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Archive for the ‘Metaphysical’ Category

mazda night journey HDRFriday: I’m driving along, and for no particular reason my mind wanders onto the subject of the actress, Judy Davies. I follow the thought and find myself exploring her filmography all the way back to the movie of EM Forster’s novel “A passage to India.” I ponder this for a while. Good movie that. Edward Fox was in it too, and Alec Guinness. I’ve not read the novel, but I’m wondering if I should look it up.

My mind moves on, and I’m thinking of something else entirely when I pop the radio on and there’s a play on Radio 4: “A passage to India.”

This kind of low level, useless precognition is actually quite common and it can be easily explained away as coincidence. Admittedly, I’m less likely to do that than someone more scientistically inclined, but neither am I as shocked by it as I once was. At one time I would have been pondering it more deeply and most likely blogging today about the mysteries of time, space and being, but of late I recognise it makes no difference if there is or isn’t anything more to this sort of thing, and it’s best either dismissed or simply accepted as a mysterious part of life, but one we’ll never understand. I just wish it could be more helpful.

Anyway, Saturday, and I’ve picked up an ear worm: Aha’s “Take on Me” running on a continuous loop in my head – just the first couple of lines – and annoying as Hell. Then I call into a shop where they have muzak playing over the tannoy. I’ve not been there five minutes when they start playing “Take on me”. There we go again: that strange, useless precognition thing.

Then, on the way home this happens:

Okay, so I manage to avoid killing the cyclist, but not, I should add, because of any sixth sense. I’m just lucky, and actually a little warning would have been helpful, sparing me at least a near heart attack. Those bikes piled around the bend with breathtaking audacity, also, I presume, with a reckless disregard for third party insurance. The wobbling tail-end Charlie was unprepared for the bend and thus a victim for any vehicle coming the other way, in this case me.

If we’d collided, he would have gone off my bonnet, and either over or into the wall on my left. Over the wall is a thirty foot drop into a shallow river. He might have survived the wall but not the river.

He apologised in passing, called me “bud” and wobbled on – I’ve been called much worse by burly men in Lycra tights. Anyway, I drove home, then had a brew and a very long sit down. And I was thinking about how suddenly our lives can change for the worse, and how we never see it coming. We get word a close relative has been diagnosed with cancer, maybe we get the diagnosis ourselves. Something happens on the road – a Kamikaze cyclist skitters off your bonnet, kills himself and ruins your life – because whether it’s your fault or not, that’s a thing you’ll carry at the back of your mind for the rest of your life. You bumble along from day to day, thinking your life is humdrum, maybe even a little boring and then: bang.

On the other hand, the changes that bring about an improvement in our lives – barring a lottery win – tend to work more slowly. We sacrifice immediate pleasure for the thought of reaping larger benefits in the future. We invest in a pension so we can retire in comfort. We study so we can get a better job, afford a nicer house, buy our kids nice things. We bring our kids up as well as we can, then take pleasure in seeing them engage with the world. It all takes time, and it’s worth it.

But the good things in life tend to be incremental, introducing themselves so slowly we hardly notice. We become so entirely accepting we can find ourselves contemptuous, that even though life is actually, rather good, we barely notice, especially if we’re hooked on always chasing the next thing. Maybe we even grumble when those little things go wrong.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is it’s always a good idea to take stock now and then, because there’s something odd about life in that it never lets you see the bad things coming, only sometimes the stuff that makes no difference to anything.

 

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southport sunset

Resisting now this jagged mess of days,
Brings on the dark assassin’s migraine knives,
When even to tread the softer, slower ways,
Exhausts me long before the weekend has arrived.

Thwarted then, both inside myself and out,
Suspended, void of time and space and thought,
I ride an inky blackness of self doubt,
Until to cloying stillness am I brought.

The windows of my soul are growing old,
Long papered o’er by fools upon the make.
Their ragged posters many lies have told,
The perpetrators slippery as snakes.

Here then, shall I submit? Is it too late?
No wisdom in the wind, no maps extol
The seamless passage through that gateless gate,
Just a bloodied mess of thorns I’m fain to hold.

