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Archive for the ‘My Notes’ Category

Until the music calls us home

wet leafThe waking world is strange again today.
I rise a man unseen and old and grey,
The shrill alarm resisted to the last.
My eyes in waning darkness glimpse untold
The colour of lost dreams and turns to dust,
The ghosts of things I can no longer hold.

Strange too the look of faces as they pass.
They see perhaps the mark of one who’s danced
Upon that midnight green beneath the trees,
With Fancy for his bride whose gossamer touch
Holds all who’ve known her, and with queenly ease,
Captures the heart that quails, and feels too much.

Mornings like this I see a world spread thin,
Its promises grown weak, its sunlight dimmed
To cast its spectral shadows on the walls –
The things and thoughts I once pursued in vain.
But now I know there’s nothing there at all,
And sooner would I sleep than wake again.

I am a step removed and move unknown,
Lost now to all who knew me as their own.
Thoughts turn to things unseen yet seeming real.
Faint music heard at dusk calls my return,
To dance again and then once more to feel,
The beat of Fancy’s heart, from whom I learn

The soul of one who hesitates to cross
The threshold of this world laments its loss.
It lingers at the edge of what is known,
Guilt wracked by its own strangeness crouching low,
Outcast from its own dreaming and alone,
Marks time until the music calls us home.

 

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singing bowlApologies for the tacky title. I’m speaking metaphorically of course. What I mean is you don’t need anything to meditate, other than the stuff you were born with. But if you buy a book on it, particularly a western one, it’s inevitable they’re going to try to sell you some junk, after all, they sold you the book for starters, so why stop there? There are all those guided meditation tapes, incense sticks, various “sacred objects”, special clothing, crystals, mats, gongs, and then there’s all that cool traditional Tibetan stuff as well – the beads the bangles and the singing bowls.

Yes, there are bowls that sing!

I bought one, which isn’t exactly setting a good example for what I have to say, but I was curious about them. Mine’s pictured above, a pretty little thing, made in Nepal from an alloy of copper, tin and zinc and iron. It’s called panchalonga and it has curious properties, but nothing mysterious. Humans have been making bells with it for a long time, because it rings and sustains vibration really well.

When you rub a stick around the outside of the bowl, the tiny vibrations become amplified, building up to the resonant frequency of the bowl. It’s the same effect as rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass, but fortunately a lot easier to produce. The sound can be quite loud, and fluctuates between two distinct tones as the bowl changes shape and flips from one node to the other.

To use a singing bowl you get comfy and, as with any meditation, focus down on the breath. You hold the bowl in one hand and find a position where you can comfortably make it sing with the stick in the other. Focusing on the pressure and the speed needed to get it to sing nicely is an excellent way of shutting out other thoughts. Too much pressure, and the sound is too loud, the vibrations make the stick chatter and screech around the outside, too little and the sound fades to nothing.

There’s also the effect of the sound itself, which, if you can go with it, coaxes the frequency of the “brain waves” into the alpha range. This is the same as REM sleep, where the brain goes for rest and repair. That’s the idea anyway, and well worth experimenting with. My own experience however has been that the sound is like a beacon to those who would disturb your meditation by bursting in and asking what the Hell’s that weird noise? or oh that’s cool, and can I have a go? If you’re seeking an Alpha trip you’re better with a binaural beats app or a tape of shamanic drumming – through earpieces of course. But that’s more paraphernalia.

My objection to paraphernalia is this: there’s a danger of developing a dependence upon it. What if you want to meditate when you’ve not got your singing bowl handy? Props are useful for putting you into a relaxed frame of mind, but one of the outcomes of the Western malaise – that toxic blend of stress, anxiety and depression, is the manifestation of obsessive tendencies, so we’re setting ourselves up from the outset with the means of our own defeat: I want to meditate, but I can’t because everything has to be just so,… and it isn’t.

I still like my singing bowl, and look forward to using it more often.

