This difficult knocking
Posted by Simon Parke, 26 April 2017, 4.53pm
My hands are sore
They’re sore with knocking
I’ve been here awhile, no movement inside
Though friends say I must continue
They say I musn’t give up, not now
That I must keep knocking, perhaps change my hand, use the other
(I’ve used both)
Or knock harder, with more insistence
Or knock differently, perhaps, find new ways to knock
They imagine they encourage
But my knuckles are red
And I’m just thinking, selfish and stupid I know
But I’m just thinking it’d be nice if the door opened
That would be nice
Without this battle, does it have to be a battle, is easy allowed?
And such stunning and immovable silence
It might be the wrong door, I wonder this
I might be knocking at the wrong door, hard to tell, there isn’t a sign
Or perhaps the owner isn’t in…or doesn’t care
Not in the grand scheme of things, and why should they
This may be how it is
Because I think grace would open the door
Known at once by their enthusiasm
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The slavery of positivity
Posted by Simon Parke, 25 April 2017, 11.58am
‘Yes we can!’
It sounds inspirational, doesn’t it?
And it’s good to be positive, surely?
But we’ll be aware of the slavery of positivity, the ‘Yes we can’ culture.
Such is its present hold on our consciousness, it appears a crime to challenge it.
I almost feel guilty as I type these words.
We have to believe we can, don’t we?!
Of course we do!
Otherwise we all might as well lay down and die!
So yes, we have our growth plans, our mission plans and our targets.
We’re all go-getting entrepreneurs, activity machines, multi-tasking our way to a Nirvana of good outcomes.
‘The more active you are, the happier you are,’ this is the new creed.
The old morality of ‘shouldn’t’ is replaced by the new morality of ‘Can!’.
And if you ‘can’t’, for some reason, then, oh dear - expect a sense of inadequacy and shame.
No one can say ‘No’, to their boss or their phone…absolutely not.
Everything has to be ‘brilliant’ or ‘fantastic’ (though other super-sensational superlatives are allowed.)
And growth must be measurable, something that can appear on a graph in a power point presentation.
(So love, awareness and kindness don’t count in a ‘can do’ culture… sorry about that. They don’t work as graphics.)
It’s a ‘can’ culture, ‘Yes we can’, a ‘strive’ culture leading to, well, dishonesty, shame, anxiety…and burn-out.
And when I say dishonesty, I refer to people who bullshit.
They bullshit because they must give the impression they can…even if they can’t.
The ‘Yes we can’ culture does create first-rate bullshitters, it’s a natural by-product.
I’ve never, for instance, seen a vision statement - NHS Trust or otherwise - that has very much to do with reality…
And before you stop reading out of sheer frustration, I’m not against activity.
I love activity…activity creates and performs wondrous things, and sometimes it’s true – yes, we can!
People with a purpose can work happily and well…we benefit from a purpose.
But as with the bluebell, it’s all about the roots.
Let activity arise from rest rather than anxiety; let our great works emerge from stillness rather than fear or insecurity.
Jung foresaw our ‘Can’ culture on the distant horizon and warned appropriately.
‘Before we strive after perfection,’ he said in a letter, ‘we ought to be able to live the ordinary man without self-mutilation. If anyone should find himself after his humble completion still left with a sufficient amount of energy, then he may begin his career as a saint.’
He invites us first to live our ordinary selves (rather than our can-do lives) without self-mutilation, without self-punishment.
In other words, to discover what today we’d call self-acceptance.
This stage of development, a difficult stage, cannot be by-passed.
If it is by-passed, and we move straight into striving, we become dangerous both to ourselves and the world.
It is ironic that Barack Obama, who became president with the slogan ‘Yes we can!’, found himself so stymied by the Republicans in Congress.
The truth was, quite often, ‘He couldn’t’.
Sometimes we can, if we’re lucky; but sometimes we can’t, and it isn’t a crime…or indeed anything to do with us very often.
So we’ll beware of the slavery of positivity, with its insistent liturgy of brilliantly fantastic superlatives.
Away from our ‘I need a ‘Yes’’ boss…
and away from our phone, (what’s happening, guys!?)...
and twitter, (where people doing really great/funny things)...
and facebook (where everyone’s having a totally fantastic time)...
and the watching can-do world, (we’re doing this, what are you doing?!)...
