July 30, 2010
The Wanabe Vintage Woman
Talking recently with a friend I found myself reflecting on all the changes that awareness of my own behaviour has brought to my life.
I consider myself to be very fortunate, this awareness has helped me to discard many uncomfortable costumes, abandoned child, promiscuous teenager, grieving mother, abused wife to name a few.
My past and my struggles to survive what often seemed a cruel world, have helped me to appreciate who I am now. I feel that certain circumstances in my life almost forced me to go and spend time in dark places, which if I had been given the choice I would have probably avoided.
But anyone who spends enough time in the dark knows that your eyes adjust and fears leave, given time the dark can become a place of rest, where recovery can take place.
Until one day you realise that the part of you which is unharmed by any external events is eager to lead the way and hold your hand as you take the first faltering steps back into the light.
Growth has taken place and a more aware you has emerged, a more joyful being who is eager to take their place in the world, but is less disturbed by outer events, knowing that all things are passing and all is quite well
I realise that huge changes have taken place, I delight and breathe easier for them, but still sometimes my mad mind hijacks my present happiness and takes me back to the places that I thought I had left behind, sometimes familiar dark thoughts and feelings come back to haunt me.
Yet I know that I need not let these disturb me, I am now much better at noticing when this takes place and I am able to bring myself back to a peaceful place.
I know that these thoughts and the feelings they conjure up are not real, they are not here now, they are just a ghost from the past, and therefore cannot effect my present happiness.
In the following poem my man Hafiz puts it well
THE VINTAGE MAN
The difference between a good artist
and a great one is:
The novice will often lay down his tool or brush
Then pick up an invisible club
On the mind's table
And helplessly smash the easels and jade.
Whereas the vintage man
No longer hurts himself or anyone
And keeps on sculpting light.
Maybe one day I might even get to be a vintage woman.
July 29, 2010
Another year on the line
Well, my friends, today I hang one more year on the line. It is my birthday, and I'm 53 which apparently is the new 21.
I've spent quite alot of the day in a monastery, in the company of the quiet Thomas a Kempis, who was the author of 'The Imitation of Christ'. (2nd best selling spiritual book after the bible.) I'm editing a new edition of the book for Whitecrow.
But its not all 14th century with me. Far from it! After all, I have today bought myself a new Ipod shuffle. I have not made much progress, however, as I'm entirely baffled by the IPOD setting up procedure. No, I haven't a clue. So on second thoughts, perhaps it is pretty 14th century with me...my emotional development appears to have stopped at the invention of the printing press.
But talk of a shuffle - even if its depressed talk - reminds me that I also ran a wonderful if hard half-marathon earlier this morning, when the sky was still waking up and the air fresh; this is when I listen to music, when I'm running.
Which then reminds me to mention my resolution for the year: to learn the piano. Yes, my friends, I've messed around on the piano for years, composing songs and able to handle various chord sequences.
But I need to break out of this prison of limitation, wade free from this stagnant pond of unextended self, and actually learn to read music, and develop my use of the left hand. Mozart felt it was the left hand which was crucial, and which made him a better performer than others. I may not be in that league; but I don't have to stay in my present one.
So, if anyone has any beginners piano sheet music lying around that they could e mail me, I'd be delighted to receive it. I'm doing the scales and all that; but it breaks the monotony to attempt one or two actual pieces. Ahh, how exciting it was yesterday to play my first piece: an incredibly simple version of Dvorak's 'Largo' which is famous in England for advertising Hovis bread.
Tomorrow, however, I must be back watering the parks of London. I suspect I'll never make money as a concert pianist, even if 53 is the new 21. So I must make it with a hose in my hand. And really, what's the difference? It's all quite perfect in its own way.
And tonight? Tonight, I may sit quietly for a while, and remember what I already know: that I'm the luckiest man in the world...
July 24, 2010
On the beach of life and death
I was speaking yesterday at a funeral of a man in his eighties. If you don't feel like reading a funeral address today, then avert your eyes now. If you do, then read on:
SETTING: The setting is a London church, and I'm standing by the coffin, holding a very battered bible.
'The bible in my hand is not in good shape. Indeed, it's falling to pieces. This is what happens when we get old. We begin to fall to pieces; begin to lose a few pages, and sometimes, they're quite important ones.
