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Requiem

requiemSo, I drove into town this afternoon. I had no plan, just wanted a change of scene. I was feeling reflective, a little down, in need of space. I purchased a charging cable for my iPad (original) £4.99 from B+M Bargains. The last one I bought, years ago, cost me twenty quid. Then it was the charity shops, St Catherine’s – easily the best book shop in town, where I picked up Dylan Thomas’ Miscellany One for a pound, ditto Proulx’s Postcards. Then I checked out Age Concern, picked up “The Visible World” by Mark Slouka, and “The Statement” by Brian Moore. It was three for a pound, but I couldn’t find a third, so we’ll say fifty pence each. All told four books for three quid, and a charging cable for a fiver. No one can accuse me of being high maintenance. None of this is relevant.

Actually, my mind has been elsewhere since Friday morning when I learned of the death of an early mentor, a great man the world has never heard of. I knew him best for a year, commencing Winter ’81, through to the Summer of ’82. It’s hard to describe the depth of the connection, nor the awakening into my personal adulthood it presaged. I was twenty one, he was ten years older, an engineer of the first rank, yet a man who’d left school at fourteen unable to read or write. His is the stuff of legend, and inspiration.

When I met him he was a C Eng and member of the venerable Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Astute, courageous, married with a young family, he was everything I aspired to be. We were solving problems in fluid dynamics, trying to equate the physical results we were seeing with theoretical concepts. I was a dullard with maths, until I met him. He joined the dots for me, woke me up to my career. Sadly though I reflect that nowadays someone leaving school at fourteen, illiterate, has no means of bettering themselves – the ladder has been kicked away. He would be considered unemployable now.

But academia aside, he was also a deeply sympathetic man, fatherly, the sort of man who managed to make an insecure twenty one year old lad he’d never met before feel he was worth something, set him down on a path I’ve been following pretty much since those early days. I became a C. Eng myself at twenty six. I would not have bothered had it not been for him. His was the mark I set for myself.

He studied philosophy and psychology later on, and though I’d lost touch with him by then, I think there was still a subliminal connection. This was in the late nineties, around the time I discovered Jung, and the worthlessness of that C. Eng. Even though I was no longer working with him, he was still an influence in many unexpected ways, and I often thought of him.

He retired early, first decade of the millennium, a bit of a square peg in a round hole by then, having grown to the point of seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes, and calling it out for what it was. None contested his going – the truth is often uncomfortable to those who cannot see it. He fell ill with MS shortly thereafter, and suffered a long, debilitating decline, ending with complete immobility and cancer of the lung. I’m told he maintained an unassailable optimism and enthusiasm for life throughout, and is on record as saying how little one actually needs in life to be profoundly happy.

What shook me was the news that in later years he had become a prolific poet. I wish I had made more of an effort, beyond simply asking after his health and passing on my regards through others. I’m sure there was much we could have shared.

He gained precious little time from his retirement. Few remembered him from the old place, just the lifers like me. When I heard the news, I took myself into a side room where I could be quiet for a while, and there I wept. It was for more than his passing, which I felt keenly enough, but also for a sense of lost opportunity. I have often thought about him, gratitude for his kindness, and his presence during that formative period of my life.

I’m not sure what will happen to his poems – if they will ever see the light of day or not. He never owned a computer, never discovered the internet, his intellect unsullied by it, and none the worse. As a man  I loved him, that much is plain. He was the coolest guy on earth, but I remember him with his bushy moustache, his long hair and his sport’s coat, not as he was at sixty six, and looking ninety, his body knackered, distorted into indignity with MS, only the smile recognisable as belonging to the soul I knew and connected with all those years ago.

God rest you man. Those were the days, indeed. The decades since have felt like I’ve been biding my time for something else, but news of your passing reminds me there is nothing else to come, that this is it.

Flipping through the books I bought, though it’s it’s way past midnight and I should be abed, I realise don’t know Dylan Thomas very well. His opening to a Miscellany is a kind of stream of consciousness, reminiscent of Joyce. But I like the Celtic voice and I’ll hear him out, though no doubt with minimal understanding. The years slip by so easily now, so quickly and each one seeming the same and bringing nothing new, it’s incredible the years ’81 and ’82 could have contained so much its remained with me and proved to be of such intensity it was wept out in a private moment some thirty five years later.