The season of the inner light grows dim.
And with it hope I’ll ever once more know,
That place of perfect harmony within,
The place I have for so long ached to go.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThis life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distort the heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie,
When you see with, not through the eye.

The Eternal Gospel – Blake.

A man enters the forest to cut wood. He hears music, discovers a beautiful woman dancing. She invites him to join her, and he has the time of his life, returns, stars still in his eyes, to find decades have passed, that all who knew him are gone, and he no longer has a place in the world. It’s a classic encounter with the Faery, and the meaning of it – for there is always a meaning – suggests that having once experienced the limitless bliss of the other-world, you have to find a way of forgetting it, or you cannot live in this one.

Or it might have happened the other way around, because there’s always an inverse to these things. A man enters the forest, encounters the dancing woman who lures him into an eternal life of merriment, romance and where all is wonderful. Decades pass before he tires of it – for humans will always tire of endless pleasure – and he craves a return to life, craves its imperfections, even the time bound nature of the human condition. He’s thinking all who knew him will surely be gone by now but, on his return, he discovers no time has lapsed at all and he merely picks up where he left off. The story here might be telling us the world will always find a place for those who grasp that crucial insight regarding the value of limitation in human affairs.

I’m not sure where these ideas come from, but they’re nagging me to attempt a contemporary story along similar lines, and I’m resisting it. But the more I resist, the more they nag and intrigue. I’d thought they were from Irish Faery lore, but in the main it’s mortal women and children the Celtic Faery are fond of kidnapping, suggestive of a different kind of moral altogether.

Then again it may have been something imagined or dreamed, and it’s a beguiling concept, that such ideas are eternal and floating about, waiting to be picked up by the passing mind, and it’s helpful if you can understand them. All myths come from an archetypal substrate and speak to us in a symbolic language, apparently seeking influence over human affairs.

The Faery were once understood as daemonic entities, not literally existing, but still real, visible only through the inner eye, as Blake once put it, a vision overlaid with the filter of imagination. It takes a kind of madness then, seeing fairies – indeed Wordsworth did say Blake was mad and he may have right – but not all daemonic expression is mad in a bad way. It can also be visionary. On the downside though, daemonic rumblings can spread like wildfire, leading to a dangerous shift in the Zeitgeist, to orgies of rage, to mindless persecution of the “other”, and to killing.

We needn’t look very far to find evidence of the daemonic at work in the contemporary world and have only to listen to the voices coming at us from formerly sane quarters, voices of unreason that can both pedal and believe in lies, even knowing them to be lies. For just as one half of the daemonic possess a heavenly form and fey, courtly manners, the other half knows no bounds to its depths of depravity, duplicity and ugliness. An obvious place to find it is in the comments of any social media, for once we discover the cloak of invisibility, it is the darker daemons that speak through us, and their language is foul.

This ambivalence of the daemonic is perplexing, and not something we can control nor every wholly trust in. When the genie is out of the bottle the story never ends well, except in Disneyland, because humans are outwitted with ease by the daemonic mind. Better then to ram the cork back in, cast the bottle into the sea and hope no one else finds it. Except it is the genii, the daemons themselves that seek us. And we just can’t help falling under their spell.

They require far more circumspection than we possess, especially at times of crisis, for they are the crisis, as if the daemons have gone to war with themselves, and it’s only when the Godly win out do we find peace again. But it’s never lasting, more cyclical, and I fear every other generation must learn these lessons anew.

So my guy goes into the forest, dallies only for a moment with fey beauty, because it’s infinitely preferable to the ugliness of the world he’s living in. But the world he returns to, decades later, is even worse, a world where voices threaten murder at every turn, and he witnesses a population cowering in fear and paranoia. But what’s the lesson in that, when there seems no solution to it? Are we merely to lay down and submit to such a fate, while the daemons rage war in our heads?

If we only knew them better, might we find a way to petition for a more lasting peace? But they’ve been with us since the beginning of time and if we don’t know them by now, will we ever? Or did we once, but in the rush to embrace reason, we have forgotten the Daemonic within us all, and thereby offended them?

I’m ill equipped to understand where any of this is going, lacking both the Blakean vision to see what I’m talking about, and the language to express it. And I fear in the end it doesn’t matter, because wherever the daemons lead, we follow, even if it’s off a cliff edge, and it’s really no comfort to be able say you had the eye on them all the time, and that you saw it coming.

