Posts Tagged ‘being’

mr sunshineThis is Mr Sunshine. He’s missing one of his rays, between the six and seven o’clock position, but you’d have to point that out before anyone would notice, and it certainly doesn’t dim his enthusiasm. I’ll make a substitute one day, but his essence lies much deeper than the mere look of him. Beneath the wood and the tin, and the plastic, Mr Sunshine is a very special clock indeed. Except today, he’s feeling poorly, and not running at all.

I sort of rescued him. He was about to be thrown into a skip during a house clearance and I said: “Hold on! That’s a Smith’s tuning fork clock.”

“But it’s not run for years,” came the reply. “And who’d want to give a thing like that houseroom these days? It’s as ugly as sin. You want it, it’s yours.”

Well, it’s definitely a period piece, early seventies, and clearly not to everyone’s taste. The tuning fork movement was a real innovation though, an electro-mechanical device that predates quartz, but is just as accurate. You have a tuning fork that’s made to sing. The vibration induces current in a coil and that’s picked up by a slotted wheel. The wheel, made of mu-metal, rotates in sympathy, at an incredibly precise rate.

Smiths is a venerable British make with a long history. Their clocks sat on mantle-pieces throughout the empire, they went into sports cars and flew in Spitfires. Post war though, the industry suffered the same decline as many others, victims of economic reality and  far eastern innovation. Still, Mr Sunshine is a beautiful piece of engineering, as well as something of an extravert. The original specification says he’s good for a few seconds a month. That’s quite an achievement when even a modern quartz watch does well to manage ten seconds.

It’s not a Smith’s movement though. The design was licensed by Bulova, and manufactured for Smiths by Jeco, in Tokyo. Good examples are getting rare, and fetch good prices on Ebay. I remember being nervous as I stripped this one down to see if I could diagnose the initial problem. In the end all it took was a good cleaning and a little soldering to have it humming again. It’s been in my vestibule for a decade now, suits the space and the light, I think, and it just works. Well, it did until today.

I have dozens of old clocks, clocks I’ve tinkered with and badgered out of retirement. Most have names, but Mr Sunshine is a favourite. He’s the one I see every morning as I set out for the commute. He may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me he’s a statement of optimism, the last smile before I set out into my day.

That Mr Sunshine has stopped troubles me. My stopped clocks are a metaphor of other troubles, present and impending, not so much technical as personal and professional. But all of these things are related – I mean metaphysically. We have need of optimism at the moment, and every little helps. This isn’t just about old clocks you see? This is about time and being.

Most of my pieces post-date 1960, the year I was born. So, keeping them going is like encouraging all the formative periods of my psyche into making an harmonious and ongoing contribution to our joint adventure in time. What I’m doing with my clocks is I’m keeping all the various parts of myself going. It’s akin to alchemy.

As we get older, there’s a risk we make decisions that lose the support of little bits of our soul. We compromise our ideals, sacrifice them on the altar of expediency. Thus, parts of us remain locked in the past with their arms folded and scowly expressions, refusing to lend us their energy. Without them, we struggle to reach the heights to which we aspire. 

So what’s the problem with Mr Sunshine then? What’s he trying to tell me? Is it something deep and serious? Or is he just lacking energy. I know I am, too many late nights and early get-ups. Fortunately, a change of battery is all he needs, and then he’s off, humming away again. Problem solved – which goes to show,  it doesn’t do to assume the worst in every situation. So then I look to Mr Sunshine, and I ask him how we’re doing. He smiles, and says we’re doing just fine, tells me I’ve got to find energy from somewhere, get some early nights maybe, got to keep smiling through, you see?

And then he says: Look, it’s a material world we live in, right? There’s nothing wrong in that if we can still find the metaphorical meaning, the poetry, in the material. Otherwise, it’s simply dust, and it doesn’t mean a thing.

Sure, dust is rather a negative concept to have to contemplate. We are all dust, said the clergy of my childhood, and not much cure for it, not much optimism in it either. I only found optimism in my later years in poetry and mysticism. The seventies were a turbulent decade, but not all doom and gloom. Mr Sunshine reminds me of that.

Now, let me introduce you to Mr Smith. He’s a fine old mechanical floating balance movement with hourly and half hourly strikes. His case is somewhat oddly shaped I think, very sixties, but he’s a reliable old curmudgeon – well, he was. No sooner had I sorted Mr Sunshine out with a fresh battery, Mr Smith’s bonger went berserk.

mr smith

I suspect he’s trying to warn me of something, but we’ll leave that for another day, and another story. 

I shudder to think. 





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philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

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tree on fireHow do you define yourself? What’s your nationality, job, class, ethnicity, religion,… your sexuality? But be careful, for in seeking a label for your group, you also define your peers, those you look to for support. Why? Because, they’re of your chosen tribe and it’s natural to seek protection in numbers. It’s natural to settle where we do not stand out because, throughout history, we have scorned the “other” and banished them to the wilderness.