But this disintergrating bible is still dear to me. It was given to Joy and I by Tom in 1982. And in the front, he commends some particular verses to us, and we'll get to those.
But I was struck by a text recently. It was a text from Harry, Tom's grandson, and he said this: 'If we go under, our beloved sea will wash us to the shore.' And this is true. Life does drown us on occasion, and we go under, sometimes quite a long way down. But then somehow we're washed back to shore, like Jonah, dlivered back to the beach. And there we can lie still awhile, recover a little, dry out, feel the warmth of the sun, brush ourselves down and find strength to carry on, to try again, to fail again, to fail better.
But one day it's different. One day we go under, and the sea doesn't return us to the shore, or not to this shore at least; but to another shore beyond our present sight. And that's the shore where Tom now wakes up; the shore where Tom was washed up when he finally went under in University College hospital three weeks ago, surrounded by his family.
And I'm glad for him.
We talk of people losing their faculties. But perhaps the faculty or ability we lose most quickly as adults is the ability to see through to the innocence of people. We're too busy being upset by them or offended or disturbed to see the esential innocence in people; to see in them the child who started out with such dreams of what might be, such longings, such high hopes, such openness to the world, such oneness with the world.
And that's who I see when I think of Tom. I see the small child starting out, with stillness and wonder in his eyes - before the struggles and knocks of life took their toll.
We're all inclined to lose our innocence along the way; to jettison our dreams and close down our openness. We mislay these things, we learn to ignore them, we learn to mislay ourselves really, and make do with a more calculating approach to life's adventure. We make do with surviving, with fighting our corner, consumed by our own particular fears, damage and ambitions.
But the shore which Tom now strolls along knows none of these. It's a place for Tom to return to the child he once was. 'The kingdom of God is such as these!' said Jesus, pointing to the children - the child of such innocence, such dreams of what might be, such longings, such high hopes, such openness to the world, such oneness with the world.
'If we go under, our beloved sea will wash us to the shore.' That's true. And one day it will wash us not to this present beach, but to a shore beyond our sight, and that's a good shore to tread; a shore where we can return to our lost selves and perhaps, our lost God.
So the bible in my hand is falling to pieces. It's what happenes when we get old. We begin to lose a few pages, and sometimes some quite important ones. Tom is not of this world now, but we are, more or less. And while the sea returns us to this shore, we'll remember the verses that he commended to Joy and I all those years ago, and commends to you now. Words from the prophet Isaiah:
'Israel, why then do you complain that the Lord doesn't know your troubles or care if you suffer injustice. Don't you know? Haven't you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God; he created all the world. He never grows tires or weary. No one understands his thoughts.
He strengthens those who are weak and tired. Even those who are young grow weak; yes, the young can fall exhausted. But those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles; they will run and not get weary: they will walk and not grow weak.'
Like a child running along the beach on the first day of the holidays....
July 19, 2010
The Guinea pigs are going home on Sunday. So am I.
While they are headed for the home comforts of Earl's Court, I'll be on my way to Poland. It has been a journey and a succesful custody, in my opinion anyway; how the Guineas feel about their experience must remain a secret. But perhaps we shouldn't praise the day before the sunset, and we still have five days to go before goodbyes. Five days of chopping vegetables, five days of changing hay and water, petting and stroking, cleaning the mess, five nights of being woken up by their chortling noises. Complain? Moi?
But seriously, I've been thinking about wilderness lately, in both senses. One, as described by Simon some blogs below - a state of mind or soul that has lost its way, and is not a good place to be. And another, more literal sense - a place of natural wildness, unspoilt by human development, a place where you can walk for miles without the fear (or joy, depending on you disposition) of encountering another human being.
There are places like that in Poland, and I long to spend at least some of my stay in them, time and family demands permitting. To restore, to reflect, revitalise and reconnect. To recharge batteries, for the world is too much sometimes. And as the poet knew too well, it's no good when 'getting and spending we lay waste our powers, little we see in nature that is ours.." N.B., for all my need for solitude, I wouldn't mind bumping into the ghost of Wordsworth in some wilderness..
My Top Ten
This weekend a young friend of mine was so desperately unhappy that he took an overdose, many familiar themes run through his life, but the defining one is probably not having adults who were able to put his welfare before their own.