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tmp_2019020318023776334.jpgThe bothy was built of stone, all randomly coursed, with a chimney and a neatly pitched, though slightly sagging slate roof. The door and windows were in good order, the woodwork showing a recent lick of green paint. It stood a little inland, but still within sight and sound of the sea. At its back rose the darkening profile of the mountain, though the precise shape of it was as yet only to be guessed at, it being capped by a lazy smudge of grey clag that wasn’t for budging, not today anyway.

It was the thing they all came here to climb, a multitude of guide books singing its praises, but I was only interested in it as background. Maybe tomorrow I’d get a better view of it.

It had been a few hour’s walk from the road, where I’d left the car, and a lonely stretch of road at that, five miles of single track from the cluster of little houses down by the harbour, this being the only settlement on the island. Then it was a mile of choppy blue in a Calmac ferry to the mainland, and a region of the UK with a population density as near to zero as made no difference.

It had been a shepherd’s hut I think, a neat little place kept going by the estate, a lone splash of succour in an otherwise overwhelming wilderness, a place that, even then, centuries after the clearances, still spoke of an awful emptiness and a weeping. It’s a scene that remains in my mind fresh as ever, and I have to remind myself this was the summer of  ’87, that an entire generation has come and gone since then who have never seen or known such stillness. But time stands still whenever I think of it. I’ve only to close my eyes and I’m there.

It was clean and dry inside, just the one small room, some hooks for wet kit, a shovel for the latrine, a rough shelf of fragile paperbacks. The floor was swept, a little stack of wood and newspapers by the fireplace, a half used sack of coal, and there was a pair of simple bunks, one either side of the fireplace. As bothies went this was small but relatively luxurious.

I lit the fire and settled in. It was late afternoon, June, cold and blowing for rain – typical enough for the western highlands that time of year.

There were only about a hundred bothies in the whole of Britain, all of them in lonely places, and I’d set myself the task of photographing every one. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t like I was going to write a book, or pitch a feature to the National Geographic or anything. I’d tried all that, and was already waking up to the somewhat sobering conclusion I was irrelevant in what had become an increasingly hedonistic decade. This  wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because all of that was looking set to burst any day now, and many of us were braced for it, wondering what the hell was coming next.

I’d just turned twenty six, and if I’d learned anything of use by then it was this: establishing a purpose in life was everything to a man, whether that purpose seem big or small to him, or to others, it didn’t matter, and we all get to choose, but here’s the thing: the best choices always seem to run counter to the Zeitgeist, and it’s that problem, that paradox and how we deal with it that writes the story of our lives.

Me? I’d chosen this.

I always shot the land in monochrome because I had a notion you saw more in black and white. I used an old  OM10 with a Zuiko prime lens, still do in fact. But the camera was just an excuse really, like a magnifying glass you use to get a closer look at a thing. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, still don’t really, but I’ve a feeling I was closer to it then than I am now, sitting here in 2019, over thirty years later. Now, I’ve no idea where I am, feel lost in time, actually, and finding it harder every day to convince myself I exist at all.

Anyway, I’d gone out and I was squeezing off some shots of the bothy against a grey sea, just playing with compositions and line for the better weather I’d hoped would be on the morrow. And quite suddenly, was so often the way there, the clouds tore open a hole, loosing from the eternal gold beyond stray javelins of what I’d hoped was a revelatory light, touching down upon the water as if to illuminate the very thing I sought. It was all very dramatic,…

And that’s when I saw her.

 

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885I’ve been getting a sudden flurry of comments on Wattpad. They’re all roughly the same, telling me I’ve won Premier Membership but if you click the link it simply takes you to a story that “cannot be found”. It’s some sort of scam then, the purpose of which eludes me, but more of that later.

Wattpad is one of many self-publishing platforms now. I’ve been on there for ages, with mixed results. The Seaview Cafe topped out at around 4000 reads, which was great, but other stuff hasn’t been read at all. This is probably because I don’t game it. It’s a social network you see, and as with all such things you have to spend time building it up, virtual schmoozing and following others in order to get the clicks. But I’m socially inept, and prefer just to write.