But mediation is still best done naked!

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linton falls

Linton Falls on the River Wharfe

I’d planned to walk on the western coast, Morecambe bay, from Arnside maybe, but the Met office suggested moving the itinerary east a bit to avoid drowning in the tail end of a tropical storm hurled clean across the Atlantic. So the Dales it was and a brief window of opportunity that closed around tea time. Here I enjoyed calm and intermittent blue skies punctuated by showers and dramatic clouds, which eventually thickened over Grassington to a uniform steel grey and a more persistent rain.

The falls at Linton have become a bit of a magnet of late, my third visit this year. £4.50 for the day on the little National Park Authority car park – expensive in these still straightened times, but still half the price of a day’s walk in the Lakes. A week’s rains had swollen the Wharfe to thunderous proportion. People drive for miles for these falls, go no further, and who can blame them? There is falling water everywhere, and a fine wooden bridge to carry you into its most spectacular and sonorous midst. All falls are a draw, each of unique character, and blessed with a spirit of place. At Linton the spirit is that of dragons.

But today the falls were admired only in passing as I made my way up-river. I followed heavy paths to begin, over lush cattle churned meadow, then finally a bit of narrow lane that dropped me down to Conistone and the Dib.

the wharfe

The Wharfe, near Conistone

Limestone country throws up some odd landscape features, none more curious than the Dib, a narrow nick between steep rock  and a secret passage into the higher green beyond. It’s the former course of a beck, now long disappeared, but bears evidence of thunderous erosion in ancient times. It also affords some light scrambling, and a sporting route up onto the Dales way. I last walked its course thirty years ago, thought I remembered the Dib fairly well, but it turns out I didn’t. When I was young, it was those simple little scrambles that fascinated, and I tacked them all together in memory, leaving out a vast and lovely lost vale that separates the beginning bit from the end.

Today it was the vale that most impressed.

dibbs

The Conistone Dib

After scrambling out of the Dib we find ourselves on the Dales Way, just here a gorgeous broad green path that leads you back to Grassington and the Falls – a round of eight and a half miles, and then a couple of days for my bones to recover from the pummelling of wild footways.

There was a peculiar scent on the Dales way. I was upwind of a large group of kids who’d spent days wandering the Dales with big packs, doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s. A charming chatty lot they were too, in spite of being mud-caked and looking like they were ready for a brew, and collectively smelling like,… well, like human beings, sweated by long exertion, and who’d not had the pleasure of a bath for a bit. They looked weary, but determined, and in good humour. I admired their grit, was heartened to discover there are still lions among our youth – sufficient I trust to see off the donkeys who shall oppress them in their near future with tick sheets and performance reviews. So roar! Roar my little ones, roar like you mean it.

The Dales way descends some four miles, gradually to Grassington. This is limestone and green sward at its best, and views out across the Wharfe to Cracoe Fell, and a walk I did one frost dusted morning last December. Scent of mud here, and moorland sedge, something metallic in it, and then rain as the dramatically darkening clouds burst and the wind stiffens to the coming storm’s refrain.

I continue to follow my nose as the scent of the farm comes up at me, a good mile off yet, but the air sweetened with the unmistakable aroma of cattle en-masse, and midden. And then it’s the slick cobbles of Grassington and the scent of coffee and beer and chips. I’ve yet to see Grassington in the dry, but no matter. The rain does not spoil it. It’s going the tourist way in parts of course, but retains a certain gritty charm. And so long as people still live here, and the holiday cottages do not outnumber them, I see no reason yet for alarm.

on the dales way

On the Dales Way

I wash the mud off my boots in a puddle by the car, peel off the waterproof trousers, roll them up and put them in the slowly decaying carrier bag I’ve kept them in for years. My knee delivers a warning stab as I slip off the boots – reminder of an old injury, result of a bed and a flight of stairs and an overestimation of ability. That was years ago, the injury I presume a feature I take forward now.

