yet evidence suggests that Nestlé regularly breaks the WHO Code, continuing to use advertising and marketing practices contra to the agreement . Nestlé also uses tactics to undermine any policies which they see as threatening profits: corporate political lobbying , industry funded studies which cast doubt on science, gifts to state officials, and misleading information on issues related to infant feeding are well documented practices . Marketing claims for infant formula are not evidence based , and Nestlé has been criticised for their marketing strategy in developing countries  and product labelling in incorrect languages  which causes product misuse, leading to malnutrition and high mortality. Even in the UK, corporate interference undermines breastfeeding and costs the NHS £40 million per year, according to conservative estimates, but NHS officials and health workers accept generous donations and sponsorship from formula manufacturers . 81% of British mothers wish to breastfeed and try to do so but many fail, citing difficulties and lack of support, and at 6 weeks only 55% were still breastfeeding. 

Formula manufacturers use aggressive marketing tactics similar to those historically seen in the tobacco industry, including hijacking the legislative and political process . US trade representatives have criticised countries for promotion of breastfeeding as a barrier to trade which harms the profits of the US dairy industry . Despite cultural differences enshrined in the regional legislations for human rights, the rights of infants and children for a good start in life and not to be harmed are universally agreed , but the threat of litigation may undermine state resolutions to improve infant health , and the consistent lawfare implemented by industry and front groups continues to place infant and maternal health at risk , while heavy investment in public relations strategies diverts criticism whenever civil society questions corporate actions . The Global Reporting Initiative, a self-appointed reporter on CSR standards, lauded Nestlé as a new organizational stakeholder in 2011  and has been condemned by other human rights advocates. Today, Fortune ranks Nestlé as one of their 50 most admired companies and includes social responsibility as one of the factors in calculating their rankings, with a revenue of US$ 90.8 billion, despite the ongoing boycott. 

Infant formula can be a lifesaving product, if used correctly, but corporate resistance to regulation has caused the unnecessary deaths of millions of infants. The non-binding WHO Code has thus not been sufficient to satisfactorily reduce infant mortality or affect real corporate behaviour. Corporate accountability being left to voluntary and self-regulated industry standards poses unacceptable costs to corporations in a competitive market economy , and they are unlikely to follow fair or sustainable practices which impose costs without profitable benefits . 

Recent Attempts to Regulate Corporate Social Responsibility 

The lawfare tactics seen in the formula industry are as effective in many other industries where there exist very necessary products for agriculture , medicine  and even national security. The need for binding obligations on corporations resulted in the UN Commission on Human Rights drafting the Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights in 2004, with the intention to impose binding obligations on states and corporations. Business was, naturally, ‘vehemently opposed’ to the Draft Norms . 

In the subsequent years, human rights advocates, state representatives and corporate lobbyists have endeavoured to come to an agreement. In 2008, John Ruggie was appointed to propose a framework for business and human rights, in which he proposed that the state has a duty to protect human rights; corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights; and effective remedies for victims are required . This was followed by the 2011 Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights , with less focus on binding elements, other than a caution that States should bear human rights law obligations in mind when pursuing investments or contracts since existing international law in such issues may be binding, and a lack of any accountability or enforcement mechanisms . 

In 2015, a new strategy came into play: the United Nations Global Compact’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was hoped that the SDGs would provide a substantive framework for corporate action . Meanwhile, domestic and regional bodies have wavered on support for the Guiding Principles. The Council of Europe, the EU and others expressed initial support and have drawn on the Guiding Principles for a regional strategy on CSR . However, critics have suggested the Guiding Principles are not positivist law, may undermine the role of states in making economic decisions, and contain contradictory articles . A working group in October 2018 highlighted that human rights advocates continue to demand binding obligations and criminal liability for organizations, including in areas affected by conflict . And in March 2019, it was leaked that the weakened EU, one of the Guiding Principle’s greatest initial allies, may be considering withdrawal from the treaty ‘to protect business interests’, a decision which would place economic concerns over human rights. 