Wattpad sells advertising. Writers use it as a vehicle for self expression, while readers read their stuff for free, and as we go along we all get served these adverts. Adverts are annoying, but so long as you can forgive them Wattpad’s maybe worth a look if you’re starting out, and you’re the chatty type, but best not taken too seriously because a writer needs to be careful they don’t lose their way.

The Wattpad model has changed recently, a kind of ‘premium membership’ being rolled out, a select group of writers testing a “paid” model. Also, if the rest of us agree to a subscription, they’ll spare us the adverts. Payment to writers is based on donations – we buy virtual coins which we toss into the writer’s hat if we like their stuff. I don’t know who those writers are, so I suppose they’ll have to be promoted in some way – sexy mugshots and all that, no English teeth, and no one over thirty five?

But this is beginning to sound like conventional publishing – about half a dozen chosen ones awarded most of the budget, and the rest dividing the pennies between them. According to the blurb, all writers will be able to join the paid ranks eventually, and that’s alluring if you’re chasing the idea of writing for a living, but unless you have millions of readers, you’ll be lucky if you make the price of a cup of coffee. And with the money of course will come the scammers, because they always find a way, and I suppose those spurious comments I’m getting now are the first exploratory wave of that.

But if Wattpad changes, or stays the same, it’s irrelevant to those of us writing the stories, because the important thing is always the story, I mean as it’s being written and experienced by you the writer, also in future years, when you’re revising and reliving the adventure, when maybe you start to wonder what the hell you were on about back then, or you realise how much your outlook’s changed, and which bits you thought were profoundly insightful turn out to have been merely stupid. Thus, in part, the story always serves you first. That’s your reward. There may also be a greater purpose, but that’s complicated and mysterious and, it may not be true, but here goes:

Most writers who’ve been at it for a decade or more already know the chances of making an actual living by it are zero, so you wonder why you’re still in the game, and that’ll take some time, maybe even another decade, and in the mean time, with luck, you’ll still be writing. My own vague conclusion at the end of this process is that writers, known or not, are explorers of the possibilities of imagination, and exploration is typically a human thing to do. And some of us can’t help it.

But more than that, all stories are based on a set of myths that rise from the deep unconscious, and there aren’t that many of them. We saw them first played out in stories from all those ancient civilisations – like the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, and the Egyptians – but they’ve been re-told in an infinite number of ways since, because times change and the myths need re-imagining for each generation. We writers needn’t be aware of this process, but if we analyse our own stories enough and dig deeply into myth we’ll find similarities. We’ll realise we’re basically saying the same thing.

And then there’s this theory that without an ongoing process of mythical renewal, the Gods might get the impression we’re no longer listening to them, so they’ll start stirring things up by unleashing troublesome daemons among us, hastening our decent into barbarism, so something fresh can rise from the ruins. So, creative types on this side of the divide try to avoid the ruination by placating the Gods, the Daemons, the Muses, or whatever by taking notes, by refashioning the myths to keep them fresh in people’s heads.

Well that’s fine, you say, but no publisher’s interested, so you stick your damned story online where you’re lucky if half a dozen people see it. What’s the point in that? Well, that’s not your problem. You’ve done your bit, and it may be that if only a dozen people see it, then maybe they’re the only ones it needed to speak to. And yes, all right, that’s romantic, and wishful, and a somewhat daring thing to say in the wrong company, but it has a certain mythical charm to it, and I like to believe in it.

But the main thing is writers on social media should be wary of getting hung up on the clicks, or the coins, or the comments, or whatever, because it’ll kill your craft, and they don’t mean a damn to your primary purpose anyway, which is simply to keep going, deep into the woods, every day.

 

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tree paintingIf we ask: ‘what is the meaning of life’, we’ll get different answers of course, depending on who we ask, but most will talk of happiness: to be happy, to attain happiness, to spread happiness – because happiness is a good feeling, so why not?

We pursue it in various ways but always indirectly, by pursuing something else we believe will ‘make’ us happy: money, the perfect relationship, the acquisition of fancy stuff. And though we seem willing enough victims to this fallacy we all know it doesn’t work.

