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Advent Calendar

Posted by Simon Parke, 14 December 2017, 5.26am

My poem of the week is a winter-bound approach to Christmas.

We journey to the stable through falling leaves, mould, frost, red skies, restlessness and dark.

It’s by Rowan Williams, and called ‘Advent Calendar’.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

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Abbot Peter's Christmas plan

Posted by Simon Parke, 13 December 2017, 9.21am

Abbot Peter has made a decision.

‘I have a friend coming down,’ he says to a neighbour when asked about his Christmas plans.

‘A boyfriend?’ says Mrs Wicks, who assumes he’s gay.

‘Er, no…just a friend.’

One of the most difficult aspects of his move to Stormhaven from the deserts of Middle-Egypt was the need to have Christmas plans.

He really desired only solitude with a candle, a tree and the small but cheerful selection of Christmas cards he received.

Here was joy untold.

But solitude was not considered a plan among those he met. Indeed, it indicated a failure of a plan, something gone awry; social inadequacy, not to say weirdness.

‘Nose-to-nose family and friends!’ says the man in the hardware shop. ‘Special time, ain’t it! As long as there’s a bottle to hand! And you?’

‘It’s the time of year when I most wish for stillness,’ replies Peter.

‘Oh, can’t have you being lonely! Not at Christmas! You come round to ours! We’ll fit you in somewhere! You could look after my nan! She’s a laugh and half!’

The Abbot could not imagine a more specific hell, but chuckled kindly, wished the man well, and left quickly with his rat bait and box of ‘warm white’ Christmas lights before the invitation became more specific.

But then the decision to invite Sarah for December 27th.

‘You mean the day after Boxing Day?’ she’d inquired.

‘Would that suit you?’

‘I could do Boxing Day if it helped.’

‘Yes, that would be difficult for me.’

‘Oh – aren’t you the busy man!’

He wasn’t the busy man. Boxing Day was entirely clear in ‘Sandy View’, his seaside home. He was seeing no one.

But then Boxing Day seemed sacrosanct, somehow not a day when any one should meet, but when all should pause, the whole nation, in stable quiet… look, weep, hope, live.

They’d met at Rosemary’s funeral, over tea and flapjack in the church hall, and something in Peter had stirred.

‘Rosemary’s prettier sister!’ as one of the family had inappropriately said.

But they’d talked, and enjoyed each other in some manner – and now Abbot Peter had invited her down on the 27th.

‘We could go to ‘The Plough’ for lunch, and then walk to Newhaven harbour,’ he says.

He doesn’t want the day to sound too intimate, and fears Stormhaven’s Advent lights are making him sentimental.

Because really, why is he allowing his Christmas solitude to be invaded in this way? He has already been woken by dread a couple of times and found sleep thereafter hard to regain.

‘It will be nice to see you, Sarah,’ he says on the phone, and somewhere in his heart this is true, if he can get beyond the terror of human invasion and the occupation of his space.

‘She’ll be gone by six,’ he reassures himself. ‘She’ll need to be, to get back to London.’

And so here he is, and he can’t himself believe it, saying to Mrs Wicks, ‘I have a friend coming down.’

He has a Christmas plan – or rather, a plan that is acceptable to the world.

‘Are they staying over?’ she asks casually.

‘Staying over?’ He chokes a little. ‘Oh no, I don’t think so, just for the day - just staying for the day!’


Watch this space for news of how it all goes on ‘the day after Boxing Day’...

(The story of how Peter and Sarah met is told in the Abbot’s latest adventure, ‘The Indecent Death of a Madam.’ The story of Peter’s desert years, ‘Another Bloody Retreat’ will be published in the New Year 2018.)

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Six thirty for seven

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 December 2017, 10.50am

I was arranging a seasonal gathering with our neighbours.

‘What time should we come?’ they ask.

‘Six thirty for seven,’ I say.

I don’t know why I say this. I can’t remember ever saying it before. It just comes out: ‘Six thirty for seven.’

And then we’re all politely wondering the same thing: what the fuck does that mean?

I mean, really?

One of us thinks it means you arrive at 6.30pm, and we eat at 7.00pm.

It’s about the food.