...we will learn to live our ordinary selves without self-mutilation.
We will learn to rest, learn solitude, learn to say ‘No’ as well as ‘Yes’.
In this space, we experience ourselves with love and accuracy, away from frightened self-mythologizing.
Here is the truest energy for glorious activity.
And no burn-out or breakdown waiting for us along the path…
Yes, we sometimes can.
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Health's crooked path
Posted by Simon Parke, 24 April 2017, 5.27am
Sometimes people look back on the path which has led them to this point… and become overwhelmed by their past life.
They see so much ignorance, so much stupidity, so many false starts and errors.
Things they’d do differently.
They can feel again the disgust, the disappointments and ask themselves, in an unguarded moment,
‘And it’s all been for what?!’
There can be a sense that life’s journey has somehow been a detour, taking them away from what is good and hopeful toward something else, a wasteland of wasted time, a cul-de-sac of foolishness or despair.
Yet maybe it has to be this way.
Maybe it has to be this way so we can become children again, start over again.
Maybe we had to unlearn our learning…a tapestry of narratives we’ve clung to which now appear threadbare.
Maybe we’ve had to do things badly to reach a place where we know, at last, what is well.
Maybe health, glory even, isn’t straight line.
Maybe this path can be accepted, embraced, surrendered to, allowed.
Whatever else has died, it isn’t the small bird of hope, singing in your chest.
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politics and paradise
Posted by Simon Parke, 21 April 2017, 4.34pm
I’d like to get to the present election campaigns being undertaken in the UK.
But to get to the topical 21st century, let us start in the equally topical 14th century…and the Peasant’s Revolt.
John Ball was a leading figure in this movement and on 13th July, 1381, he said this in a sermon on Blackheath:
‘Things cannot go well in England, nor ever shall, till all be held common; till there be not bond and free but we are all of one condition.’
Inequality of wealth did not exist in paradise, he said, and are we not the children of Adam and Eve?
‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’
‘We share the Eucharist but we share nothing else! It is an abomination!’
Such clear and rooted socialist thinking would not appear again until the 17th century in the heated Putney debates, attended by Oliver Cromwell and other members of the army leadership.
Thomas Rainsborough, who represented the Levellers, said:
‘I think that the poorest he that is in England, hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government, ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound, in a strict sense, to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.’
Equality of being was not just a pretty idea but had direct political implications.
Everyone must have the right to vote!
Well, four centuries on, everyone does have the right to vote, (it took awhile) so progress on that front.
But on the wage equality suggested by John Ball?
We have the opposite of progress there.
In the twenty five years between 1986 – 2011, the top 1% of earners saw a rise of 117% in their income, averaging £135,000 a year.
Meanwhile the lowest paid 10% saw their wages rise by just 47% to an average of £15,565 a year.
To those who have more, more will apparently be given…
So where is the equality in this?
Meritocracy has replaced aristocracy, but looks very similar to the previous model, and is no more just.
Any government worth its salt, any government in touch with paradise, must surely be working to address these pay differentials?
At this point, you may or may not be wondering, ‘What would Jesus do?’
In my experience, Jesus usually does whatever the person asking that question wants him to.
But let us at least try to allow him an independent existence.
Jesus was political to the extent that he upset the fragile balance of power between the religious and political authorities.
When he violently threw over the tables on the money changers in the Temple, he threatened the religious establishment.
What did they do?
They went straight to the political authorities for help; they were sort of hand in glove with each other, each propping up the other, a conspiracy against the
dispossessed and those outside the circles of power.
But ultimately, Jesus was not political, in the sense that he believed in a life beyond money, believed that economics were not the last word…or even the first one.
In short, ‘It isn’t the economy, stupid.’
From his recorded statements, he was much more interested in beautiful attitudes and the coming of the kingdom of God within; in teaching about trust and prayer.
He understood the power of money to corrupt…see his advice to the rich young ruler, ‘Sell everything you have’.
And his Temple violence was aimed at commercial exploitation in a supposedly holy place.
But he also said: ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ which has proved true, because power has always liked itself more than the poor.