Stuff? No sooner have we got that new thing it’s no longer desirable and we’re on to the next. Relationships? Sorry, but there’ll be good times and bad. There’s security and warmth in a good relationship for sure, and love if you’re lucky, but love isn’t a one way ticket to happiness either. Indeed there are times when there is no misery greater than being in love. Money? Well, we all need a little money if we’re not to go hungry, and we need a key to our own front door, but that won’t make us happy for long either. It’ll just stop us from hurting, which isn’t the same thing. Indeed it seems nothing ‘makes’ us happy for long. Happiness keeps its own counsel, it comes and goes as it pleases.

It can be dispiriting once we realise how fickle happiness is, and how much effort we’ve already spent in hope of its eventual attainment, that while we may have had fleeting glimpses, it never settles in. We might even have risen to become stupendously successful, at least materially, yet there we are, sitting on the deck of our super-yacht, surrounded by golden stuff, fawned over by the world’s most beautiful partner, and still as miserable as sin. Is happiness then even worth pursuing, when its pursuit seems so self defeating?

I’m no stranger to happiness. Hopefully none of us are. But I’ve noticed I find it more often in small things, in quiet moments, in unexpected places, and without really looking for it. It’s sporadic, unpredictable, and I enjoy it while I can, but its comings and goings are impossible to predict and one must be sanguine when we are without it. No sense running after a thing, when we don’t even know where it lives.

One of my happiest moments, and certainly one of the most memorable,  was sitting under the pavement-awning of the Glenridding Hotel in pouring rain with coffee, having just walked the length of Ullswater. I remember taking a breath and seeing the rain fall – I mean the individual droplets, as if frozen in motion – and feeling time stop as the moment opened out as seemingly perfect as it could ever be.

It had been a beautiful walk, yes, but there was no need to be so ecstatic about it, surely? All I can think is the walk had given me a sense of purpose for the day. The boat drops you off at the far end of the lake and then it’s ten miles back under your own steam or nothing. Sure, I’m always happy after a long walk. Everything looks and tastes and feels better. It focuses the mind, grants one a tangible purpose, and makes us work for it.

Purpose,… now that’s an interesting word, and one worth exploring – this idea of defining a goal and working towards it. It seems to colour our lives in brighter tones. Even the cheery ring of a teaspoon in a cup can bring us joy if life provides a sufficient sense of purpose in other areas. And it doesn’t seem to matter what that purpose is. It doesn’t have to be a long walk. Anything will do it, big or small, so long as you feel that in doing it you’re making things better, or even just a little bit different than they were yesterday. You could be improving yourself perhaps, or helping out in some way, or painting a picture, or making something, oiling a squeaky hinge, fixing that puncture on your bike, or that ultimate of domestic challenges: tidying up your shed! I always feel great after tidying my shed!

We’re wired for purpose, for challenge. We like to ‘do’ things, set things in order, we like to make things, explore things, we like to look back and see where we’ve been. Nothing gives us greater satisfaction and opens the door to personal happiness more than a sense of purpose. But purpose is a slippery eel, especially in a society that measures everything in terms of monetary value. Many of us would like to find purpose in our work, and this makes sense since we spend such a long time doing it, but it also renders us vulnerable should we find ourselves turfed out of it when others think our work is no longer worth it. Whole industries have gone that way, casting adrift generations, condemned them to living without practical purpose, or pressed into jobs that seem thankless, pointless and spiritually toxic.

We can’t rely on society then to provide our sense of purpose. Each of us must define it for ourselves, perhaps more especially now society, zombified by a decade of economic austerity, finds so little value in the individual human beings of which it comprises. There are so many challenges facing the world, but one of the most overlooked is this loss of all sense of the value of the individual in society, also any reasonable expectation those individuals might have that things can one day be any better than they are now. There’s nothing like a knee in the balls for making one question one’s purpose in life.

I suppose solving that one is a thing worth working towards, that the grand, collective purpose seems subverted nowadays, and how do we put that right? But in the mean time, there are personal missions a-plenty to unlock the secret of at least little happiness for each of us.