But as we contemplate the matter, another view removes food from the equation, seeing it more as a slightly passive-aggressive deadline.

As in, ‘You can arrive at 6.30pm, but please, no later than 7.00pm – because that’s just taking the piss.’

The trouble arises because no one knows what the time on an invitation means.

What is the nature of its authority?

We’ve reached quite a mad place now.

If you put 7.00pm on the invitation, be sure that’s the one time no one will arrive.

God forbid!

The assumption is that arriving at 7.00pm would be unutterably rude.

So everyone then arrives with fashionable degrees of lateness, first arrival 7.20pm, perhaps - with some probably not making it until 8.00pm.

They’ve eaten already, you can tell, which is just as well, because there’s not a lot left.

And when they see your rather tight smile of greeting, they sort-of know, (you can’t hide shame) and say:

‘Oh, we thought it was a drop-in. We’re not the last, are we?!?’

Bastards.

‘No, not at all, it’s just lovely to see you! Come in, come in!’

Stalin used to arrive late to meetings; he felt it got him noticed, and made people grateful that he has deigned to join them.

Early comers, you take for granted…it’s the late comers who draw gratitude, having left you dangling in unknowing:

‘Ah, the relief! They’ve come, they’ve come!’

The late-comer becomes the messiah…though not in my eschatological framework.

Lateness doth not a messiah make…especially at a social gathering.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but put 7.00pm on the invite, and the truth is, I’m ready by 6.20pm.

The crisps out, the dips ready, the beer chilled, candles lit, mulled wine mulled, the wine glasses washed and primed.

So you’re sitting around like an idiot for an hour, unable to enjoy any telly, the mulled wine evaporating…and wasting a lot of good candles.

By the time Stalin and his ilk turn up, I’ve lost the will to live.

‘So what time shall we come?’ my neighbours ask.

‘Six thirty for seven,’ I say.

Fuck knows what I mean by that…beyond a scream for order in the universe.

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Your Christmas story

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 December 2017, 5.54am

I don’t know what Christmas narrative you have.

And in particular, your emotional narrative.

Surprisingly, your Christmas story may not feature a stable to any great degree.

There are so many different versions out there.

It could, for instance, be the: ‘Everything’s just so busy at this time of year, no time to stop! Busy, busy, busy!’ variety.

(Though everyone has time to stop if they wish to; and become mad if they don’t.)

Or the anxious narrative around the various seasonal social gatherings: ‘How will everyone behave? Will we get through this without a major bust-up?’

(Though perhaps we spend too much time allowing what other people might do to oppress us. The future doesn’t exist. And others are not our responsibility.)

It could be a judgmental narrative, railing against the commercialisation of it all: ‘The true meaning of Christmas is quite lost! It’s disgraceful!’

(Though the true meaning of Christmas is grace in our hearts rather than a judgement.)

Or perhaps our narrative is: ‘I’ll just be glad when it’s all over.’

(Though this depressed attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Or finally, perhaps you just love everything about Christmas: ‘I love it all!’ This also is possible.

Whatever the emotional tone of your Christmas story, (and you’ll have your reasons), do notice the small everyday miracles along the way…

... whether its warmth, the stars, laughter, kindness, a wonderful card, the food bank box in the supermarket, icicles, a robin in the snow or roasted chestnuts.

Life is moments; like candles, they light our difficult way.

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A traditional Christmas?

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 December 2017, 5.38am

Jesus apart, the best thing about the first Christmas was that there were no traditions.

At the arrival of the Magi, the shepherd didn’t say, ‘I’m afraid my wife’s family don’t really do wise men at Christmas.’

At the first Christmas, no one had a clue; they were making it up as they went along, which is quite nice really.

We’re always making it up as we go along; how else can it be?

And perhaps at Christmas, this truth is particularly pressing…lest we get entangled in unhelpful narratives, both ours and others’.

Life is change, and so is Christmas, as beliefs change, needs change, families grow up and new voices and alliances appear.

Sadly, the ‘festive period’ (so-called) can become a tug-of-war between different family traditions.

As a son explains to his mother:

‘Sarah’s family always get together for Christmas lunch, and open presents afterwards. It’s their family tradition!’