And driving home I wonder how I’ll remember this walk in another thirty years. I wonder too about the importance of the accuracy of recall, when our mind so easily bends things over time to its own ends, and to a mere precis of past moments. It’s can’t be that important, since it did not stop me from carrying a fondness for this place, nor a desire one day to return.

I’d better not leave it another thirty years or I’ll be eighty seven.

Still, I might just manage it.

We’ll see.

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So,… There’s a dampness to the air now, not as rich in oxygen, not as energising, and the light of a morning is limping to catch up with the days whose demands of course remain the same as always, regardless of the season. This is Autumn in the already dystopic closing years of the second decade, of the twenty first century.

I take a breath, long and deep, arms rising from my sides to form an arch above my head, legs tense, then relax. Breathe out,…

What?

My arms sink in front of me, as if compressing air, feeling for its springiness with the imagination, and as the body relaxes, there’s a rush to the brain, a moment of light-headedness, a tingle in the shoulders, the forearms, the palms. Don’t panic: it’s blood, and nerve energy, and “stuff”, and beyond this vague rationalisation, I try not to give it much thought.

Qigong is like the I Ching: you sleep better when, as Carl Jung said, you do not bother yourself, with how it works.

Repeat. Four times.

All right,  traditionally it’s eight.

Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, deep stuff, rising from mythology, from numerology. I don’t understand it, but I respect it’s contribution to the global zeitgeist, to which I admit not everyone may be attuned. Anyway, at the weekends, when time’s abundant, sure, it’s eight, but on a workaday morning at seven a.m. we’re conscious the traffic’s already backing up exponentially with respect to time, that the seconds later we are in joining it, the tens of minutes longer we spend sitting in it. Therefore, we make concessions. Four repeats. Obsession is, after all, the mother of pointlessness, while compromise is the father of mutual understanding. (No sexism implied)

Where were we?

Gathering energy from the heavens.

Okay., so,… it’s a flowery term, but then the Chinese, both ancient and modern, are like that. They are admirably fond of their flowery aphorisms. They called their first space station Tiangong – the Heavenly Palace – and why not? It’s due to burn up and crash to earth any time now, by the way. Unhelpful tangent Others, equally well named are planned.

Sorry, where we again?

Heavenly energy?

Right, it’s an opening move to most of the traditional Shaolin Qigong forms I know – or rather knew. I’ve had a long break from this stuff, distracted by the harder aspects of Kung Fu. What’s that? Where to begin? It’s how to dislocate an arm, a finger, break the calivical bone, where the critically debilitating pressure points are, what strike to use for best effect  – Panda or Phoenix Eye – how to release energy with a blow to make it really sting, how to parry, how to handle a sword. How to kill stone dead, and without compromise, or Marquess of Queensbury rules and all that.

Hmm,…

I don’t know how I got into all of that because it’s not my scene at all. It was younger sons, I suppose, for whom Chen style Tai Chi (my first love) was not macho enough. And I enjoyed their company, enjoyed watching them grow and connect with an eclectic miscellany of men, all pretending to be Ninjas, and from there make their own paths.

Don’t get me wrong, the stretching effect of ritual Kung Fu forms upon the body are a tonic, they keep you young and limber, and I am in awe of the Kung Fu greats, but in the end the rigours were becoming too much for a maturing frame, and even in the soft sparring of my little fight club, I was beginning to fear injury.

So, I’m starting from the beginning again, with foundation Qigong forms – breathing, rhythm, visualisation. It’s different for everyone this stuff, and no one can explain how it works. You get the traditionalists all tangled up in their esotericisms and the puzzled rationalists who do it because it feels good – but look blank at the meridian diagrams. And then there are those like me who fell into the esoteric, once, nearly drowned in its nonsense, but are coming back to a point where they can at least tread water.

