January 31, 2010
Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
I have found a soulmate. He is happy; endlessly fascinating; charming; honest; wise; humane and tolerant; doesn't take himself too seriously. To top it all off - he's written a bestseller. Oh, and I almost forgot.. he's number Seven of the Enneagram!
But, as luck would have it, there is a slight problem - he lived almost 500 years ago.
His name is Michel de Montaigne and I'm totally captivated by my new friend. For, despite the distance of centuries, he understood what it's like to be me. And maybe you too (we can share him).
Sarah Bakewell has written a wonderful book about that great humanist and a quintessential Renaissance Man. It's called How to live: A life of Montaigne in one questions and twenty attempts at an answer.
Montaigne himself would never pontificate on how one should live. Simply by writing about himself he created a mirror in which others could recognize their own humanity. One could even say he was a prototype blogger.
Here are ten of the twenty 'answers' Montaigne might have given to the question of How to live , according to his biographer:
Don't worry about Death.
Survive love and loss.
Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted. (my favourite, as I already live by it!)
See the world.
Reflect on everything; regret nothing.
Do a good job, but not too good a job.
Give up control.
Be ordinary and imperfect.
And I shall return to the Enneagram business on another occasion..
January 30, 2010
Reflections on an early morning run under a big moon
A quiet thin quilt of snow was gently laid this morning.
Though like the cream fatness of the pre-dawn moon, it will soon be gone, for all is change, and all is change.
Apart from shift and impermanence; and that won't change.
Sadly brief impermanence;
Tragicically dismantling impermanence;
Green shooted new life impermanence;
leading us home with unchanging care.
January 27, 2010
I found myself pondering the nature of reality today, as one ever so often does, on a grim and rainy January's day.
In search of cheap and cheerful retail therapy at my local Oxfam store, a rather pretty scarf caught my greedy eye. As I started inspecting it closer, the man behind the counter helpfully pointed out: "It's not real".
That threw me. Was I loosing grip on reality and the object in my hand was just an illusion that didn't exist at all? Was I hallucinating? Or if not 'real', maybe it was an 'ideal' scarf, in a Platonic sense - you understand - and not sartorial..
A few long seconds of eternity passed before it dawned on me: I wasn't holding that most coveted of all scarves - the divine Hermes - but an imitation, a cheap copy, replica, a fake! 'It's not real' wasn't a metaphysical statement after all but a fashion statement, so to speak..
I bought it anyway, but thanked him for reminding me of what's real in the real world.
Incidentally, as well as a scarf, Hermes was a god of commerce, thieves, and border crossings..
My facebook 'status' today if I was on facebook,though I'm not
You know that old saying:
'Today, I got nothing that I wanted, but everything I needed.'
Well, that's probably me today.
Though I'm not closing the door on what I want, obviously...you now, should it come knocking...I don't want to be impolite...
January 26, 2010
Learning by heart the dance of life
Legend has it that the seventh-century Arab poet whose name has long escaped me, visited a sage whose name I forgot, to ask his advice on how to write poetry.
The wise man told him to start by memorising one thousand poems.
After completing the task, the poet returned and recited one thousand poems from memory, upon which he was told by the master to promptly forget them.
Sounds like a cruel joke, but I like this story very much.
It seems to me that everything worth learning: how to dance or play an instrument, how to do well whatever we love doing, how to do the 'right' thing (whatever that means), how to be happy (or at least how to live contentedly), we learn by this process.
It's when the knowledge becomes so internalised, so deeply absorbed as to be made our own and spontaneously instinctive, that the intelectual thought is no longer necessary during the performance.
Be it a dance, or merely a life..
To live like that, now there is a thought!
January 25, 2010
The hard goodbye
I was involved last week with a young family who have recently lost a child aged two days.
At the end of the week, I looked after the funeral, as we gathered together beside the small basket coffin.
I had sat with the child in death, and held her cold but perfect little hands. It was strange. Usually when you sit with the dead, there is no sense of them being there; rather, it is clear that they have gone, left this physical form.
But with this child, she just seemed to be asleep; about to wake, live and grow. Only she won't; not in this place anyway.
During the funeral, I read out a farewell composed by her parents. It was very beautiful, and I pass it on, because it has life for us all, whoever and however we are. (I will change only the names.)
