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I visit my dad in hospital

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 October 2020, 11.31am

My dad is in hospital.

On the day my granddaughter crawled for the first time, with due excitement all round, my dad fell over in the street again – the hopeful and sad symmetry of life.

There was a day when he crawled for the first time, when everyone oohd and arrd…

I go to visit. He is asleep when I arrive, his face and body all the colours under the sun – an aurora borealis of bruising where his body took the hit.

Peter, a nice nursing assistant, fills me in. They are worried that my dad is incoherent though he has been talking with Peter about apparently real things.

‘Was he in the navy?’ he asks, checking.

‘He was in the navy, yes, during the war – HMS Glory, in Japanese waters.’

‘He remembers that.’

I think he recognises me when he wakes. He smiles and seems peaceful in a gentle land between coherence and drift.

Neither yesterday nor tomorrow register; they are simply not there. (The following day my sister will tell me he does not remember this visit.)

There is no real conversation - but momentary connection, a brief spark in the eyes. He is worried about jobs.

‘It is good they have jobs,’ he says, out of the blue.

‘Who has jobs?’ I ask and he smiles, gone again, there’s no link made, but I continue down the path. He has always liked the news. ‘It is hard for the young people at the moment, with Covid. Jobs are hard to find.’

‘And you’re in work?’

‘I’m in work, yes. I’m one of the lucky ones.’

He has always liked people to have jobs. He was forever telling me not to write because there was no money in it. I help him with some tea, one sugar, in a baby bottle. He enjoys it.

‘Peter said you were talking about the navy. Was that a good time for you?’

‘I think it was a good time, really. Glad to get home.’

Again he smiles and says it’s really very nice to be here. I don’t know if he speaks of me or himself. His speech is gentle and quiet, vague and elusive

It is time to go. There is a weariness in the smile he offers; it doesn’t always reach his eyes.

I say he is mending well and that we are looking forward to seeing him home again.

I kiss his forehead, move away and then turn back and kiss him again and he won’t remember, I know; by the next day, these things are long gone.

Though maybe in eternity he is marked forever by my lips; and I will remember it, for as long as I can.

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When things are uncertain

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 October 2020, 11.36am

When things are uncertain, there are still certain things I can do, difficult things

I can be a friend to myself, rather than attack myself

I can feel all my feelings, for no feeling is a crime

I can speak of my fears, I can ask for help

I can breathe deep rather than breathing shallow

I can fail and still be good

I can try again rather than give up

I can say no, even to friends and family

I can speak, I’m not a doormat, I have a voice

I can apologise, I can forgive

I can choose kindness

I can lift my eyes from my phone and look up and around in awe

I can walk through the world differently from you and you can walk through the world differently from me

I can aim to be true to the truth of who I am

I can live one day at a time

When things are uncertain, I can still do things, do difficult things

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A path to sanity

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 October 2020, 9.59am

Everyone thinks they’re sane; and while no one is, some are closer than others.

I have known sanity occasionally, like a light on a distant hill; but then wandered away - for sanity is a dynamic notion, a continuum we move up and down. I might be saner in the morning, less sane in the afternoon.

Stress tends to make us less sane.

So what is sanity?

To be sane is to possess a mental map that corresponds with reality; and such possession is rare.

As someone helpfully observed, ‘our map is not the territory’ and this is the problem.

Our mental map is inaccurate. It doesn’t describe what is around us or within. Yet we believe our map, we believe its guidance, we follow its promptings every day.

This takes us down unhelpful paths towards loneliness, frustration, anxiety, confusion, depression or fear. Our map is telling of us of things that aren’t actually there; and not mentioning other things that are.

No wonder we struggle.

We blame the territory, of course, ‘it’s the territory to blame for my unhappiness’; we never think to question our own mental map.

Once we realise our map is grossly inaccurate - an awakening in itself - we can choose to rely on it less and look more at the territory before us.

What is it saying? I forget the map and look at what’s in front of me. What is the territory saying,  the situations I am creating? Is there a better path?

Or to put it more forcefully, ‘Wake up!’