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fallen beech tree

In the opening of my novel “Durelston Wood” there’s this huge beech tree that stands high on a bank, overlooking a bend in a river that runs deep through a forest. The roots are gnarled and mossy and the tree’s origins seem to hark back to a time as near the beginning of time as makes no difference. And it’s this apparent permanence in time, at least in so far as our protagonist sees it, that lends the tree the role of an existential anchor throughout the changes of his life. Whenever he feels he lacks certainty and direction, whenever it seems there’s no sure ground left to stand on, he seeks it out.

That beech tree exists. I’ve known it since I was a boy, carved my name on it in a secret place when I was ten, but unlike my protagonist, I’ve also seen how the bank has been eroding slowly over the decades, the root system more and more exposed. Some years ago, storms felled a couple of my tree’s equally mighty brethren. They’d been undermined by time and grown top heavy, so a capricious wind sent them crashing into the river. It’s a shocking thing to see, a tree of immense proportion spread out suddenly, smashed open by gravity, and I suppose it was just a matter of time before my own tree – I always think of it as my tree – succumbed in the same way.

Its prospect, sitting high on that bank grants it a certain majesty but you can also sense its vulnerability as its roots cling talon-like to an earth that is slowly vanishing beneath it. It’s five or six feet in diameter, and Professor Google says if we multiply the diameter of the tree at chest height, in inches, by six, it gives us the approximate age of the tree in years – so let’s say about four hundred years since that little beechnut first sprouted on the riverbank and crowded out all the other little beechnuts.

But one side of the root system has been getting more and more exposed, starving the tree. Sure enough, I came upon it recently to find a massive section of trunk had failed above those exposed roots. It was taken down by the storms we had in December, sent thirty feet into the river below, its irresistible arboreal tonnage smashing through a footbridge in the process.

So there’s a lesson here about impermanence, that although we all know nothing lasts for ever, at the same time it’s an axiom we seek to ignore by picking as our yardsticks something suitably long lived, like say a four hundred year old beech tree. But, in time, even the mountains are ground down and the valleys filled with their dust, and one day I’m sure to come through the forest to find this tree gone completely into the river, and a crater in the bank ripped out by the roots as it went over. And the other lesson in all of this is I’ve got to find a way of not minding any of that.

And that might even be possible, were it not also for the accompanying sense recently of an acceleration in the destruction of the known world, and the fast erosion of all certainty, like the earth that has supported my tree for four centuries being now insufficient to support the weight of our giddy times.

But perhaps in the true unwritten history of my tree, a more useful tale than its imminent demise has already been told in the beer-can someone wedged into one the boles high in the trunk, or the plastic supermarket bag trapped in its branches and just out of reach – a bag that slapped and flapped eventually to silent rags in the winds over the passage of several winters. Or the inevitable little bags of dog poo someone hung there, or the discarded sandwich wrapper and, one time, the malodorous pile of human faeces, complete with Hoover instruction booklet hastily improvised as toilet paper (well, you never know, do you?). Or indeed the ten year old boy who once carved his initials in that secret place – yes, even that, to other eyes, might have seemed a sacrilege.

All these things from time to time have come to poke fun at this illusion of the tree’s sanctity, at the idea of anything being immortal in this world, at our sentimental nature, at our propensity for hanging onto things, to people, places, even memories, long after the time has come to let them go. To one human a mighty tree and its environs are an enchanted place, a place for communing with the Faery, while to another it’s simply a convenient toilet, or somewhere to leave one’s rubbish, or make one’s mark.

In mythical terms these are the tokens of the jester, the exasperating interventions of an ever playful Mercurius, telling us to get over ourselves, that the successful alchemy of one’s life is a continuing process of coagulation and sublimation, that the falling back into ruin is as important as the rise of a transcendent vapour that follows. The remains of these trees, these icons of the most venerable life on earth, four hundred years in the making, will settle back into the earth now, and there coagulate and rot in slow-time, providing habitat for the shy creatures we do not see when we are encumbered with our yapping dogs – the creatures, like the sprites and the Faery we see only when we settle down in the forest and tune in to the deep motion of its fecund breath, and open up the eye of imagination.

There is no tragedy here, only a falling back into the alembic of my days, a further cycle of coagulation and a separating out the unnecessary from my thoughts, while we await the sublimation of some new mode of spirit, a fresh way of thinking and seeing and being.

Or at least I hope so.

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