'To our dearest darling daughter Sarah,
It's now almost four weeks since you left us and we still struggle to understand that you've gone. The pain of your loss is still as raw as ever. We had so many hopes and dreams for you, and if the love we all feel for you were enough, you would be more than alive. The hole you've left in our family can never be filled. You look so like your older sister Charlie when she was born; gorgeous.
We will miss playing with you; feeding you, teaching you to walk and talk, getting to know you, understanding your own hopes and dreams for yourself, and watching you grow from child to woman. You were such a beautiful, big baby girl. We are so proud of how hard you fought to stay with us during your lifetime, and so sorry that it was all too much. We wish things had been different.
We feel privileged to have been your parents and blessed to have had you in our lives, if only for such a short time. We will always love you, we will always be thinking of you and you will always be part of our family.
Go peacefullly on your journey, our darling beautiful daughter. Our love forever, mummy and daddy.
January 20, 2010
The Vatican Code
I enjoyed the reports yesterday of Mehmet Ali Agca being released from jail, where he spent almost 30 years for the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.
Surely enough, Agca emerged with a message from God. Proclaiming the end of the world this century; promising to write "the perfect Gospel"; stating "I am the Christ eternal".
And, most touchingly of all, simply admitting: "I am not God".
But can we believe him?
Given that Agca wants Dan Brown to tell his story, my guess is that we probably can, at least with regards to the last annuncement. Surely God is possessed of a superior literary judgement!
What's seems certain is a clear determination to achieve an Almighty Bank Balance. Even Prophets embrace Profits in this day and age..
Back on planet Earth, I found myself in Kilburn last night, where at the Cock Tavern Theatre (above the pub of the same name), a very fine production of La Boheme is being shown.
Instead of Parisian garret, a contemporary London bedsit scenario.
Simple staging, very few props, an old piano for an orchestra and a cast of (very) young talented people is all it takes, apparently. The second act being performed in the actual pub, with bemused locals nursing their pints being caught up in the drama, adds a nice touch of verismo. Another, and rather sad, is that the highest rates of TB in today's London are in Barnet (which Kilburn is part of).
In the final scene, when Mimi dies, there was not a dry eye in the auditorium.
January 18, 2010
Crimean snowdrop and the bliss of solitude
The snowdrops are here!
Feeling slightly Wordsworthian on Sunday afternoon, I wandered (lonely as a cloud, I should add) into Kensington Gardens, and there they were - wide carpetful of drooping snowdrops.
A bit of trivia this, but apparently soldiers in the Crimean War were so enchanted by snowdrops, that they brought the bulbs from battlefields back home and into their gardens. Those were the days of romantic exploits..
But back to Wordsworth and my perfect Sunday. Just substitute snowdrops for daffodils:
" I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."
January 14, 2010
this train of thought
There is no stopping this train of thought now..
The plot thickens as my reading of The House of Wittgenstein progresses.
It turns out that our misunderstood linguistic philosopher was so profoundly affected by Tolstoy's "The Gospel in brief" in German translation which he found in a little bookshop in Tarnow (Poland), that he later said to a friend : "This book virtually kept me alive."
The Gospel was a condensation of the New Testament, with all the bit of which Tolstay disapproved (mostly miracles, including resurrection) taken out. It contained very 'back to basics' teachings of Christ and was broadly anti-Church in tone.
This connection explains the spiritual/mystical bent of Ludwig's Tractatus. In both texts the notion of eternal life belonging only to the present is, well.. expressly present.
As I was reading about it all, Simon's mail about conversations with Leo Tolstoy came through. How spooky is that?
Only connect, as one writer* famously commanded.
Tolstoy died at the railway station in 1910. This train of thought started at another railway station 100 years later.
By the way - how come "Only connect" hasn't become a slogan of some railway network?
January 13, 2010
This train don't stop there anymore
One of my favourite songs by Elton John is 'This train don't stop there anymore.'
Abandoned stations have always moved me; moss covered platforms; rusty platform signs; but no rails now, and no trains. The trains don't stop there anymore.
And I reflect on all the stations I've passed through, with a chug and a whistle; and never to return. I've pulled away from some without a thought. Others I've left with much looking back; jerky and uncontrollable sobbing.
But that's how it is, if you're a train. The train leaves stations behind.
Though now I sense the final leaving and the last station; my self. The leaving of my self; never the finest of stations, but familiar and always something going on! Oh, the stories I could tell...