Many of the decisions made by states, corporations and international legislative bodies such as the WTO are centred around economic precedence and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Increase in trade and GDP have been linked to improvements in national health spending and education in developing countries, but factors such as national health and education outcomes are not counted when calculating GDP. When breastfeeding rates fall and infant mortality rises, for example, the increased sale in feeding and medical paraphernalia result in an increase in GDP. Industry lobbyists also exaggerate the importance of economic growth within their industry. Moving the discussion away from one solely centred on economic development may be a useful way for transforming the political and economic discussion into technical, legal questions about social rights and responsibilities. 
The absence of any global regulatory authority with binding rules for CSR needs to be resolved . 
Corporations must consider economy in order to remain competitive, and the profitability of CSR has not been satisfactorily established. Expecting TNCs to establish, adhere to and self-report on non-binding CSR frameworks is not reasonable, no matter how the corporations themselves may advocate for them. In some cases, binding obligations have been passed with success. In the US forbidding corporations from conducting transactions with business connected with apartheid South Africa, the binding nature of the legislation created real economic and social change. The international political will surrounding the binding Ozone Convention  has driven new innovation and had a lasting positive effect on the environment without negatively impacting corporate interests. The level playing field in these cases was advantageous to all corporations involved, rather than just playing to the strengths of those with the largest public relations budgets. The effectiveness of binding legislation is thus proven to be a positive force socially and economically. 


As we have seen, corporations use a host of public relations strategies, political lobbying and marketing techniques to ensure profits, and this is natural in a competitive market. Where internationally binding legislation does not exist to prevent human rights violations, TNCs may use tactics which negatively affect domestic social and health outcomes but escape litigation, and victims may have no recourse for reparations in domestic courts. The ATCS has been a useful forum for highlighting not only corporate abuses, but also the difficulties inherent in bringing TNCs to justice. 

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights Draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals are developing useful substantive frameworks which corporations might follow, but without binding effects and enforcement mechanisms it is unlikely that corporate culture will see any change beyond increased political lobbying and public image spending. 

Permitting TNCs to direct the discourse surrounding potential regulations will see a focus on economic imperatives, whilst legislators should enable a discussion about human rights, social welfare and the binding responsibilities of corporate entities to obey international laws. Evidence seen in the Ozone Convention and South African divestment suggests that binding legislation can drive innovation and create positive environmental and social change. There is still hope that the Draft Norms can become a powerful driver for sustainable development and human rights, even placing sensible limits on potentially lifesaving products, and all but the largest monopolies should welcome a level playing field and a reduction in human rights violations internationally. 


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Saturday, 17 June 2017

Archaeology: Come for the Dig, Stay for the Puns

A few months ago, I emailed one of my lecturers and asked if I could please, since I had to do more classroom archaeology next year, despite my degree being sociology and anthropology, for complicated reasons, pretty please would they let me come on the Durotriges Big Dig, three days a week? After some discussion and my reminding them that I'm a star student, they said yes.

I thought this would be a good way to get some field work done and learn more about what I've only studied in lectures and books. Plus, I've always liked the idea of archaeology. It looks like fun.

Fun it is! This week I've met some amazing people. The Big Dig draws serious archaeologists - who all seem to be incredibly friendly, knowledgeable and kind, willing to answer questions and offer encouragement. There are also 'bucket list' people from as far away as Australia who have always wanted to channel their inner Indiana Jones and do serious supervised archaeology. One young lady got her ticket along with a little trowel for Christmas, and has been waiting for months. Some are regulars, coming along every year to dig and enthuse.

I've been informed that the tiny bones may belong
to little toads that long ago fell into the pit
we are excavating.
My ground-breaking* theory is that we have
discovered an ancient lost tribe of toad worshippers
who dug enormous pits where they buried their Tiny
Toad Gods. Look out for my upcoming
paper** on this exciting new discovery. 
Besides being great fun for geeks of all kinds, archaeology is very hard work. Crossfit has nothing on archaeology. Stooping and standing a hundred times, hoisting buckets of flint and chalk out of pits, running up the spoils heap with wheelbarrows - all in the sun and rain from 9 to 4.30 - make for a long day and an early night. You'll need sharp eyes and passion. You'll need to bring sustaining sandwiches to eat while you are collapsed in a heap during the lunch break. You'll need sturdy boots, sunblock, rain gear... and everything will be caked with chalk, or mud, or both, at the end of the day. But then you'll get seriously cool finds, which make it all worth the effort.

I thought this would be fun, and it is, but it's also been very informative. I love the way the site has been inhabited over so many thousands of years. I love the sudden silence, almost reverence, when something really good is found. Seeing the layers appear in our pit has been eye-opening for me. I thought I was doing archaeology units for kicks - but my pit in Trench F has given me a lot to think about. If you happen to be stuck for a birthday or Christmas gift, I'd definitely suggest a week on the dig. There are still tickets available, with two more weeks to go, and I've heard that Dorset residents get a discount. Probably because we've just dug up half their field.

And if anyone asks "how's it going?" the correct answer is "down!"