I drove home from town with the top up on the Mazda. I did not care to drop it, though the afternoon was fine and warm. I’m wondering about my last blog piece, describing my novel’s drift into polyamory. I read a poem my mentor wrote, and it shames me with its effortless prowess. I’m sure he would have put me straight, like he did with those equations years ago, set me on a surer path.

I need to get my head together much better than this.

Thanks for listening.

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trio - giorgioni - 1510So, boy meets girl, boy meets another girl. The other girl meets the first girl and while he’s still thinking about what each of them means to him, the girls fall in love with each other, while both still being attracted to the boy. Thus, the boy doesn’t necessarily lose them both by his dithering, because the girls have a plan. He can enter into a polyamorous relationship with them, if he wants. So, will he or won’t he? Or, more to the point: should he or shouldn’t he?

It’s an unusual scenario, some might go so far as to say unlikely in real life, and I’d be one of them, except it does happen. What’s interesting about it is it reveals love as a more richly nuanced thing than is suggested by the traditional mythology of the one true love, and the eternal soul-mate thing. Somehow the jealousy and the exclusivity inherent in the one-on-one relationship is dissolved by love itself. Egos are transcended, rendering the presence of an intimate additional “other” not only psychologically acceptable, but essential in creating a uniquely robust and profoundly rewarding, life-enhancing relationship. Or so the theory goes.

My problem in trying to write about it is it’s never happened to me, nor would I particularly relish the prospect – not out of disapproval, but more that I would probably, in all honesty, find it impossibly confusing. That said, it’s a motif that’s popped up a couple of times in my stories so I’m obviously intrigued by it.

I don’t mean the sexual mechanics. There’s plenty to satisfy one’s curiosity in those terms elsewhere online. No, it’s not so much what happens in the bedroom that’s interesting as what exchanges take place over the tea table, say after a twelve hour working day when everyone’s tired and stressed and the washing up still needs doing and the bins need taking out. How would it mesh emotionally? Could it really produce something positive and stable into old age, or would it disintegrate into acrimony even faster than a conventional relationship? Or might it be an advantage, a third pair of hands, especially now in a society when two partners busting their guts on minimum wage are still struggling to make ends meet? Could it be that what we need now in order to beat a system that’s increasingly stacked against us, is a bigger matrimonial team?

I suppose like any relationship, it comes down to the individuals and the chemistry between them.

When I write, I let my characters develop without actively plotting. Loosely translated, this means I make it up as I go along, and this occasionally lands me in an emotional paradox or a plot maze from which there’s no plausible escape – and this may be one of them. A poly-amorous threeway is a hard sell in polite society, because there’s always going to be a suspicion one of the three is being taken for a mug, while another is having everyone’s cake and eating it.

I’ve only followed through once, in the Lavender and the Rose, but that was an odd story of blurred time-lines, ciphers, dreams and ambiguous identities, where the past informed the present, and vice versa and characters crossed from one historical period to the other, being both real and unreal at the same time. With all that going on, a bit of polyamory was the least challenging thing I was asking the reader to swallow.

But I’ve run into it again in the Sea View Cafe, the current work in progress, a single time-line, contemporary romance, in post BREXIT Britain – no room to hide in the fuzzy sanctuary of fantasy. Both women and the guy are looking to protect each other amid a creeping zeitgeist of bigotry, lawlessness, inhumanity and near societal collapse – yes I’m a bit of a Remoaner. The polyamory thing came up unexpectedly, an unlikely solution to the old “obstacles to love” chestnut, but there you go.

Which girl does he choose? Well, stuff that, say the girls, we choose each other but he can join in with us if he wants because actually we still quite fancy him. Yes, I’m expecting the reader to accept that as plausible, but we’re not really there yet. Having the women in charge removes the danger of accusations of misogynistic abuse, but what it doesn’t avoid is the danger of puerile male sexual fantasy. And I don’t think that’s what this is about. So what is it about?

Well, polyamory is not like swinging. In the swinging relationship, couples exchange partners for casual sex, and the relationships thus formed are not intended to be long lasting. Polyamory is different, it operates at a deeper emotional level. Operating as a closed, long-term relationship, all the needs of the individuals – emotional and sexual, are met within the group, which forms a safe, exclusive zone of love and trust and loyalty. But perhaps the defining characteristic, as with a conventional relationship, is that the loss of one partner, be it to death or infidelity, would be devastating to the whole – or at least that’s the way it’s turning out in the Sea View Cafe.