Beyond the station, I see a vast and luminous space, a bright emptiness, where I am present, where I am oneness and transparent. Its good; its wonderful, but I have to leave to get there.
I cry at this leaving; for with it go my dreams, excitements and distress; things I hold dear. And with it go ways of being which are the only ways I've known.
I sense this. I sense all this, aware that this is not one more platform; but the final platform. And that this train - this crazy longing-for-life train - don't stop there anymore.
'The train leaving Platform Self'...so many goodbyes...trains shouldn't cry but they do...
January 12, 2010
The Gospel of Ludwig
Touching on the subject of linguistic philosophers and where they're most likely to be found hanging out (not railway stations, apparently) - I have spent the last few days in a madhouse.
In a manner of speaking, that is.
'The House of Wittgenstein' is a very engaging biographical portrait of a singularly weird family, living in the turn of the century Vienna.
Nothing like a spot of light reading to get me through the worst of January's darkness both physical and of the soul. To everyone his/her drug of choice..
But let's get back to the Wittgensteins and the unparalleled levels of dysfunctionality to which they rose, and in which they could probably compete with the Oedipuses themselves.
In a nutshell, of the nine siblings, three brothers out of five commited suicide, the two sisters who did get married both ended up with husbands who went mad (one took his life). In a nutshell.
And you thought your own family was a bit peculiar (your birth family that is; funnily enough nobody believes that the family they created themselves is dysfunctional).
They were also touched by genius. Paul was a virtuoso concert pianist, while the youngest, Ludwig, became known as the greatest linguistic philosopher of the XX century; perhaps the greatest modern philosopher, full stop.
So when I looked with curiosity at the slim philosophical treatise which made his name, I expected it to be all above my head. After all, not a single soul at Cambridge understood his ideas. It must have made Ludwig feel very lonely.
Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus consists of seven propositions in the form of gnomic utterances, which are, indeed, mostly impenetrable.
From number 1: 'The world is all that is the case'. (Hmm, funnily enough, that's how I always felt about the world!), to number 7, my favourite: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must be silent.' (Indeed one must.. and I couldn't have put it better myself).
But what really surprised me was the following insight:
"If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelesness, then eternal life belongs to those in the present. Our life has no end in just the way our visual feld has no limits."
Wow! This is mysticism pure and proper, more likely to have come from a sage or a prophet than philosopher of logic and language.
Whereof one knows not much, thereof one mustn't be presumptious, I suppose..
January 09, 2010
Fire and Ice
I really have no idea what could've possibly brought it on ( surely not two weeks of continuous cold weather), but I've been in the grip of Ice all day.
'Fire and Ice',
to be precise..
And no, I'm not trying my hand at rhyme - I know not to embarrass myself, even if I know not much besides!
The poem (by aptly named American poet Robert Frost) has lodged itself in my brain as it it were a catchy tune on scratchy vinyl record. In the bookshop, I had to control the urge to offer : 'And would you like some Robert Frost with that?'
Here it goes:
"Some say the world will end with Fire,
Some say with Ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor Fire.
But if I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction Ice is also great,
And would suffice."
I think this is more profound than it looks and sounds. The Desire (Greed?) and Hate are two ways in which to harm and ultimately destroy our lives.
But I like the lightness of touch.
Frost's own life was plagued by loss, grief, and personal apocalypse. By the end he noticed that all he ever learnt about life could be summed up in three words: It goes on.
January 08, 2010
I recently attended the funeral of Peter, a former church warden at a church where I served as vicar. To reach the crematorium, I travelled from London to Eastbourne, on the day when the big freeze oop narth became the big freeze dahn sarf. I did not expect an easy journey.
With the clock ticking, and many miles to go, it is not going well at Victoria. Trains are 'on time' and then 'cancelled' - juzz li that. Like agitators under Stalin, they're there one minute, and gone the next.
The Eastbourne train suddenly appears on the information board. It says 'Delayed', but its feels like progress - until my neighbour on the bench tells me that the train to Eastbourne an hour ago is also still 'delayed'.
I then get metaphysical (you must remember it was cold) and ponder when a delayed train becomes a cancelled train. If the 9.45am train to Brighton is two hours late, can it meaningfully be said to be the 9.45? I look around in vain for a linguistic philosopher.They're never there when you need them.