*Pun alert
**I am not a real archaeologist. Don't listen to me.  

Monday, 20 February 2017

Calais, Refugees and Thinking

Mrs. Sheppard, where I come from, there is a saying: 'The patient man will be patient until he dies.'
- Anon, pharmacist from Afghanistan living in the Jungle in 2015

When I went to the Calais 'Migrant Jungle' in 2015, it affected me enormously. I meant to really write something. But other things kept happening, internationally, politically, (gosh, a lot has happened in the world since August 2015!) and I wished that I could come up with some 200-word SOLUTION that people would listen to, but all that happened was that I read more and talked to more people, and everything I would share would take 100 years of talking and writing. So this will be more of a short and useless ramble.

The Calais Migrant Jungle was similar to many slums - similar to Trinidad's slums in some of its architecture, economy and vibe, so it felt a bit like home for me. The people there divided themselves into loose neighbourhoods by religion and language, and many spoke some French with a smattering of English. We were handing out three vehicle loads of sleeping bags, tents, split peas, rice, seasoning and other goodies, knowing full well that it would have been better to have given them to an agency who could distribute them as an when needed rather than just handing them out to the strongest, pushiest and least needy. The economy of a slum is based on power, and the trickle down effect does not work there - similar to the way in which giving tax breaks to large companies does not help the neediest in society but only enriches the rich. The power in the Jungle, as in many slums, is held by strong men. But our planned contact in Calais had fallen through, and handing out goodies seemed to be less tragic than returning to the UK with all of that good stuff. I'm still not sure if it was! But since I was personally there for fairly selfish academic reasons, I thought I could at least interview a few people in exchange for sleeping bags. We hooked up with some young ladies from Secours Catholique who were valuable allies, they had experience and spoke the language.

My Afghan friend was well-spoken and earnest, and educated enough to understand that I was not there to help him. We surveyed the scene and talked about travel, passports (I hid mine upon my person like a true Trini at Pan Finals, but I needn't have worried, no-one tried to pick my pocket), education, politics... He wanted me to understand, looking at the dozens of Afghan and Somalian men searching for shoes in their size and belts and decent shirts, that every person there was going to keep moving until they found a home. Nothing we could do would stop them. He wanted a backpack, because if you have a backpack you can keep your things with you - money, treasures... passport. I hoped we would be able to give him the one we had, but it was snatched away and disappeared. I thanked him for his patience.

We had a scary moment. At one stage we ran out of the best goodies and mob mentality took over. The crush of angry men threatened to destroy vehicles or worse. Why didn't we have more? They had waited in line nicely (not really), for nothing? What about in the front of the van? What was that stuff? Whose bag was that? I pushed into the mob and grabbed one man by the shoulders, made him look down at me, and said "Can you help me? Ask your friends to be peaceful. Ask your friends to let us look and see if we have anything else. We need your help." The light of the mob faded from him and he was a human again. Next man, next plea. Next man, next plea. Look at me, I'm small, I'm a woman, I need your help and I won't be giving you anything in return. Gradually we had peace and humans again. But we were all humans to begin with. There were no troublemakers there, wanting to punish or make war. It was a risky tactic for me to assume that every man there was going to cool down and walk away empty handed. It was sheer luck in action. There were no police or any sort of security nearby and the UK and French border controls had both said, tight-lipped, that we were not at all advised to go and did so at our own risk.

An hour later, we were kicking a football around in the dirt with the same men. Somalia VS Dorset!

A week or so after we returned to the UK, the camp was bulldozed. Our gifts became landfill, along with the treasures, papers and passports of anyone who wasn't quick enough to save them. I've thought of them often since then: the chef who skipped off merrily to a central cooking area with lentils, curry powder and onions; the Somali footballers, with their deflated and worn ball; the drummers; the artists; the farmers; the engineers and other professionals who, if and when they arrive at their final destination, will find their qualifications invalid and have to do janitorial work or whatever they can to get by.
Latrine Pun

The Calais Jungle residents have been moved on, so who knows where they might be now. Whenever the weather is cold, I think of them, and all those landfill sleeping bags. Thanks to my trip to Calais I have ideas, which drive some of my research. When I started my degree, I thought finally I would have some answers. All I have, it seems, are more questions.

If you'd like to keep up-to-date with the latest news from Calais, there's a facebook page to follow.