‘But what about our family tradition of presents at midday and a visit to grandpa for the Queen’s speech?!’

One mother is so disappointed she lost the tug-of-war this year, she’s going away on safari for Christmas, and not seeing anyone.

We can get attached to our traditions and become angry when we perceive them to be threatened or ignored.

And we can grind ourselves to frazzled dust trying to honour everyone else’s traditions for fear of offence.

Traditions can be splendid, of course; a safe and holding place, something fixed and restorative in an un-fixed world.

But they come and they go; traditions are for a while. And there’s no tradition we can’t let go of.

They best bend in the wind of change or become brittle and shatter.

The thing is, a tradition is not an end in itself; but a window on to this present moment.

If it ever obscures that; if it ever distracts from this precious once-only now; if it ever becomes oppressive, needy or surly…then it’s time the tradition died.

And we can start again, start afresh, like children at the start of the holidays, making it up as we go along…

...like the stable gang.

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Make that change

Posted by Simon Parke, 06 December 2017, 6.08am

‘Make that change’ sang Michael Jackson.

But it isn’t easy.

Transitions from one place to another place are hard.

They are hard even if we want to reach the new place.

It may, for instance, be difficult to get out of bed on a cold December morning - even if we know we must and that we’ll enjoy the day when we do.

The warm bed has the stronger pull.

And the problem can be more serious.

I spoke recently to an angry man - angry with his company for not mentoring him better, for not offering him leadership roles.

Though when we pondered his work practice, we noted he refused to change the way he worked, even though it would be better if he did.

And it was the simplest of changes as well, involving time-management - how he used the different parts of the day.

I proposed some people techniques for re-ordering his day; but the sense was, they’d be to no avail.

Will trumps technique every time.

He could see what he needed to do…but couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.

(He even blamed self-help books for not helping him.)

Transitions are difficult, even if we want to get there.

They’re difficult, because we don’t want to leave the old place.

So we get angry with others instead…

The Promised land is a few steps away…but to take those steps appears quite impossible.

Transitions are difficult.

I feel helpless in the face of my own issues, just as I do in the face of other’s.

I feel the restrictive force of my own frightened personality, still in the thrall of some out-dated egoic nonsense, set against all forms of growth.

But I hear also a different song inside, calling me on.

And it’s a good song.

And while I live in a cage, I see also the sky, and in moments, many moments, quite leave the cage behind and know only the sky.

Here are three thoughts for those facing difficult transition.

1) Be kind to yourself. (Your ego served you once; it’s not surprising it still holds power.)

2) Seek correct diagnosis of your situation, what you’re doing and why. (This may mean no longer blaming others.)

3) Ponder what you want from ‘this one precious life’...what do you wish for? And what will you do to get there?

1) And be kind to yourself.

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The invisible wound

Posted by Simon Parke, 05 December 2017, 5.51am

Jo is back at work now after nine months off for depression.

It has almost destroyed his marriage, and suicidal thoughts have been persistent.

Jo never thought he’d get back to his job; it seemed like another life.

But with support from both his bosses and therapy, he has got back to it. He’s just completed his first day.

Now there’s a new problem, however: ‘What do I say to everyone else?’

‘If it was a broken ankle,’ he says, ‘that would be fine. I’d have a plaster cast to show them! Everyone would get it. But when it’s an illness you can’t see – well, people aren’t so understanding.’

There’s a lot of talk about mental health these days, which is a step forward.

But perhaps the biggest issue in attitudes towards it, remains its invisibility.

We don’t see difficulties arising in ourselves, they can be invisible to us.

‘It’s just life, isn’t it? I’m not ill or anything.’

But crucially, when we crack inside, no one else sees it either. There’s no plaster cast or bandage to sign post the damage and the struggle to our work colleagues, relatives and friends.

The inner torment is hidden; and the wound, invisible.

So when Jo goes back to work feeling fragile and taking one day at a time, he has a problem, because everyone says:

‘But you look fine, Jo!’

Sometimes a smile is not what it seems…

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The one thing necessary

Posted by Simon Parke, 04 December 2017, 7.03am

The one thing demanded of us today, the one thing necessary, is that we know the state we are in.

And that’s it really.