For now I’m hung on up on the plausibility of it and it’s slowing me down, but as one of the protagonists, Helena, keeps challenging me: what is plausible about the times we live in, Michael? Who could have dreamed up the headlines we are assailed with on a daily basis now, even so little as five years ago. And if we are to survive this tumultuous era is it not essential we become much more open and flexible in our thinking?

Until a decade ago it seemed we were making great strides in creating a more open and inclusive society. If our response now to the economic decline and political disruption of the west is no more sophisticated than a reversion to social conservatism, we have much darker days to come. But a loss of wealth and global significance need not result also in a decline in emotional intelligence and a narrowing of minds, though sadly those headlines suggest the contrary. Only an ever greater openness and a willingness to cooperate will overcome the evils oppressing us, but we’ll also have to ditch our mobile phones, through which small voices and small minds these days are amplified far beyond what is reasonable, manufacturing consent even among intelligent people for much worse things than bending the rules on what love is supposed to be, exactly, and how best to act on it.

As a dream symbol, polyamory can perhaps best be read as a need for us to transcend convention. While of course I do not advocate it, literally, as a solution to society’s ills, what I am coming around to thinking at last as I finish my meanderings through this ponderous blog: dammit, Helena, you’re right. If it moves things in a positive direction,…

Let’s just go for it!

the master

Things move on. Gone are the days of Feedbooks when any old noob indy could self publish on there for free and have a hundred downloads by morning. Feedbooks is still going but for the self publishing indy it died ages ago. Stats suggest very few readers find their way to my stuff any more so I do’t bother with it – might as well stuff it in a drawer for all the good it will do.  But all is not lost: there’s always Free Ebooks.

This is another of those sites you can load your fiction onto. The model is a simple one – thousands of writers provide free content around which the site owners serve advertising and marketing packages which pay for site’s upkeep. Like Smashwords they want your manuscripts in MS word format, but don’t seem as fussy over the formatting – or it may be that I’m submitting stuff that’s already passed the Smashword’s meat-grinder test.

Downloads are encouraging – quite a spike early on, levelling off to a few clicks per day thereafter. I suspect it’ll be like Smashwords in the longer term, eventually flat-lining at a thousand clicks or so with only the occasional flutter thereafter. Yes, they want you to sign up for their marketing packages and all that, but I’m not going to advise you to ignore them because you know it’s a cardinal rule writers never pay publishers anything, don’t you? As for Free Ebooks paying you, well, there is an option for readers to donate through Paypal, but I wouldn’t expect more than the price of a cup of coffee now and then, and it’s certainly not worth giving up the day job.

Smashwords is still very much alive and well of course, and well worth submitting to if only for the free ISBN, and Wattpad is picking up in a strange kind of way too, though it requires a bit of engagement on your part, being more of a community thing, but that’s cute and I’m finding it has a nice feedback vibe for stuff you put on there piecemeal. I’ve been trying out the Sea View Cafe on it for a while now – at least up to the point where it got quagmired in my usual three-way polyamory trap – more on that in the next blog. I can recommend it for early drafts, but again it’s not going to change your life much. And once a story’s done on there, well,… it’s done and you might as well delete it.

So yes, things move on, but they’re not dying out. Online and digital are still the only way to go for the majority of unaffiliated wannabe writers. I predict the only bookshops in a decade’s time will be charity shops selling increasingly dog eared and spine busted samples of that old paper-tech, that actual books will have become an upmarket thing, paperbacks costing thirty quid a go. And us ordinary folk will have no recourse to libraries anymore, so this mad bagatelle of free online stuff will be our daily fayre.

So don’t despair, you young uns might have robots to contend with for your day-jobs by then, but at the end of it you’ll still be able to kick back of a night inside your cosy plastic nano-pod, with whatever passes for a mobile phone, and read, and think how: quaint, those days of paper. Hopefully some my stuff will still be around, scraped up by the content farming sites. And maybe amongst my writings you’ll discover a lost world where people fell in love face to face rather than dialling partners up via an app, a world where our dreams still meant something and we used to laugh at the idea of cars driving themselves.