Or again, ‘Look, weep, live!’

It is a brave thing to do, to question our map’s directions; a huge act of trust, the first act of consciousness and quite heroic.

After all, we have trusted this map implicitly for years. It’s all we know; it’s been reacting for us every step of the way. And will carry on trying.

Though here - in this questioning, in this letting go, in this putting down and looking up - is the path to sanity; the path to a bigger map, a truer map, one that corresponds with reality.

And the path there is kind.

Sanity is hard, yes; but insanity is harder.

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This eternal moment

Posted by Simon Parke, 05 October 2020, 2.59pm

She’s in her seventies. She has discovered certain things about herself, truths she didn’t know, but she is sad.

‘Why are you sad?’

‘I wish I’d known these things earlier in my life,’ she says. ‘Things might have been different.’

And perhaps many of us know how she feels.

There is the sense that much of our lives have been lived blind to the forces both within and without; the sense we have taken big decisions blind – and lived the consequences, perhaps for years.

When we needed them, there was no one to show us, so how could we know? We did the best we could, but looking back, with the gift and curse of hindsight, the best was not always great.

So when later in life we make discoveries, receive insights we’d have liked rather sooner, it can make us sad – angry even.

‘I’m glad I know – but it’s a bit late now!’

Though sometimes help arrives; and the impossible occurs.

Sometimes we are caught in the eternal moment, when our whole life is one, rather than a stumbling sequence of events.

This moment holds everything in its arms, both scream and glory, victim and adventurer; and just who did what and when and how, dissolves into the knowledge that all is well.

Perhaps we need not be sad, prisoners to our hurts, to our mistake-strewn chronology, to events beyond our control.

When eternity pricks the present and time melts, whatever our age, everything coheres, everything is one…

... and somehow everything has life.

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Catastrophising. I fear the worst!

Posted by Simon Parke, 30 September 2020, 1.32pm

I have a terrible headache and suddenly start worrying that I have a brain tumour.

My daughter is a few minutes late from school and I begin to fear that she has been abducted.

My boss gives me an odd look and I start to wonder if I am about to be made redundant.

We have all been there - at least, those of us who catastrophise: relatively innocuous thoughts or experiences initiate a chain reaction of possibilities which ultimately lead us to a position of catastrophic terror.

It can appear comical when we hear others speaking of it; but it isn’t funny when we find ourselves in its grip.

This process can pretend wisdom, of course: ‘Forewarned is forearmed,’ as the old proverb goes.

But the truth is, there’s no wisdom here. Forewarning rarely protects us from reality; it simply creates in us an anxious state, in which over-thinking, escalation of fear and low confidence feed off each other.

One helpful move is to think of your mind as a railway station and your thoughts as the trains that stop at your platform.

The first step to recovery is to accept that you cannot stop the trains from arriving and opening their doors to you.

In fact, attempts to do this (suppression, repression or denial) usually lead to even more scary thoughts or disturbed dreams.

But whilst you cannot stop the trains from arriving at your platform, you can decide not to get on board when they open their doors to you.

‘This time, I’m not getting on,’ you say and breathe a big sigh of relief. It’s a choice to be free.

And when they return, as they will, you can decide not to get on again. And again.

Stay on the platform. Watch them arrive…and watch them leave.

They’re not going anywhere you want to go.

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Big Brother is watching you - at home

Posted by Simon Parke, 30 September 2020, 10.27am

Business is booming at Hubstaff – though you may not be celebrating at home.

They provide monitoring software to employers to help manage staff working from home.

They were originally set-up to keep an eye on freelancers. But post-Covid, with so many forced to work from home, it’s like everyone’s freelance; and Hubstaff, and providers like them, are reaping the benefits.

Though miles away, employees’ behaviour can now be tracked with screenshots, time sheets and records of website visits. (Yes, those sneaky social media jaunts will be noted back at HQ.)

The power of this software is significant. It tells you who’s doing what and for how long on the office computer; Big Brother in everyone’s home, checking up, reporting back.