(In their household arrangements, the Communist powerful have always looked very similar to their fascist counterparts.)
This all asks very difficult questions of careless capitalism, of course.
Like ‘Whose side are you on?’ for instance.
But it poses equally awkward questions for a socialism that, like its capitalist counterpart, starts and ends with money; which forgets its roots in the equality, connectedness and sheer joy of our origins.
In short, socialism becomes stupid when it adopts a shallow materialism, when it has no life other than pay demands.
In the TV series Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson looks back on a life which took him from dirt poor boy to wealthy crime Lord in Atlantic City.
‘When I earned my first nickel,’ he said, ‘I thought I was the luckiest man on earth, until I earned my first dime. And then it was a dollar…’
And from there, an endless and brutal search for more…and then more, the joy of that first nickel quite lost…
Materialism appears charming at first, who doesn’t want to earn more? I do.
But it is, in the end, a charmless friend whose company offers less and less human happiness.
Socialism needs more than this, it needs the joy of Eden for its energy, if it is not to become as dry as careless capitalism, its materialistic sibling.
All materialism, in the end, goes mad.
The rich, in their fear and their greed, demonise the poor and talk their drivel and nonsense about having ‘worked hard’ for what they have.
(No, really, the woman who walks thirteen miles a day to collect water, she works much harder than you, and with less security.)
And the poor, in their jealousy and rage, demonise the rich, as if they have somehow ceased to be human, as if they are inevitably bad.
Cue Madame Guillotine!
She will demonise, she will separate, she will make all things right!
But no, this doesn’t work, not on any level, because we are equal, whatever our bank account, neither better nor worse but equal in glory.
Indeed, we are not just equal, we are one.
The universe, from God to the goat, from the war to the dinner party, from murderer to majesty, is one connected fabric.
As has been said, not two tapestries but one; and one cotton holds and links them all.
The problem with a label, religious or political, is that it separates, it removes the link… when all is connected.
This is the fundamental absurdity of the politics played out before us at election time.
The parties badly want us to separate off…or they don’t exist.
As long as they can get 52% to hate the 48%, they’re home and dry.
Divide and rule.
But hate is not a beautiful attitude, there’s no joy there, no connectedness…
So who to vote for?
You will make up your own mind, there isn’t a right answer, just the present unfolding.
Perhaps you will vote on policies that best suit you.
Perhaps you will vote on policies that best suit the poor and the defenceless.
Perhaps you will vote for an individual, on the integrity of a local candidate, regardless of their label.
I find the both May’s Conservative vision and Corbyn’s Labour vision rather indoctrinated space, defined mainly by the monsters and ghouls they need to create in order to feel they exist.
‘They’re bad, we’re good.’
And like fish, organisations rot from the head downwards…
May is a better leader than Corbyn who can’t even run his own party; that may or may not bother you.
Perhaps chaotic leadership appeals…but it won’t to many.
But let’s say something obvious as we near the end: capitalism is best when caring; and socialism superb when joyful.
I presently don’t see either.
So to return to where we started, as all things must, when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?
There was no gentleman of course.
But neither were there any ‘saboteurs’, monsters or rich fiends earning over £70,000 a year.
Just one world…
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Prince Harry and the way out of chaos
Posted by Simon Parke, 18 April 2017, 4.04pm
You wait centuries for the royals to address mental health.
Then two arrive at the subject on consecutive days.
Prince Harry and Prince William are hardly the first to speak of the value of talking about our problems.
It’s been raised so often as an issue it’s almost bored of itself.
But what is celebrated by all in the health professions is the ‘global reach’ of these two voices.
These young men make it headlines in a way the rest of us can only dream of.
Perhaps one practical result, after the headlines have withered on the vine, might be more funding for the NHS in the area of talk therapy.
But what the princes say is true, regardless.
The temptation is to bottle things up, dismiss things as unimportant or distract ourselves from recurring feelings.
This was Harry’s story for twenty years until the inner chaos became too much.
Twenty years is a long time.
But as he said, why would he want to think about sad things or listen to difficult feelings?
Better just to repress or ignore, surely?
Sadly, he speaks for us all.
But when we’re ready, and we do have to be ready - when the destruction is just too much - speaking our experiences helps.