So, anyway, if you’re a writer looking to share some ideas, some stories, do check out Free Ebooks! It’s like Smashwords, and a bit of a dead-zone as far as feedback’s concerned, though I have picked up a couple of four-stars. But if you want people to talk to you about what you write as you write it, go to Wattpad. Whatever you do though don’t get hung up on the mechanics of self publishing, on the clicks and stats at the expense of,… well,… writing. Just get your stuff on the Internet any which way you can and whoever was meant to read it will find it.

meridian systemI was lying on a table in the back room of a two up two down terraced former mill-house in Chorley, pins sticking out of my arms, my legs and my face, and I felt weird, but in a good way. No, this isn’t the opening of a piece of fiction. This was 2007 and the beginning of my journey into the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine, my first consultation with an acupuncturist – though my experience and subsequent journey into the esoteric, did go a long way in informing my romantic story “Push Hands”.

I’d felt I had no choice in trying acupuncture, being afflicted with a ringing ear that western medicine could do nothing about. And you know what? It worked – of a fashion. Over a period my ringing ear didn’t ring so much any more. And the sessions made me feel different in other ways. I was suddenly more relaxed, more clear headed and energetic. In short, I felt better and a good ten years younger.

Acupuncture’s not available on the NHS, and at thirty quid a session, and with anything up to a dozen sessions or more being required, depending on what ails you, you have to be sure you want to use it. But then I found you could maintain that calmness, that clear headed, relaxed feeling by practising Tai Chi and Qigong. And eventually as we practice, we feel unfamiliar sensations in the hands and the arms, and we wonder: is it Qi?

I began, years ago thinking to nail this mysterious business of Qi, because without it, I believed, TCM and all that mind-body stuff didn’t make sense. But I’ve ended with a more pragmatic view, and a greater understanding of western physiology which explains things well enough if you can only be bothered getting to the bottom of it. I still hear Qi talked about in classes, and it grates a little now, but you can approach it from different angles, both from the traditional, and the practical and the secret is not to get hung up on either. Just do the exercises, the meditation; visualise, rationalise it however you want. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is it works.

One of my biggest frustrations with the traditional path is there has never been a consensus among so called masters about what Qi is, at least nothing one can glean from reading their books. With medical science, the more you read, the clearer things become. With Qi, however, the more you read, the less you understand anything at all. I’ve come to the conclusion the whole business is more of a misunderstanding, born partly out of a rejection of science in the west among those largely resistant to or ignorant of it, and in the east a willingness to present concepts in terms of what we apparently want to believe. And what we want to believe in is Qi.

In that acupuncturist’s consulting room there was a dummy with all the acupuncture points indicated as dots, with lines joining them like the map of a railway system. The lines indicate the so called meridians along which Qi is said to flow, an idea that can be traced back to a book by George Soulie de Morant, an early translator of oriental philosophy. But the strange thing is even the most revered founding oriental work on acupuncture, the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook doesn’t mention meridians. The meridian theory appears to have been an early twentieth century, and largely western, invention. It caught on and we’ve been talking rubbish ever since.

The acupuncture points are real enough. They are what we would now call neuro-vascular nodes, areas dense in fine veins and nerves, situated along the routes of the major arteries. These are referred to in early Chinese texts, a link having been found between them and the function of the organs of the body, that stimulating them can bring about certain healing effects – reducing inflammation, pain, sickness. The precise mechanism is complex and not well understood, but appears to be a result of the stimulation of the body’s natural healing mechanisms. In short, TCM works and is very effective, but the meridian theory, the model underpinning it, as presented to the west, and all its talk of Qi, is misleading at best, at worst, plain wrong.

But having said that it’s sometimes still useful to think in terms of Qi, more as a metaphor of physical effects. In practical terms, Qi has two components. One is oxygen, the other is glucose. The oxygen we get by breathing air, while glucose comes from the food in our stomachs. Both are carried by the blood to every part of the body where they combine to produce chemical energy, either for motion, or for healing and regeneration of tissue. Practices like Tai Chi and Qigong encourage deep breathing, boosting the amount of oxygen in the blood – you also get hot and you sweat because the by product of the body’s chemical equation is heat and water. Heat and water are a good sign. The movements during practice stimulate the neuro-vascular nodes, drive the lymph, and the relaxed, mindful attitude encourages a return to homeostasis, a neutral chemical balance essential for a healthy body. To practice Tai Chi or Qigong for an hour a day is to experience a dramatic change in the way you see and feel your body and the world about you.