Qigong isn’t something you can just do, say for an hour a week at a class. That’s where you learn the basics, sure, but it has to be established as part of a daily routine as well, a ritual part of your life. It cured my tinnitus, a decade ago, but the tinnitus is creeping back as the energy fades into late middle age, and the practice has fallen away. So I’m picking up the discipline again, and as I do, the tinnitus fades once more. I’m getting older, but there’s still much to do, much life to be lived, and I have an inkling the secret is simply to keep it moving. Use it or lose it, mate.

I’m coming up to my sixties. But that’s nothing. I’m assured by those who have gone before me there are still rich decades ahead.

Qigong.

It looks weird, but I’ve been here before, and people no longer take the piss when I’m doing it in my PJ’s in the kitchen while the kettle boils. What’s more I no longer care if they do because I find I have more confidence in it, and in myself when I’m doing it than I once did, which is progress of a sort. What does it do? It clears a space in your head, restores calm, extends one’s magnanimity far out into the tempestuousness of the day. If you’re up against a killer like Twister, it gives you a chance. If Twister is your day, it gets you through.

Noon.

It gets me to about noon before the stresses start caving me in, but what the stresses cannot do is take away the core insight that protects the soul, and Ip Man is the protector of my soul – at least when my Kung Fu is strong.

You can probably simulate this feeling with something out of a blister pack but, trust me,  it’s not the real thing. The thing out of the blister pack drugs the soul so it doesn’t mind the insult of the way we live, it doesn’t mind being flattened by the insult of Twister’s blows. Qigong provides the safe space, the stillness, in which the soul remembers itself, and can observe the life we live with a compassionate detachment. Life, as personified by the belligerent, Egoistic, taunting, daunting, Twister,  does not change, rather we remember who we are, and we do not mind the challenge so much any more. Indeed, we disregard it as irrelevant.

Okay, so we’ve gathered the heavenly stuff, so what’s next? Oh,.. right,… it’s that little twisty finger thing.

Breathe, tense the legs,… relax,..

Whoosh!…

Wow!

Okay,… Not sure how long that  header clip will remain on Youtube – hope you found it entertaining. Ip Man 2 is second only to the original Ip Man as my favourite martial art’s movie.

My humble respects to Sifu, Donnie Yen (Ip Man) and Sifu Darren Majian Shahlavi, the magnificently malign whirlwind of a boxer, Twister!
 

 

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tmp_2017072309511689647November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo – and though it’s only September, there’s already a buzz among online writers who are getting ready for it. It’s now no longer a national (USA) thing of course, and has swept up vast hoards of wannabe authors from around the globe. I admit to never having bothered with it, mainly because at the rate I write, it seems unrealistic I could produce a novel in just four weeks. But that’s not really the point.

The point of NaNoWriMo is fifty thousand words in thirty days. We’re not talking about quality of writing or a well plotted story here, more a significant quantity of words that hang together in some form of narrative. The point is not to ponder the details but to blast out the words, producing if necessary nothing more than a stream of consciousness. The end result might be implausible, poorly written, even unintelligible, but we can always go back and revise.

So, we can perhaps guess that many of the varied outputs of NaNoWriMo, frantically hacked out in those thirty days are unlikely to produce a Booker prize, at least not without significant revision, and so long as that’s understood we can see the constructive nature of the effort: you’ll never have something worth revising if you can’t get the words out in the first place. NaNoWriMo is a way of encouraging writers to get down to it. It’s also useful in that it allows us to gain energy for the task from like-minded members of an online group. Think of it as a vast writer’s workshop and supporting network.

But having said that I still won’t be taking part in it. It’s a serious commitment and for me at least would serve no purpose, since I’m not writing for anyone else. It also seems somewhat perverse encouraging writers of fiction when the market for our produce is in decline. Simply put: fewer people are reading stories. There are already too many words, and fiction is out of fashion. We would be better encouraging reading fiction instead.