For inner health to exist we need to be able to turn to ourselves to find solutions or comfort when difficult situations arise.
This is much easier if as small children we experienced carers who not only responded to our needs accurately, but who also encouraged us to be independent, by allowing us to try things out within the safety of a loving relationship.
When a child is fortunate enough to be looked after by an adult who cares for them and understands their role is to help the child learn life skills, then this child will posess a head start when it comes to inner health.
These are my Top Ten life skills that contribute to having inner strengh.
1. Being able to understand and name the different emotions that we and others feel and learning that these feelings are not a constant state, but are things that pass through us.
2. Knowing different healthy ways of soothing ourselves when we feel anxious about situations.
3. Understanding that disagreements can be worked out and learning that healthy relationships do not come to a sudden end because of them.
4. Valuing the time we spend alone and being able to use this space to nurture ourselves.
5. Recognising and having preferences for the things that keep us healthy in body, mind and spirit.
6. Knowing and valuing ourselves and others as unique individuals and being able to tune into our own way of being creative.
7. Being able to speak up for ourselves and knowing what our needs are.
8. The ability to take responsibility for our own actions.
9. Understanding that it is ok to make mistakes along the way and seeing these times as learning opportunities.
10. Recognising that life is a journey and as individuals we will go through many different stages on our way from birth to death and being willing to embrace these varied life experiences.
If he wants to change the course of his life my young friend needs to learn these skills, without the early nurturing it will be more difficult but by no means impossible. Believe me I know.
Highs and Lows in the Lake District
Well, I was up in the Lake Distrct this weekend leading a parish retreat.
And the first thing to say about the Lake District is that it's very popular. William Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud in these parts, but he wouldn't manage it now. Fat chance. When I went out for a quiet stroll off the beaten track, or so I imagined, I was passing people all the time. And as the tradition here is to say 'hello' to everyone you pass, my quiet stroll becomes quite an exhausting social experience. Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!
I start dreaming of an undisturbed 50 yards...hallucinating about twenty seconds of non-contact time...
The Lake District began to become popular in the late 18th century, when continental wars made travel a little risky for rich English folk. Revolutionary Europe could seriously damage your health, so suddenly the Lake District looked really interesting. Wordsworth's 'Guide to the Lakes' in 1810 accelerated the process, long before the M6 did its work.
It's all very striking of course, this strange and unique mountainous part of North-West England. Glaciation 15000 years ago has left ice-carved valleys, with many of them filled with water. This is not surprising; water is something of a theme here. Seathwaite in Borrowdale is the wettest inhabited place in England, with 130 inches of rain a year. And while we're with the Guinness Book of records, it also has the highest English mountain, Scafell Pike, (reaching 978 metres upwards) and the deepest English lake, Wastwater (reaching 79 metres downwards.)
And like the landscape, a parish retreat is full of extremes - laughter and pain, breath-taking honesty and walled-up denial, seething anger and bright hope. I was certainly struck by the bravery of intent and the honesty of the offerings. Truly, here is nobility.
It's a mystery why so much is made possible when we leave our normal rat-runs. But there's no doubt that when we change our geography, when we go away, a new alchemy of possibility is created within; and much becomes clear that once was not so.
Though whether this is true for the crowds of Japanese who make the pilgrimage to Beatrix Potter's house, I couldn't say. Maybe it's enough to be able to say, 'I'm standing where Peter Rabbit stood. Oh.My.God.'
July 13, 2010
Desert or wilderness?
Life has returned me to one of my old books recently.
Along time ago, I wrote desert trilogy; and one of them, 'Another bloody retreat' is still available on this site. But that isn't the purpose of this blog.
Rather, there's an image I used, which recently has come to life in various settings. In the book, I reflect on the difference between the desert and the wilderness. They sit alongside each other, but they are not the same.
The desert is a place of solitude, silence and hope; a sparse place to be but a good place nonetheless; and a place of deep trust.
The wilderness is a lonely place, and the place of demons, restlessness and increasing despair and distrust.
The thing is, they're side by side, and not immediately so different; and it's hard to tell when you step from the desert into the wilderness. There are no boundary fences, no neon signs of explanation. Indeed, its possible to walk for many days, indeed years, before realising you've left the one and entered the other.