The problem for westerners has been the gradual erosion of any romantic notions regarding one’s existence. Medical science has reduced life to a series of mechanical functions, an approach that, while advancing our understanding to miraculous levels, has ironically sucked the life out of being, and what we crave is a return to the mysterious. Perhaps in Qi we have been seeking to put the soul back into the machinery, and to revivify belief in the reality of our selves. But the path of the soul is something else, a somewhat longer journey of which the mind-body stuff can be a part, but only in the sense that in calming the mind, in freeing it from the debilitating distractions of the material life, it can then, in quieter times, return more readily to a deeper contemplation of other things.

The Zen of Ten

great wave croppedI lost an evening writing because my laptop, which runs on Windows 10, decided to update itself. I’ve tried various ways of stopping it from doing this, but it’s smarter than me and it will have its updates when it wants them, whether I like it or not, even at the cost of periodically throttling my machine and rendering it useless. Then I have to spend another evening undoing the update.

I don’t suppose it matters – not in the great scheme of things, anyway. I mean it’s not like I’m up against any publisher’s deadlines or anything. I feel it more as an intrusion by an alien intelligence, adding another non-productive task to the list of other non-productive tasks of which my life largely consists these days.

No, in the great scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I write, or what I write, or how I write, because there’s this aphorism that says something to the effect that in spite of how we feel, virtually all the time, things can never be more perfect than they are right now, that attaining this glorious state of being is simply matter of removing the scales from our eyes, of seeing and feeling the world differently. From that perspective, blogging’s just a big box I dump my spleen into now and then and my novels, what I once thought of as my reason for being – struggles for plausibility, for meaning, authentically channelling the muse, desperately seeking the right ending and all that – I mean,… really, who cares? It’s just some stuff I made up.

As you can tell, I’m feeling very Zen at the moment. Either that or depressed. The difference between Zen and depression? Depression is to be oppressed by emptiness. Zen is to embrace it. It’s to do with the same existential conundrum, I think, just opposite ends of the scale.

The writing life is one of negotiating distraction. You hold the intention to write at the back of your mind while being diverted by all these other activities – making a meal, washing it up, You-tube, Instagram, mowing the grass, cleaning your shoes, scraping the squished remains of that chocolate bar from your car seat,…

Such tasks are not unavoidable. You could simply ignore them, flagellate yourself, force yourself to sit down and write, but sometimes if you’re too disciplined, you find the words won’t come anyway because the muse is slighted, or out to lunch or something. So you fiddle about, you meander your way around your distractions, all the while building pressure to get something out, to sit down when you find a bit of space and peace, usually late in the day when you’ve already promised yourself an early night, and you’re too tired to do anything about it anyway. And then you find Windows 10 is in the process of updating itself.

Damn!

So what is it with this technology anyway? Does a writer really need it to such an extent? I mean, computers seem to be assuming a sense of self importance way beyond their utility. I suppose I could go back to longhand, like when I was a schoolboy, pre-computer days, or for £20 I could go back to Bygone Times and pick up that old Silver Reed clatter bucket and eat trees with it again – do they still sell Tippex? Neither of these options appeal though, being far too retrograde. No, sadly, a writer needs a computer now, especially a writer like me who relies upon it as a portal to the online market – “market” being perhaps not the best choice of the word, implying as it does a place to sell goods when I don’t actually sell anything. What do you call a market where you give your stuff away? Answers on an e-postcard please. But really, it doesn’t matter, because remember: nothing could ever be more perfect than it is right now.

Except,… everything is weird. Have you noticed? America’s gone mad, and we Brits, finally wetting our pants with xenophobia, have sawn off the branch we’ve been sitting on for forty years, gone crashing down into the unknown. And if this is the best we can come up with after all our theorising and thinking, and our damned Windows 10 with its constant updates, it’s time we wiped the slate clean and started afresh with our ABC’s, and a better heart and a clearer head.

I don’t know,… if I actually I knew anything about Zen, it would be a good time to retreat into monkish seclusion, compose impenetrable Haiku, scratch the lines on pebbles with a rusty nail and toss them into the sea. We’ve had ten thousand years of the wisdom of sages and the world’s getting dumber by the day. How does that happen?