And this is one way of getting value from your employees.

Another way is number graphics on the office wall. I was recently in a company which set hourly targets for those in the open-plan work space. If these weren’t met, the failure was publicly displayed, hour by hour, on the wall.

Target setting, and the climate of fear created, is another well-established model of motivation.

Different things work for different people, of course. But I have not seen a study which doesn’t suggest that the best form of human motivation is neither accountability nor fear but encouragement - simple human, one-to-one encouragement.

Compared to encouragement, Big Brother accountability and a climate of fear come a very poor second. And another plus - it will also make it easier to retain staff.

So a big ‘Well done!’ to everyone saying ‘Well done!’

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A god in ruins

Posted by Simon Parke, 28 September 2020, 10.22am

I am presently enjoying ‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson. It is another masterclass in the novel art form from the author; but that is not why I am here.

The title is from a Ralph Waldo Emerson line – ‘A man is a god in ruins,’ which could, I suppose, sound negative, could sound a bit down, though not to my ears.

I am fond of ruins, sometimes better than the carefully-maintained originals. As I walk the site, here still is the shape and sense of everything that was; but also sky.

You don’t need every stone in place, every wall left standing, to sense past glory or hear the voices of those who travelled through.

If we listen, the present is so full of echoes; and imagination, a quick builder, restores instantly what was.

So if, today, I am a god in ruins, I take heart - for all is in place, the shape and the sense, the foundations of primitive sanity deep in my soil.

In days I could never have imagined, and in uncertain winds, I’m a ruin on solid ground, where ancient contours still hold me.

And every decision, a small restoration.

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Pray silence for...silence

Posted by Simon Parke, 15 September 2020, 3.09pm

Silence, she calls us, quiet as a mouse, but she calls

Though sometimes we pretend not to hear and imagine words and noise more crucial

Our rituals of distraction, carefully observed, make sure the noise never stops, they resist her calls

And she is terrifying, there’s no question, some say an abyss, though gorgeous too, with such capacity, quite fathomless

This silent space, with no agenda but ours, no narrative but ours; where all can be dissolved and all re-clothed

If only we stay

She welcomes us in, brushes us down, and if only we can not look back, but enter her home, put space between our thoughts, settle at her fire

All can be dissolved and all re-clothed

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From self to soul

Posted by Simon Parke, 11 September 2020, 11.02am

There is a theme in many different teachings that invites us to forget ourselves, to do away with ourselves – as if who we are is somehow getting in the way.

The truth is, we cannot do away with ourselves for much of the time, for there are things that only our selves can do – like organising a baby sitter, or planning a trip, or sorting out the shopping, paying the gas bill, sending that birthday card, structuring a sermon, negotiating a change in our work patterns or reorganising the company.

The self knows its way around the world, knows how to do these things. We couldn’t function without it.

So the self is no demon – and it’s doing its best.

But its best is quite limited and the self can drift easily into self-importance which is where the trouble begins. ‘I’m so busy/indispensible/right etc.’

Behind and beneath this self, holding it discretely, is our soul; and it’s best we visit our soul as often as possible.

We can’t always be there, as we’ve noted. But is a homely place for the self to retreat to, when the moment allows.
Meister Eckhart wrote helpfully, if ruthlessly, about this.

‘The soul is a strange land, a wilderness, being more nameless than named; and more unknown than known.

If you could do away with yourself for a moment, then you would possess all that this place possesses in itself.

But as long as you have regard for yourself in any way, or for anything, then you will not know what God is.

As my mouth knows what colour is! And my eyes what taste is! This is how little you will know what God is!’

It is generally unwise to start with God. Better to start with our selves and our relationship to our soul, this nameless place, more unknown than known, arrived at with a few deep breaths and a letting go of labels, achievements, diaries and dreams.

If we can do away with ourselves for a moment, a deeper adventure begins.

We find we possess more than we imagine.

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Talk of suicide

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 September 2020, 12.55pm

In a week when we are remembering the pain and the trauma around suicide, I recall a meeting with someone close to the edge; someone who had given up on life....