The term “geek” should be outlawed as an abuse to intelligence, but it is regularly used to besmirch the bookish. And no one wants to be a geek. No one wants to be seen as anything other than fashionably sexy, even if that means pretending to be dumb as well. Amongst young males in particular reading is considered seriously un-cool. I know it’s a challenge with so many alternative forms of entertainment around – check your Facebook stuff, or spend and hour with a novel? Those who love reading will take the novel every time, but they’ll be mostly older people, like me who don’t know what Facebook is.

Does it matter? I think it does. I’m a long time writer of stories. I create characters, have them interact in ways I find intriguing, and I present ideas on the nature of relationships and our purpose in the world. I may be completely wrong in my views but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as with all art, is that it provokes a reaction because it’s through the reaction the beholder gains an intelligent independence of thought and an instinctive appreciation of what’s right and what’s wrong. Reading fiction is good for the soul.

Fiction is a peculiar thing, an elaborate lie, an account of something we’re all agreed never happened, and we happily step into the fantasy, become immersed in it far more than we could ever be immersed in a visual drama, say a film or a play, because with fiction we get inside heads where the business of thinking takes place and we see things as others see them. Reading fiction therefore can render us more sympathetic and empathic towards others. Such things are not strictly necessary of course if all we need as a species is to function at the unconscious level of a machine, but one day we’ll have robots for that and they’ll be far better at it than we are.

In spite of the concerted effort of materialists over the decades, human beings can never be adequately defined as machines. There’s always going to be more to us, and one of the things that sets us apart is our relationship with stories. The story teller has the skill of invention and the holding of attention by playing upon the archetypal substrate from which we all rise. This grants him a unique place in society. But if no one’s listening any more, the story teller might as well go chop wood. So by all means, do your fifty thousand words in November, but for your sins, you should then spend the whole of December reading a book – no, four books. And then, to show you were paying attention to them, write a blog telling us your impressions of each one.

 

 

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wordsworthTwo by two they marched into St Oswald’s churchyard, the entire complement of a seventy seater coach. At their head a suited guide, complete with microphone, broadcast his authoritative commentary over the ethereal hush. It was a vast entourage of American tourists, well heeled and,… damn, they were heading in our direction, seeking Wordsworth’s grave. It was a bold flanking manoeuvre, completely overwhelming us few native poetry bums who had gathered there. We took a deep breath, prepared to stand our ground, prepared also for our politeness to scatter us into the shadows.

There were a lot of American accents in Grasmere this afternoon and a busy-busy atmosphere pervading the early autumnal air. In the cafe queue, earlier, I’d been pressed aside by an assertive and impressively articulate dude complaining his sandwich was taking a long time and that he was under “very considerable time constraint”. This poor guy was on holiday, but he was still caught up in the world of work, in the achievement culture. I recognised his accent, his idiosyncratic use of language. It pinpointed him squarely in the nether geography of performance reviews, and endless Powerpoint presentations. I wondered if he was in this queue now, the queue for Wordsworth’s grave, a similar time constraint weighing heavy – Dove cottage and the visitor centre yet to be ticked off. And boy, there were so many graves with Wordsworth’s name written on them. Thank heavens for the tour guide and his live-broadcast commentary to home in on the essentials.

I moved on as the guide came up pointing out the poet’s resting place. Sadly he was pointing to the wrong William. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I would have expected better research from one so prepossessing as this. Willy (1810-1883), had not followed in his father’s (1770-1850) poetic footsteps, but on reflection the faux pas didn’t matter, at least not in the world inhabited by these poor souls. They had done the grave thing, ticked the box. Most would probably not remember and somehow it all meshed perfectly with the achievement culture thing: Britain by tick-box, the myth of old Englandism: a vibrant, if at times raggedy and fiercely intellectual nation reduced to no more than frock coats, bustles and Mr Darcy’s wet trousers.

To think, poor William and his family have to put up with this sort of thing every day!