Not to be discouraged, I bought a copy of Windows XP for a fiver off Ebay. It’s as obsolete as you can get these days while remaining useful. Indeed, it’s still probably controlling all the world’s nuclear power stations – except for those still relying on DOS – so I should manage okay with it. I have it on an old laptop, permanently isolated from the Internet, so the bad guys can’t hack it, and it can’t update itself. It responds like greased lightning. Okay, I know I still need Windows 10 to actually publish stuff, but at least I have a machine I can rely on for the basics of just writing now.

But did I ever tell you I don’t like writing about writing? Well, here I am doing it again aren’t I? But have you noticed, if you search WordPress for “writers”, or “writing”, that’s what tends to pop up, all of us writers writing about writing, when what I really want to read is their actual stuff, what they think about – you know, things, what the world looks like from their part of, well, the world, and through their eyes and their idiosyncrasies, and all that, which is what I thought writers were supposed to do. Or maybe that’s it these days and, like Windows 10 we’ve been updated beyond the point to which we make sense any more, become instead a massive circular reference in the spreadsheet of life, destined soon to disappear up our own posteriors.

Okay, we’ve tripped the thousand word warning now, when five hundred is considered a long piece these days – just enough to sound quirky and cool, while saying nothing at all.

Brevity, Michael! No one likes a smart-arse,… especially a long winded one.

Graeme out.

Grace

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A small market town up North, far less prosperous now than it once was. It was the place to go when things were needed that the corner shop in my outlying rural village could not provide. But nowadays the town does not provide that either. I mostly order my needs off the Internet, and the postman delivers.

In memory, probably rose tinted, it was a prouder place back then. Do I imagine that on Saturday afternoons people would dress up to go shopping? Men would wear clean shirts, jackets and aftershave, ladies their fashionable dresses, high heels, and lipstick. Film actresses have walked Market Street in their finery on the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, crossed the road by Woolworths on their way to Boots. Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I have seen them all on the catwalk that was the pelican crossing by the old Town Hall.

There were innumerable family businesses here, names over doors that had stood for generations – bookshops, shoe-shops, florists, shops for artists, photography shops, all gone now and the town has dissolved into a place of thrift, of bookmaking, of pawn-brokering, e-cigs and of bargain booze. And in their passing something has happened to us.

I don’t know when it happened, or how, or why, or even what I mean exactly. It’s more than money, more than the economy. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I could use a word like respectability, but risk accusations of elitism and a hankering after the nineteen fifties, when working men still doffed their caps to toffs.

As I walked Market Street this afternoon, I heard a group of women plainly from a hundred yards away, fag-raw voices much amplified by alcohol. I thought they were fighting, but they were simply talking, oblivious to the obstacle and the spectacle they created on the pavement. Of course such unselfconsciousness can be argued as a virtue, not caring to live one’s life through the eyes of other people, and hurrah for that, I suppose, but at the risk of sounding like an insufferable snob, there was something unpleasant about their laddishness, something embarrassing, even threatening. Oh, I’m sure had they read my mind, intuited my feelings they would have given me the finger, and well deserved.

Grace. I think it’s the loss of grace I mean – the grace of the actress, of the ballroom, of the dancer – it’s gone from all our lives now, though I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet I still search the crowd for it – in vain mostly – seeing only rags instead of finery, and stout, hideously tattooed stumps in place of dancers’ legs. I have largely withdrawn such sensibilities into imagination, hesitate to express them.

And charity shops.

We have a lot of charity shops now, a dozen at last counting. They are the only places capable of thriving, the only reliable landmarks on the high street – all else is pitifully feeble, ephemeral. They smell, don’t they? I used to find it off-putting – something unclean, I thought, and for a long time resisted the plunge – just one more step in my own fall from gracefulness.

It helped I could find decent books in there, good novels, literature, a handful for a fiver and just as well in straightened times – for such an appetite would cost fifty quid from a bookshop and quite out of the question. But there are no bookshops any more.

I like the Heart Foundation. Their books are well ordered, easy to scan, always a generous selection. And that’s where I saw her.