‘An experience only makes its appearance when it is said,’ suggests Hannah Arendt. ‘And unless it is said it is, so to speak, non-existent.’
When we speak something that has been inside us, we bring it outside of us where we can see it better.
It exists in a new and more helpful way.
While we keep it inside, its contours are liable to be blurred and not seen clearly, like a shadowy monster beneath the surface…when, in truth, there’s nothing to fear.
We will need to find a good listener, one able to focus on us; and one free from their own anxieties.
This means, unless we’re very young, families are not the best place to start when looking for a listener.
There are just too many agendas in the room.
It isn’t safe for us.
And a poor listener can damage us in their listening and their responses.
But this short piece isn’t about poor listening.
It’s about me appreciating the importance of speaking my experiences, whether they occurred yesterday, twenty years ago…or longer.
By speaking them, we bring them out of ourselves and into the light.
They finally ‘make their appearance’ and often, something unclear becomes clear; something turbulent becomes understood.
So I applaud the princes for their honest and open words.
Will they help?
They’ll help some, certainly…they will make talking more possible… for now.
They might also prod governments to pay more than glossy lip service to the idea of support.
But in the end, this process isn’t about the ‘global reach’ of the celebrity voice.
It’s about the inside reach… this reaching inside myself to face difficult things, to visit difficult places, even to say goodbye to my self as presently perceived, if that’s what it takes to be free.
And that requires more than a headline-grabbing royal endorsement…it requires support and it requires courage…
...courage Harry showed.
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Recovering from disappointment
Posted by Simon Parke, 18 April 2017, 4.26am
This blog started with a tweet.
‘When a disappointment arrives at your door, show it to the largest room you possess. It won’t appear so big there.’
So how does that work?
Sometimes life is difficult… almost unbearably so.
We feel let down or disappointed. Some hope is dashed, some dream punctured… and we have no defence against how we feel.
It hits us like a strong wave, we can be overwhelmed.
I remember once sitting paralysed for two hours, almost physically locked, when a publishing disappointment came my way.
I had no way to cope, no future, just heavy despair saturating my sinews…
…until slowly, my body could loosen and I could begin to consider it in some alternative way.
Yes, there does come a moment, sooner or later, when we receive the disappointment rather than rage at it, submit to its terror or push it away, pretending it’s of no consequence.
We receive it.
We breathe deeply, we breathe into it, still leaden perhaps, but we breathe deeply…
...and feel the expanding space inside us and invite the disappointment in.
‘Hello, disappointment, back again?’
(This is probably not the first time it has smashed through our front door and dominated our home with its heavy presence.)
Steady breathing, deep and full, creates a space in which the disturbance diminishes in size.
It’s not quite the monster it appeared, either in size or ferocity.
‘You’re welcome but you cannot stay,’ we say.
(It may have stayed in the past.)
‘I have too much life to live,’ we say. ‘You are not my whole story; nothing is the end of my story.’
It’s there still, it can linger and return now and again… and prove quite shouty on occasion.
But it doesn’t fill the home now, blocking the window of light.
There’s room for other people, other adventures, room for peace.
And if we don’t cling to this disappointment as some special and defining friend, feeding it now and again to keep it strong…
...one day it will leave for good.
And we’ll have our large room back, this wonderful space, with sunlight spilling across the floor.
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The energy of Easter
Posted by Simon Parke, 16 April 2017, 6.03am
This resurrection is the mind silenced at last.
This rolled-away stone, rolling still down the years, is energy for disbelief in my tired narratives of what is and is not possible.
This Easter morning, the dark skies of my assumptions are cracked by light.
It is the terror - yes, with Mary Magdalene, I’m afraid - of an energy that will not be left in the tomb of lost and faraway hopes.
But will rise in vulnerable unknowing in the garden dew to greet this day, greet every day, (including Mondays) with the words,
‘I am risen, death cannot hold me.’
The mind silenced but the heart alive.
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Posted by Simon Parke, 14 April 2017, 5.48am
It was a walk to the cross, a stony journey
Soldier’s aggression, one gets used to the brutality of life
One has to survive, though I signed a petition for his release
And on arrival there, and for whatever reason, I decided to take off my mask
Just for a moment, I don’t think anyone was looking
It was something worn for a long time, habits form, do they not?