I have a difficult relationship with Wordsworth. I read him like all fan-boys as if looking for the key to my own enlightenment. I do find him occasionally profound, but also pompous and immensely verbose. He walked the fells as feverishly as I walked them in my younger days, but at a time when they were not so worn out, when the paths were vague, known only to shepherds, and orange peel did not litter the summits. But the Victorians in all their chocolate box glory were also notable that in their fondness for the sublime they also had a penchant for bludgeoning it to death with words whenever it put in an appearance.

Other philosophers, of the Zen Tradition, in lands far away, had already worked out one could not define the sublime by rich, eloquent and, above all, copious wordery. The poet Basho is a case in point, writing two centuries earlier than Wordsworth, and with a stunning brevity, his Haiku verses connected the human mind with the sublime without attempting to describe it. When words fail us, it’s for a reason and it’s best at that point just to shut up and let nature fill the space in our heads.

But when our heads are enamoured of the schedule and all those dubious measures of achievement, when we are for ever under the cosh of “considerable time constraint”, it’s really all the same if it’s Willy or William we’re looking at because by then the truth is of no consequence and bluff and fakery will suffice perfectly well instead for fact.

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booksI’ve heard this question asked a lot over the years,  and several times just this week by professional writers plugging their upcoming novels in the national media. It’s about attention span, they say, the average reader no longer able to focus on anything for more than five minutes. We’re addicted instead to the click and swipe of instant gratification, shunning the immersive print experience in favour of the video game and the TV box-set. It makes us all sound quite dumb, actually, doesn’t it, with only the writers managing to retain their literary virtue.

It’s true, I do spend a lot of time clicking and swiping on my ‘phone – get all my news from there these days, also endless snippets of trivia that informs my world view. I’ve also spent a long time playing video games and bingeing on box-sets – nordic noir being a particular weakness. But I’m not reading fewer novels. In fact I think I’m reading more these days. The internet broadens our awareness of what books exist, tells us of the lives of writers, and the critical appeal of certain works, so when I encounter books in the wild, so to speak, I am more likely to buy them. But what I’m not doing is buying them new. I buy older fiction, and I wait for new fiction to become old before I take the plunge. In short, I have forsaken the bookshop for the charity shop where books are abundant and ever so cheap.

Assuming I’m a typical buyer, then, I suggest the main reason for the novel’s decline is simply how much it costs to buy a new one. Measured as a monetised commodity, and judged on sales, your new best-seller may well be in decline, but it’s wrong to assume this suggests reading is in decline as well. And then there’s always this class thing at work in writerly circles, where the aristocratic top one percent earn most of the money – the so called A-listers – while the rest can’t earn a living at it any more. The vast bulk of published material is no longer lucrative enough for your average artist to justify toiling at it. Fewer books are being written for money because, simply put: there’s no money in it now. So it is writers themselves who are losing their faith in the novel, and blaming its decline on the readers and a shrinking market that’s not our fault.

The last time I looked even a moderately successful also-ran author was earning less than minimum wage, so there would be no point giving up the day job. As for your amateur sending stuff in on spec, the financial rewards for beating the stupendous odds and gaining acceptance for your book are looking pretty shoddy now, not much better than giving it away online. Which brings us neatly to self publishing.

Nowadays anyone who has a story in them, and that’s most of us, can self-publish and be damned, and a lot of us are still doing it, damned or not. Yes, we’re a shambolic and eclectic bunch, us self publishers, careless of genre and spelling, and yes, we could probably do with the cut and trim of a professional editor behind us, but the novel, the short story, the novella, even the poem, as a means of artistic expression seems, from my perspective, a long way from dying out. It’s just that most of us doing it now aren’t even recognised as writers at all, and especially by those who think they still are.

It’s professionals then who are fleeing the field, leaving amateurs like me to man the barricades.

The novel is not dying, it’s just changing tack.

Be not afraid, oh you lucky people!

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