Ultimately, complete confusion on the information board leads me to the information desk. They advise me to keep a keen eye on the information board. Thank you.
And then suddenly we're pulling out of London. I have a book to read, but never open it for the entire hour and a half journey; I am too gripped by creation. For what transpires is an endless scroll of winter masterpieces, one after the other, frozen studies in grey, white and black. Wintry witch-finger trees, fresh from Narnia; silver brambles spilling, dark-iced water and a clean white patchwork quilt of fields.
With ice on the windows, we are then cheered to hear that a drinks trolley is coming down the train - hurrah! - but that apparently, 'there are no hot drinks available on the trolley.' Mmmm. In fact, the trolley never appears throughout the journey; it may have been attacked in coach two.
No helpful buses in snow-bound Eastbourne, but a taxi driver gets me to the crem on time. The vicar does a good job in arctic conditions, with informed and kind comment on Peter's life. The huddled few of us who have made it then stand and sing/bellow 'The Lord's my shepherd' -and he'll need to be if we are to get home.
Wonderfully, the vicar organizes the undertakers to take me back to the station. There are three of us in the back seat - me and two named boxes of ashes, Jennifer and Henry. I'm the more talkative as we drive in sedately fashion along Eastbourne sea front, where I've frequently holidayed. Grey waves crash and ebb in the whipping snow; and sweet Peter gone, because time and tide can only wait so long.
As darkness falls, I set my face towards home; glad beyond words to have been here.
Hushed with snow
One of my favourite phrases in poetry/songnody (made that word up – even nicer for looking like snognody) is hushed with snow from Danny Boy. Like Marzena and Mr BJ, I have marveled at what the snow does to us especially in the city. I have walked across the snow covered meadow at night when leaving the hospital. I wouldnt dream of doing it without the light of the snow but in my mind the rapists and muggers who normally lurk arent there. My children have been out in the park and streets until 11 at night. Walking in the middle of the road for 3 days and smiling and talking to the few straggling strangers who have ventured out too has given us a temporary sense of ownership in a world where we are not usually the rule makers. It’s wonderful that in just a few hours, adults can feel a sense of play again, normally so hard to access, which of course will close over just as quickly.
But at times I have felt lonely and whitewashed in. I wonder if my children will ever go back to school, the nurses will return to their own beds instead of those in a closed ward, the patients will get home, the loved ones will manage to make it to their dying relatives bedside. But I have enjoyed the blitz spirit that all of those things have released. I decided that practical problems called for practical measures so I became a health care assistant for a shift. It was great fun, playing again, although it turned out to be quite a good way to be a chaplain and the patients were forgiving of my raggedy hospital corners.
Today though, I am staying home and going to savour the hushedness and the stillness and the extraordinary light that the snow brings and give thanks that winter is here.
January 07, 2010
Snow, in winter
Snow - you just can't beat it!
No, really. It muffles the world with noise-proof blanket, makes it look clean and picturesque, and apparently even makes people nicer to each other. A natural equivalent of terrorist atack then, at least in the last respect.
We love it because it's pretty and it's ephemeral. It never lasts long enough for us to hate it.
Or maybe it's because normal rules don't apply any more; we can call work and blag about the trains not running.. and 'work from home'..
One of my most cherished childhood memories is a scene in which my brother and I play in the snow long after our usual bedtime. It's a special night, with sky lit by a huge silver disk of the full moon and million stars, all still and silent. The sheet of diamond-like snow crystals glitter in the moonlight and reflect back even more light onto trees wrapped in heavy snow-coats. I'm enthralled and happy in my own private fairytale land.
Later in life I made many visits to snowy and icy landscapes at both ends of the world, and turned this obsession into something important and personally meaningful. Projects that can only be described and explained as 'labour of love' followed. But that's beyond the point. The first germ of it all might have been planted on that one starry night some forty years ago.
And I think that's really cool.
It's all very strange.
This morning, the restless, sleepless road beneath my icy window is hushed. Which is entirely unknown.
And another thing - there were no arguments on the street last night. The all-night shop and pub beneath me generate constant quarrel and fiery feud; but not last night.
Indeed, I was disturbed throughout the night by silence.
And where's the lark? Oh yes, we were going to get up together, but he hasn't shown.
London may be a big city, but this morning, I'm not sure if anyone else is here.
Perhaps you could turn on your bathroom light if you're around.