(Photos: Me, Kitty Forester, Sharon Carr-Brown)

Thursday, 18 June 2015

These Dangerous Women

28th April, 2015: A hundred years later, following
in the footsteps of those amazing women.
 See Flickr for album 
"On the 28th April 1915, 1300 women, who had been organising internationally to get the vote, met together at the Hague to try to find a way forward to peace. They advocated continuous mediation as an alternative to armed struggle. Envoys from the Congress visited 14 Heads of State, the King of Norway, the Pope and the President in their attempt to halt the War. Churchill called them These Dangerous Women. They were influential in the forming of the League of Nations and formed an organisation - The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom which is still active today, giving women a voice at International level.

These Dangerous Women is a community project bringing together members of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and young volunteers to celebrate and uncover the heritage of the women who tried to stop World War 1.

  These Dangerous Women
Supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we trained in oral history recording, archive research, exhibition skills, re enactments and documentary making to create an exhibition, documentary and set of oral history recordings."

- With Thanks, Helen Kay

You can see Anna Watson's Flickr gallery of the day of filming here, and the full film here. Website coming soon!

Edited: The website's live! Click Here for Website.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Relaxing Holiday Booklist!

For sunshiny reads among the garden weeds:

The Tao Te Ching : A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, a beautiful edition by Ursula Le Guin. I highly recommend this, especially for reading in the garden while the bees buzz among your weeds, despite occasional drizzle.

I read The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, with fascination. This book explains so much of the history of conflict in Afghanistan, while looking at the trend for girls to be dressed and raised as boys. Of course. If I had a daughter there, I would probably dress her up as a boy and let her go to school too.

I'm now reading Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism, and so far so good.

Have you read any good books lately? Do recommend!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

There were so many things that she wanted to do, That whenever she thought it was time to begin, She couldn't because of the state she was in...

- Title Adapted from 'There Was an Old Sailor my Grandfather Knew',  by A. A. Milne.

It's been a week like that, I'm afraid. Even the poor cat has been ignored. I have been hopping from one project to another, decluttering, studying, dancing, jogging, painting and repairing my home, and loving every bit of it, but the really important things that have deadlines are starting to loom out of the mist and cackle nastily. Paperwork and such.

So I'll just leave you with a few thoughts, that do tie together:

  • Pope Francis' recent statement on War as a money-maker. Obviously, people who manufacture arms would not market peace.
  • Madeleine Rees' Statements at The Hague last month.1.776 TRILLION dollars were spent on arms last year. That's 480 years' worth of the UN's regular budget. Not that the UN is perfect, but wouldn't it be interesting if everyone stopped spending money on weapons for one year and gave the money to an existing peacemaking and mediating force:

  • Medicine manufacturers pay doctors to prescribe their drugs, and marketers come up with sneaky way to make us feel bad about speaking up about corporate abuses of power. The 'natural remedy' market, my goodness that's a clever one, dividing society into mad science deniers and drug addicted morons, both camps spending a fortune to cure themselves. 
I am all for capitalism. I like that you can sell just about any thing, any idea, any clever gadget. But maybe some checks and balances need to be put in place, like the laws that govern infant formula marketing. Of course formula companies ignore these laws whenever they can, giving free supplies to new mothers in the third world so that their breastmilk will dry up and they will have to continue buying the product and so on. But at least the laws exist there, so the 'judgy lactivist breastapo hordes' can keep bringing marketing abuses to the attention of the WHO.

Maybe similar checks and balances need to be in place in other areas where a product kills. Arms and drug manufacturing, for example. 
I haven't got the answers - but I'm seriously asking the questions. We should all be. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

On My Bookshelf

Yes, my bedroom wall is MANGO YELLOW.
And the orchids are all flowering madly. 
At home with a cold with time to blog! I have quite enjoyed the peace and quiet this week. It would have been better to have a few days off and NOT have a cold, but hey. I have been catching up on my reading this week, and realised I haven't updated my book list here for EVER. So without further ado:

The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby and Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis -  Two mad scientists, wonderful to read. Both authors are into DNA - Mullis won the Nobel Prize in recognition of his improvement of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique, which allows the amplification of specific DNA sequences.

The Cosmic Serpent is anthropological, and studies how the wisdom of ancient people and primitive tribes has always explained that all life comes from twinned serpents, which looks exactly like our current understanding of DNA. When I finished that book I decided to learn more about DNA, so I bought Kary Mullis' book. *Disclaimer* - I didn't learn much more about DNA from Kary Mullis' book. But I was highly entertained and his writing, like Narby's, is thought provoking.

The biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life, by Gerald Martin. Anyone who loves Marquez' novels will enjoy this, as it is well written and will take you al over South America and Europe with some of the best Latin American authors. History buffs will like it too. I started reading this a few years ago, got about half way through, and then put it aside while life got complicated for a bit. I picked up where I had left off a few weeks ago, and it was like seeing an old friend again.