For those who find themselves in the wilderness, you may not know how you got there, but fear nothing. You're already on your way home.
July 09, 2010
I was watering next to some Fox Gloves.
Very beautiful, but can these be permitted in our list of things with a name unconnected to reality?
With 'the Human Resources department' being another obviously...
July 08, 2010
The Guinea pigs have arrived. Alex and Sally.
Alex is friendly and monochromatic (black and white coat), whereas Sally is totally white with pink eyes, a true albino Guinea pig. They belong to my little god-daughter Rosa and her brother Sebastian who are going on holiday to France with their parents. This much I know.
On closer inspection they are both quite cute (the rodents in question, although the children are not bad -looking either). They arrived with tons of food and a change of hay. The organic vegetables look so good I might pinch some for my dinner now and then; it will make a nice change from the usual Tesco fare.
Apparently, they are 'rescue' Guiney pigs. I don't know what that means, but it's quite clear that they have quite distinct personalities and whereas Alex is easy-going and happy, Sally is more introverted and has some issues with trust. I wonder what her early life trauma might have been. If I knew more about the anneagram, I would be tempted to assign them numbers.
But on a more serious note, I've just read an incredible memoir of a French man, and artist and a film-maker who lost his sight in a random act of violence. Amazingly, it didn't make him bitter. It made him realize that "the sens of life is life itself. Once you have understood that, you can relax".. He went on to achieve extraordinary things ( not for a blind man, but for any man..) in his life. A triumph of human spirit over suffering and circumstance, for sure. But it left me feeling grateful for what I always take for granted - to be able to see.
My Guinea pigs - how marvellous they are!
July 07, 2010
More inappropriate names
I like Marzena's Guinea Pigs being so named because they are neither pigs nor from Guinea.
It reminded me of my history teacher talking about the Holy Roman Empire: 'easy to remember as it was neither holy, nor Roman nor an Empire.'
There must be more of these, and as I water the grass today, I'll be pondering.
July 06, 2010
The smile box
Home thoughts from my run this morning: (involving the long climb up to Alexander Palace or the 'Ally Pally', as we locals call it.)
It's interesting that sometimes when I smile at someone, they return the smile; whilst others when smiled at descend into an even darker glare.
For one, the smile is cheering; for the other, its like acid on their face.
I can't unlock your smile box; only you have the key.
July 05, 2010
I've been meaning to write. To post a new blog that is. For ages. On many interesting subjects it was going to be (that is - interesting to me, if nobody else..) What a vivid dream I dreamt, a moving book I've read, about a Chinese doctor I saw for my stomach ailment, a new discovery in my quest for health ( Qi Gong) etc. Gripping stuff.. But I had many excuses not to lift a finger, and besides - it's a silly season and a lazy season.
And now two Guinea pigs are coming to stay with me for two weeks. As of Thursday. Why me? Why Guinea pigs, you may ask. You well may..
I know it's going to be all right. They might even grow on me a little. But right now I'm bewildered and confused as to how exactly I got myself into this situation. When my life was so nearly perfect.. Besides, why the silly names? Neither pigs, nor from Guinea they are..
Maybe I can experiment on them!! Now there is a thought..
I'll keep you posted.
The cost of being Jesus
Well my friends, it's not all park-watering.
In fact, I'm presently approaching the end of 'Conversations with Jesus of Nazareth'. A couple more days and it will be done. Perhaps predictably, it's been the hardest of my conversations so far.
If anything, the experience of time spent with his words has made me less sure of how to tell the truth on earth, so many are the ways a single line can be misunderstood, misinterpreted or seized upon and used for the listener's own ends. I suspect Jesus suffers endlessly from all of the above.
He remains riveting company however, if utterly impossible. His style reminds me of the famous Emily Dickinson verse:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant -
success in circuit lies.
Too bright for our infirm delight
the truth's superb surprise.
As lightning to the children eased
with explanation kind.
The truth must dazzle gradually
or every one be blind.
Jesus never let the stupid put him off. They could ignore him, twist him, condemn him, crucify him, invent a new Jesus even. But he never let them put him off from telling truth's superb - and shocking - surprise.
Above all else, that takes courage.