She was tall, slim, a voluminous cascade of seemingly luminescent blonde hair falling down her back. She had an upright posture, head balanced with a dancer’s poise, chin up, directing her gaze as she swept the titles with a leisurely, bookish grace. She wore a pair of snug blue jeans and a green shirt over a cream camisole – not a young woman by any means, forties perhaps,… and so far so much of a cliche.

The movie cute-meet would no doubt have been our fingers reaching out for the same title, something by Sebastian Barry perhaps – always a hard find in a charity shop. Our fingers would brush, then we’d each draw back with an embarrassed laugh.

“After you,” I’d say.

She’d smile, blush, reveal endearing dimples and a row of Hollywood perfect teeth. “No, you first. I’ve read it anyway. You like Barry?”

And thus we would connect, two lost, bookish souls finding succour among the cast offs in this wasted northern town, which seemed at once less wasted for her presence in it.

Poise. Yes, it was her poise that caught my eye, her arm gently reaching up to the book-shelf, something of a reserved curve to it, ending in a languorously relaxed hand, only the index and middle fingers forming a stiffly extended double pointer as if to aid in this most delicate act of intimate divination, or to bless.

Stillness, grace, presence. She had presence. But what was she doing there, a woman like that? She was quite, out of place, out of time.

I was beside her at the bookshelf, but only for a moment. No cute-meet here. I felt my presence as a vulgar intrusion upon such grace and visceral femininity. I feared her effect on me could not go unnoticed, that I would disturb her, make her uneasy, that her grace would stiffen, become angular with suspicion, that by observing it, I would destroy it.

I felt stung then by something very old, a feverishness overcoming me, ancient but familiar. I have taught myself over the years of useless infatuation, successfully I believe, to see women as human beings. It’s what they want, they tell me, this elimination of objectification. But without the object, the symbolism also dies, and love is next to divinity. Yet here was one out of the blue coming at me as a goddess again.

I melted away unseen.

What was all that about?

Chapter one, I think, that’s what all that was about!

standing stoneThe Ryoan-ji garden is an ancient rock garden in Japan, in the Zen tradition. It’s a so called dry garden, consisting of groups of large stones place upon a bed of smooth-worn and finely raked pebbles. I’ve studied Zen as an amateur student for years, but it’s an enigmatic subject, difficult to gain purchase and try as I might I still know virtually nothing about it. In a similar way I’m no doubt entirely ignorant of the deeper meaning of this garden. One of its intriguing and more talked about features however is that no matter what angle we view it from we can only ever count fourteen stones.

There are actually fifteen stones, but one of them is always hidden from view by the others, so we can never know for sure that there are fifteen, presumably without flying over the garden and viewing it from an elevated perspective. So, how many stones are there? Answer, obviously fifteen, but how many in our experience? How many from our every day perspective?

I’m not sure if this is an important Zen teaching, or if I’m creating a tangential one of my own, but it’s a useful concept none the less, that reality is always subjective and cannot help  but conceal both it’s true nature and, by inference, our own.

On a not unrelated subject, about twelve hours ago, I ate breakfast in the garden of a cottage overlooking the North Sea, a little to the north of Scarborough. I sipped coffee as I contemplated the changing shades of blue, and I tried to hold on to the scene, to imprint it in memory, both visually and emotionally, because I knew I would shortly be taking my leave of it and it would be a long time before I came this way again, indeed if ever.

Like that fifteenth stone the view is now hidden. I know it exists from some other perspective, but what I’m left with now, as I tap this out are the fourteen stones of a more mundane reality.

The ability to hold on to an awareness of the fifteenth stone is helped by having seen it in the first place. No amount of being told of its existence can substitute for the experience of seeing it. Merely being told it’s there requires faith and trust, when you cannot see it yourself.

Of course what I was looking at this morning was a reflection of my own self in a reality that was closer to the truth of who felt I am, of who we all are when not pummelled into a different shape by the repetitive and habitual lives that normally contain us. For a short time though, on holiday, we escape, we gain a different perspective, we view a different emotional landscape, we see and feel ourselves differently and wish upon wish we could be like that all the time. It is this transcendent essence that is contained for me in the symbolic meaning of the fifteenth stone.

But the truth is we have all seen it from time to time, and even though the evidence of our own eyes mostly denies its existence, we have only to shift our perspective slightly, do something, go somewhere a little out of the ordinary, to reveal its presence and realise it’s been there all along.