We talk of suicide.

Rhona has tried a few times and failed…a source of some irritation to her.

She has lived week by week of late.

Stay alive until Christmas…stay alive until the New Year.

Stay alive until Mary’s birthday.

And she’s still alive… and never late for our appointments.

No one understands her, she says. They don’t realise how bad things are.

They just look at the external things, her house, her job, her horses etc..

They think because she’s having a meal out with them she’s getting better.

‘You’re obviously getting better!’

She’s not getting better.

She couldn’t care less whether she has a meal out or stays at home.

‘I have a broken brain,’ she Rhona. ‘There’s no mending that.’

‘A broken brain? That’s a strong image,’ I say.

And then she tells me of a friend whose mother committed suicide.

‘He doesn’t understand why she did it, he really can’t understand, but I totally get why she did it. It makes complete sense.’

We sit in silence. There’s quite a lot of silence today.

‘It makes complete sense inside their particular bubble,’ I offer. She nods.  ‘But it’s very small bubble,’ I add.

She changes direction. She considers different ways of killing herself. She doesn’t want to be a burden.

She doesn’t want to ruin a train driver’s day, for instance; or trouble a fisherman, having to pick her body out of the sea.

Does that rule out a cliff jump?

And she wants to donate her organs, so wishes to limit the overall damage to herself.

I ask her why, if her brain is so broken, and talks so much shit, she listens to it quite so avidly.

It’s a risk, I know it’s a risk, but my sense is that it’s time for a risk.

‘What else have I got to listen to?’ she asks. ‘It’s who I am.’

I can’t agree and suggest that it’s a poor impersonation of who she is…what Ted Hughes would call her ‘secondary self’ rather than her ‘primary self’.

‘The primary self would speak with a very different voice… is a different voice.’

That’s the voice that’s been getting her to our appointments, I say; the voice that wants her to be well; the voice that makes me laugh with some of her stories; and the voice which has spoken with such awareness about the rage inside her.

‘I’m more raging than depressed,’ she had said in our first meeting.

That had been a pretty good notice.

But she skates away from that now, skates away from her awareness with a clever explanation from her broken brain.

Yes, I watch as her over-thinking takes control again, easing her away from difficult feelings.

‘I’m not sure I am angry really, and if I was, who would I be angry with? It’s no use going round shouting at everyone. I mean, what’s the point of that?’

The secondary self is so clever, so convincing…and one thing is clear: she doesn’t want to look back. She resists any engagement with her past.

‘Your secondary self does seem to have the run of your playground,’ I say.

‘Maybe.’

‘But it’s not the only voice. It’s the dominant one but not the truest one.’

Each week, I’m aware of the fragile state of our relationship. Each week, I’ve been surprised to see her again. We’ve laughed quite a lot along the way – there is a comedy in despair.

But I’m aware I might be losing her now.

I’m pushing her harder, drawn into an encounter with her secondary self, which is feistier today - but still a latrine of self-hate and clever life-denying explanation.

‘I read about people who have been depressed and come through it,’ she says dismissively. ‘You read them on the internet - but they’re not the same as me, not at all. The ideal would be for a truck to hit me when I leave – no need for anyone feel guilty then or wonder if they could have done more for me. Just a road traffic accident. I mean, I’m quite at peace.’

‘You’re not at peace - you’ve just given up on life. That isn’t the same. You’re neither at peace with yourself nor the world around you.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘Which of course makes me sad.’

‘No reason to be sad.’

‘Plenty of reason to be sad because I believe in you.’

I name some of her attributes, some of her glory. I find her very easy to like.

‘It doesn’t matter if other people believe in me,’ she says. ‘I have to believe in myself.’

They are her last words to me today.

‘Yes, nothing makes much sense until then,’ I admit, feeling useless.

For the first time, she doesn’t make another appointment before leaving. We shake hands, she goes to her car; later, I write up my notes and light a candle.

Outside, a cold wind blows.

I don’t know if we’ll meet again.


Post Script: We did meet again. Rhona is now out in the world, contributing greatly.

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