That we know the truth of ourselves in this moment, as we make our assessments, offer our comments, speak our replies.

Otherwise, we’re quite dangerous, inflicting our unexamined turmoil on the world.

It is not demanded that we are always in a state of virtue or self-mastery.

This isn’t a call to feel bad…but it is a call to be accurate about the state we’re in, whether we’re jealous, happy, angry, joyful, anxious, irritated, hopeful, sad,
disturbed, numb, content or in despair.

This is all that is realistically possible for us, in this moment, as humans: to know our state; to be accurate about how we’re feeling.

It may not be everything we could be; or what is ultimately meant for us.

(Different thoughts and feelings are always arising in us, it’s what they do.)

But it does mean that if we speak, we speak without illusion, without mixed motive, without being disingenuous.

And that’s a great blessing both to ourselves and others.

For me, such awareness may well guide me away from speech, prompting silence until a healthier horizon appears in me.

I construct my reality out of my state; worryingly, I see what I am.

So it’s important that I know what I am, in this moment; because it’s the building material for my brief take on reality.

Which is why the one thing necessary for us today is that - without self-judgement - we know the state we’re in….as we make our assessments, offer our comments, speak our replies.

With such awareness, we will proceed more honestly, more accurately, more kindly in the world.

Oh, and how we shall shine!

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My Grand Hotel spa experience

Posted by Simon Parke, 01 December 2017, 6.02am

It was a Christmas present from last year: a spa day at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, with a therapy of my choice.

And now, before it expires, it’s my moment!

They call Eastbourne ‘The sunshine coast’ (they call it other things as well, mind) and it’s certainly shining today, the sea cold and blue.

And the Grand Hotel - Oh my goodness! - is a magnificent white edifice, with proper doormen, tall Ionian columns inside and a high-ceilinged tea room with roaring fire.

The phrase ‘bygone era’ comes to mind.

So it isn’t a Premier Inn.

And after a lovely granary bread salmon and cream cheese sandwich, (all inclusive), we’re ready to sample the delights of the GH ‘Wellness’ spa area, boasting a swimming pool, saunas, steam room and gym.

The gym is perhaps their weak hand. It feels tired, not through over-use ...just the passing millennia.

There have been at least two Ice Ages since these machines were renewed; and to be honest, maybe the very elderly clientele who ghost past me in the spa foyer aren’t that bothered.

Who craves a working rowing machine at eighty five? The desire to pound a running machine must fade.

There are a group sat in the Jacuzzi, discussing the Italian campaign in the war.

They have been there a long time among the bubbles. They may not be able to get out.

For once I feel young…

The saunas are separated by gender, and this proves a mercy.

I step inside the dry heat box to discover a man lying on his back stark bollock naked, and the phrase is pertinent.

There’s nothing left to the imagination…absolutely nothing.

He’s probably a bank manager.

I love saunas, though. They are focused, like a radio studio.

As I sit, I ponder a retreat I am to lead in the New Year. Intense heat and strong thoughts…despite the bank manager and his dipping interest rates.

Though the steam room – after a swim - really ups the endurance game.

Steam rooms are sometimes a soft option in spas, for the wimps who can’t cope with the dry heat.

I find this.

But my goodness, the steam room in The Grand Hotel, Eastbourne…be scared.

It takes me to the limit. Suddenly, I’m in a punishment hut during the building of the bridge over the River Kwai.

Scalding heat and both fearful and wonderful, because when I can take no more, I can choose to leave…unlike the punishment hut.

Pleasure and pain, it’s all about choice; and choice denied.

I step out of the steam and my partner is helping a very frail woman out of the pool.

There is nothing to this lady, no fat and bird-boned; and she settles like a feather on a chair.

‘What do you think of the royal engagement announcement?’ she asks.

‘I think it’s great,’ says my partner. The bird-boned woman’s face curdles. ‘You don’t agree?’

‘With all those English girls available, why choose an American?’

‘I suppose Queen Victoria chose a German,’ I say, aware of the multitude of royal multi-ethnic marriages down the years.

‘And what if they have some Piccaninny children?’ 

I haven’t heard that word for a while.

‘My daughter is married to a man of African descent,’ says my partner, gently. ‘I have lovely grandchildren.’