While life was complicated, I read two lovely stories by Melissa Westemeier: Kicks Like a Girl and Whipped, Not Beaten. These uplifting novels are fun and readable, and make you feel like everything's going to be ok in life and love.

Two Writers
Max and I are reading the final instalment of Skulduggery Pleasant together, and we GOT TO MEET DEREK LANDY!!!!! Max's tooth fell out while we were standing in the very long line and Derek said "OMG please don't let any more bits fall off here," was the exactly perfect thing to say to a boy who loves funny books about zombies.

This month I finished reading Goddesses: Mysteries of the Divine Feminine, by Joseph Campbell. I love, love Joseph Campbell, and this new collection of his Goddess lectures is wonderful. It makes me want to go back and re-read all the old fairy tales and myths.

And then, since I was in a myths-and-symbols mood, I bought 'The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images'.

A friend lent me Zen in the Art of Archery recently, which helped me to understand the importance of ritual and the little things in life:
'As in the case of archery, there can be no question but that these arts are ceremonies. More clearly than the teacher could express it in words, they tell the pupil that the right frame of mind for the artist is only reached when the preparing and the creating, the technical and the artistic, the material and the spiritual, the project and the object, flow together without a break.' - Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery
Zen in the Art of Archery is short, sweet and insightful.

I have also enjoyed That's Not It and How are You, Sugar? by the lovely Nancy Ellen Row - The first a novel and the second a collection of recipes and wisdoms from the past, and both set in the Southern USA.

And lastly, for laugh-until-you-die hilarity, there's Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. Don't try to read this when other people are trying to sleep, your guffaws and screams of mirth will keep them up.

I've got quite a heap of other books to get through, so I won't be bored this winter. Have you read anything good lately? Tell us!!

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Keep Working on Love - Lessons From Another Dimension

Today I  moved two teenage boys' beds and vacuumed under them. One boy helped, doing the heavy lifting. It was like entering another dimension and having wake-up calls of various sorts. If you find yourself travelling there, take a good vacuum cleaner and proceed with your eyes shut.

One of the various things I discovered in that alternate universe was "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", and I opened the book to this quote: "Jonathan," he said, and these were the last words that he spoke, "keep working on love."

I've been feeling so frustrated by the hate-fuelled wars that are filling the news recently. We need to work on love. It's time to speak love, teach love, and be love.

This planet is a good one, and we learn some hard lessons here. We are all students - but we are teachers too. We have a responsibility. Be love.

Namaste ॐ

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Celebrating Failure with Gold

"There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen 

In January 2014, one of my articles was published in Aquila about the Art of Failure. It was fun to research, and it got me thinking about how we can appreciate brokenness and re-think our failures.

My 2013 and 2014 were incredible years. There was so much brokenness and pain, hardship, loss and fracture that at times I felt like I was putting one foot in front of another and just remembering to breathe with each step. Just remembering to remain kind and calm in the face of awful adversity was really difficult. My family had deaths, sadness, and huge changes and decisions going on. We cracked, but we didn't shatter.

At the same time, I saw others struggling with life, and the different ways people have of dealing with their messiness and brokenness. I was reminded of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken objects are mended with gold. I love this - Being broken doesn't mean the ugly end! The way that an object is repaired should make it stronger, show the flaws, celebrate the history. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we did this with our lives as well? We are all flawed and broken. We have failed again and again. I would not change any of my failures for the world. My mistakes were my most important lessons, and the greatest beauty in my life came from them.

And the way I fixed things made me stronger and more beautiful. It set an example to my children about imperfect, wobbly grace and kindness. At least, that is what I hope! Some of the best people I know have taken responsibility for their mistakes and turned them into their biggest assets. 
"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep." - Scott Adams
I pulled out my old 'failed' paintings around this time, and spent a happy afternoon highlighting the failures with gold acrylic and watercolour paint. It was the best fun I've had in ages! The unfinished pieces, the ones that ran, the ones the cat walked over leaving prussian blue footprints in the sky... They all got touched up with gold. They really are beautiful, and useful - I think I might find a use for them as business cards. I got a new card guillotine (squee), and somehow my printer will be convinced to print on heavy gauge watercolour paper. And who wouldn't want a business card that is truly one-of-a-kind, with the flaws detailed in gold? 

I had such a fun morning, pulling out old paintings and generally splashing paint around. Then the cat came along, lay on my creations and licked her bum. 

She is my harshest critic.