January 06, 2010
Epiphany (or showing or revelation)
At last! the little blank belly button of "no snow" that has settled over the weather map while everyone else in the British Isles has had a more or less White Christmas has moved and we have snow! And today is Epiphany which means showing. And it's funny how when everything is covered up, we show more of ourselves to strangers and dogs and children in the lovely snowy streets. So thank you snow for showing. It was worth the wait. But I really came on here to post my Epiphany offering.
Blessing of the Wise Ones
You may have to leave home to find home.
You may have to travel a long way
but if you attend
to the stars above
the earth beneath your feet
the birds in the boughs all about,
and trust the knowing of your dreams
you will be led to see
the kindness and kinship
of all that is made,
for all that is cruel,
and all that is strange,
and you will discover how
and find that you have
by another way.
January 05, 2010
Have you noticed what creatures of habit we are?
I don't mean us humans here, rather us - Bloggers of the Round Table. Though, by extrapolation..
You see, I've noticed that some of us are nocturnal beings (no blog entry before 7pm, often much later), some vaguely crepuscular, while others still only become active in the blogosphere under the cover of daylight (you know who you are, with early a.m. musings).
Yesterday was officially the most depresing day of the year (first Monday in Jan, after winter break).
Hope it wasn't so bad for you, and if it was, here's a rather unexpectedly cheerful and lovely quote from that arch- enemy of God and religion, the philosopher of gloom, Nietzsche:
"For happiness, how little suffices for happiness!..
The least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard rustling, a breath, a wisk, an eye glance - little maketh up the best happiness. Be still."
January 04, 2010
Life is on your side
Life is on your side
And often likes to surprise you,
So walk into the familiar
With eyes that are ready to see the new,
And walk into the unknown
With the knowledge that nothing can harm you,
For nothing is permanent
And even the deepest hurts are passing.
Join in with the dance of life
And live the ups and the downs,
Feeling all you need to feel,
Until all your baggage is unpacked
And your scars are healed,
By the weaving of the joyful and tragic
Into a shawl of contentment,
That wraps itself gently around your shoulders
Whispering in your ear 'All is well'.
2010... a space odyssey
2010... it's beginning to feel a bit familiar already, just four days in. But in fact, peering into this new year, it's as mysterious and unknown as any distant star.
More mysterious, in fact, because the distant star actually exists, while the year ahead doesn't. It only comes into being, second by second, as the flickering present sweeps future into past.
So here's to the present, when lives (and maybe universes) are created. Today and every day we start the world anew. And here's to the space odyssey of 2010.
January 03, 2010
the snows of yesteryear
I dreamt in vivid monochrome last night.
Portraits of people I photographed over the years were laid out on fresh snow, no - rather were made of snow. Of snow and grit.
White tones - snow, blacks - earth, the different shades of grey a mixture od snow and gravel to give a grainy effect of a silver print shot on a fast film.
As the snow melted, the images faded, sunk, and finally disappeared into their own dark background.
Some dreams stay with us. I know that this one will. No idea what it 'means', but it made me reflect on the eternal theme of impermanence.
Some of the writers and artists of my photos are no longer alive; the images and memories of them will follow - time will take care of that if you look far enough. Their art may stay a bit longer - after all: ars longa, vita brevis. But eventually, even that.. The whole spinning planet will.. like, go to ashes..
Closer to home, I feel melancholy about the sad demise of film photography in my lifetime. The beauty of the silver image, the amber- light magic of the darkroom, even the inconvenience of the whole damn error-prone, wet, chemical, time-consuming mess seems more desirable to the digital efficiency of today.
I know this goes against the grain of received wisdom, but today, today sucks!
Today, only yesterday will do. Analogue, no less..
January 02, 2010
In the virgin snow of blogland, 2010, mine appear to be the first steps.
If only I had a story to tell or a passion to explain!
Instead, merry and meaningless trudging, one step then another, feeling only the imprint of shoe, fresh and deliciously crisp and crunch. Crunchy crunch.
Looking up, I strain my eyes towards the horizon; seeking a shape, a form towards which to walk. Bright winter sun blinds, but wait, for there it is! I can see the future and it looks like nothing on earth!
It is nothing on earth.
It's a shape of sorts; if you know what not to look for.
Fresh feet on the virgin snow, crunchy steps, warm breath in the cold air,and captivated by nothing on the horizon.
Which is quite something really.