And it’s a brutal world, one must hide, I mean everyone does it
Though the air was cool on my face, breeze on my skin
And deep tears freed to flow, rivers from some hidden spring
Because I don’t know why people die, why this space is left, this hole,
And I’m left on earth without them
Though it’s a brutal world, I know all that, and one has to survive
Appear the strong and the caring, the wise and the free, this is my mask
Though I can hardly breathe beneath it, scarcely inhale at all
And more baffled than free, more broken than wise
And strong as a stick in the deadening desert sun smashed by a soldier’s boot
One must hide, I mean everyone does it
Though I can’t now find my mask
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This incomprehensible hallelujah
Posted by Simon Parke, 12 April 2017, 5.52am
Paul, a dear friend of mine, died recently.
Cancer…and way too young.
At his funeral, he has left us notes, he wants us to sing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.
Well, we’ll do our best.
Leonard was a late discovery for Paul but, he says, ‘his genius has illuminated my last decade.’
And why this particular song?
Paul, from his notes: ‘It’s a song that bears out how I feel about life: baffled, broken but compelled to praise.’
He then quotes the man he calls ‘lovely Len’ speaking about the song.
‘The only moment when you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and say ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all - Hallelujah!’
That’s the only moment we live here fully as human beings.’
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Mantel and me on historical fiction
Posted by Simon Parke, 10 April 2017, 10.49am
Hilary Mantel can be blunt.
As she revealed in a recent interview:
‘The most frequent question writers are asked is some variant on, ‘Do you write every day or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?’ I want to snarl, ‘Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?’’
I like the rage on display, the disdain for the ‘hobbyist’ label.
But even if you do write every day – and writers tend to, its a discipline - it doesn’t mean you’ll get noticed.
Mantel is home and dry as far as publicity is concerned, no worries on that front.
But for the rest of us, I’m told only 2% of books are reviewed in the national press.
More and more books and (due to a decrease in advertising) less and less space…it’s not a good equation for writers.
You could say, ‘I must do more research!’
But if you do, think twice about adding a bibliography as proof of your labours and your academic seriousness.
In another interview, Mantel rounded on her ‘cringing’ contemporaries in historical fiction who ‘try to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography’.
‘You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy,’ she says. ‘Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary.’
Mantel has done her research, of course, many many hours spent in the British Library.
It’s just that she’s not pretending to be a historian; she’s a novelist…and a novelist fills in the gaps.
Sometimes the gaps are quite large.
I heard one writer talking about his new book. It arose from the discovery that his grandfather had ‘spent some of the war in India.’
Nothing else was known – just that he spent some time there during the war. What followed was an historical novel based on one known fact.
That leaves a lot of gaps to fill.
‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’, my own recent historical novel, is a little different.
It follows the last eighteen months in the life of Charles 1, a well-documented (if little known) narrative featuring many known facts.
But how England walked towards the execution of their king - the people through whom these events happened, their hearts and minds in these shifting times – well, I’ve filled in some gaps.
I agree with Mantel. Historians and novelists are not the same, they are different trades…but complimentary.
I still have this mad idea that good historical fiction makes the facts truer in some manner.
The facts give birth to the fiction, shape it like a parent; and fiction is the hand maid of the facts, bowing to them, serving them, nurturing them, infusing them and enlivening.
Some 17th conversations we know, for instance. They are recorded, like the one between Charles 1st, his executioner and the bishop on the Whitehall scaffold.
So they stay as they are.
Other conversations must be imagined, gaps filled with emotional truth.
Can it enrich history?
One sceptical Oxford professor of 17th century history was kind enough to be converted a little to my fictional take on his period.
‘I can see how cleverly you have devised the book and used the sources,’ he said, ‘and what vitality you have brought to the story.’
But when the tide goes out, and all is quiet, only the facts remain on the shore line, all else was but a dream.
I am presently at work on a further historical novel, aware only that I have much to learn.
With Milton - a 17th century literary giant who himself wrote historical fiction - I ask, ‘What in me is dark, illumine.’
And when I’m feeling weak and a failure, I also ask that other novelist’s question:
‘How on earth do I get reviewed?’
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