Bird-Bone’s frail frame chokes a little. She is at least embarrassed.

‘I’m too old for all these changes,’ she says, but misses the point. She’s not too old; age has nothing to do with it.

She’s just a racist.

I take myself back to the steam room, which is almost a metaphor.

My partner speaks more with her, and discovers she used to be a dancer.

But a recent (misapplied) injection for her arthritis in her care home has left her paralysed in her left leg.

By this time, I’m sitting with Julian of Norwich (not literally) in the peaceful spa foyer, writing up my sauna.

It’s quiet, so beautifully quiet… because in the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, there’s no speaker pumpin’ up da volume.

The young receptionist finds the silence difficult.

‘It’s weirdly quiet,’ she says to her companion on desk /towel/zimmer frame duties. ‘It’s like, creepy.’

‘Totally,’ comes the reply.

It may be that they need to work in Brighton, where it isn’t weirdly quiet anywhere.

I enjoy a lovely strong cup of coffee and shortcake biscuit.

This is extra – but after my near-death experience in the steam room, I’m thinking: ‘C’mon, live dangerously, Simon - spend, spend, spend like there’s no tomorrow!’

And then the treatment.

Yes, I am led away for my treatment. It has somehow all been building to this.

I have signed up for a Turkish salt massage – with no idea what it is.

But it’s great, absolutely wonderful.

Wearing just my swimming trunks – me, not her - a firm-handed young woman rubs rough and scratchy salt grains into me – arms, legs and back.

(And by the way, those thoughts do you no credit.)

She then removes them with a warm flannel from a microwave

After this, I am anointed with Lavender oil on my still body, like one on a mortuary slab; so I’m glad it’s not myrhh.

I may be in Eastbourne for the day, among rusting gym equipment and yes, not as young as I was – but I want to live a while, I’m not ready to die.

This oiled body possesses adventures inside it that I know nothing of…


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The journey to Christmas

Posted by Simon Parke, 27 November 2017, 12.01pm

We do not need to speak everything on our walk to Christmas.

We do not need to organise the mystery that is our lives.

Or to rely to heavily on plans made, because life takes place in the cracks between our plans.

And we do not need to speak everything; silence is allowed. 

There is a pressure in a social media world to tell everything, as soon as it happens.

‘This is my news!’

Plus photos.

Mary would have struggled obviously.

‘Pondering these things in her heart,’ would not have gone down well.

‘Hey, what’s all the secrecy and silence, Mary!? You in a mood or something?’

But hold to your birth right. You don’t have to speak everything.

I say this on retreat sometimes, on the last night.

‘Important things have been taking place inside you. When you go back home, you don’t need to speak it all. You can keep the oven door closed. Keep opening the oven door and nothing is cooked well.’

There’s great pressure sometimes to tell our story, to entertain with it…perhaps people expect it.

You see it in churches with people’s testimonies…or on chat shows.

People get their story out, get confessional in a polished sort of way…and something dies.

We do not need to speak everything; we are not legally obliged to put the wonder into words.

Words are not designed for glory; they make its subtle textures harsh.

The very telling of glory, the attempt to put it between commas, separates us from its presence, like a parting couple on a station.

Goodbye!

One becomes two. Our story becomes a thing, something apart from us, brutalised in the speaking and in the (unhelpful/ecstatic) reactions that emerge.

It becomes our brand, our calling card, our obligation…and not our simple fragile evolving ever-changing substance.

It ceases to be our experience, the only place where it has value.

It becomes like the chat show anecdotes, sharp, shallow and polished…and a wall around the celebrity soul rather than a doorway into it.

It becomes like meat thrown to calm a dangerous dog; we tell our story on the phone, on the sofa, in the pulpit, to keep our public happy.

And lose it along the way.

We do not need to speak everything on our walk to Christmas.

We may, like Mary, simply ponder, stay present, keep the oven door closed.

Should wonder unfold, and daily it will, you do not need to speak it.. it’s always a choice.

You are a mystery… not a megaphone.

P.S. This site will feature its own Advent calendar this year. Every day a contemplative window.

Because the journey to Christmas can be a bit of a do.

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