Writers obsess over labels too. They ask at what point they can call themselves a writer, or a poet, or whatever. My view is that if you write, then you’re a writer, but then we hit this peer-group wall and wonder if we’re allowed in, we wonder if we’re to spend our whole lives dying of thirst in the desert of obscurity.

Will other writers and publishing types recognise us as birds of a feather? Well, don’t count on it, for among the literati, all writers who are not one’s self, are “the other”, all of us then by definition outsiders. Sure, we’re an odd bunch, our labelling systems are complicated, cryptic even. Is it any wonder then aspirants to the ranks obsess over the nuances of a writerly identity, and in doing so miss the point? And the point is this: in striving to be a writer, do we not risk closing ourselves off from the experience of life, from which the writing comes?

I remember sitting with a notebook while looking after my kids when they were small. They were having a great time in a playground, mucking about on the slides and swings. It was my job to keep an eye out, to prevent banged heads but without stifling their play. Now that’s an annoying thing to have to do when what you’re trying to do is be writerly,… when you’re trying to tease out the poetry from your soul while the kids are screaming:

“Dad, dad, look at me!”

“Yea, yea.”

Thinking of the mundanity of life as an impediment to one’s art, we risk resenting its intrusion. So then we seal ourselves off from life to better nurture the writer within us. But then we fail to see how the poetry is reflected in the lived experience. We do not find poetry on the blank page, or in the tweed jacket, or the fancy pen. It’s in the sunshine and the laughter, and the funny way people behave sometimes. It’s even in our quest for identity, but only if we have the presence of mind to question the question: how do I define myself? Because what we all are, regardless of the labels, is human, and the rest is merely the feathers we dress ourselves in.

So if you find yourself asking am I a writer yet, put down your pen and live a little. And while living ask the world how it sees itself through your eyes. What drama, what beauty, what lesson is imparted through the lived experience? Then the pages fill of their own accord and we miss nothing from having our head bent in writerly pose.

I dislike the politics of identity. I dislike labels for their limitation. For in striving so to label what one is we also define what we ignore of our potential to be. My labels tell me I’m a white, British cis male. I’m also a myopic, middle-class, introverted, lapsed Anglican. I’m a husband, a father, a Cappuccino socialist and, yes, a writer. I suspect there aren’t many who fit those exact parameters, and certainly not enough to put up a fight when oppressed by a bigger tribe. So it’s best to go about our business quietly, and be friendly with everyone.

What insights into the lived experience did that moment in the playground with my kids offer me? Well, you don’t always see it at the time. It might come decades later, when those same kids have gone through the wringer of college and university, when they’ve left the formative playground and are setting out on their first day at work. The poetry in that moment is a complex and giddy vortex of emotion. It’s all about time and one’s own mortality, and that can be a frightening thing. It’s like a clock ticking down, but only if you’re so bound up in the notion of your limited, mortal identity you fail to grasp the beauty at the heart of humanity which aspires to shed its labels and to simply be.


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sunsetWintering in the same old cold and grey,
waiting for that chance-thing to arise
and say: here, this is how,
revealed in unambiguous guise,
you might now see and act
and leave behind at last
the lies you tell yourself
in order to maintain
this never ending waiting game!

But there is nothing new today.
No novelties arise, just the same
old cold and grey in which
you wear the usual disguise,
revealing this uncomfortable truth,
that for all your life you’ve hid,
dissolved in indecision.
And of all the things, of your own volition,
you might heartily have risked, and done,
you never risked, or did,
a single one.



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We all know the meaning of life, the universe and everything is Forty Two, at least according to Douglas Adams’ super computer “Deep Thought” in his fictional trilogy: the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s the existential question and the absurd answer, reflecting only our arrogance that we think we might be capable even of understanding the question, let alone the answer. Or do we underestimate ourselves?

What is the meaning of a spoon or a shoe? Unless they are to be considered merely decorative, their meaning lies in their purpose. On this basis then, the purpose of a human life is no more than the reproduction of its own kind to add to future generations of the evolutionary milieu. Doesn’t sound that great, does it? But if we want more than that, the meaning of life must be explored in more philosophical, dare we even say even “spiritual” terms? But since such things cannot be defined as objects, can they be said to exist at all, and should we not discount them as unreliable, and a bit airy fairy?

Well we might – indeed many people do – except, evolution has risen us up from the swamp to an extent that we are asking such questions, so is it wise we should silence the asking? Because if the questions are meaningless, and evolution is as successful at eradicating the meaningless, the superfluous and the degenerate as it’s supposed to be, then why are we still asking those questions?

Could it be it’s correct we consider ourselves to be more than objects? Okay, let’s try that. It isn’t too difficult since we’re obviously also possessed of a mind-realm, home to thought and memory and dreaming, which are at least something even though we cannot define the shape of them. And even though we cannot define them at all it turns out we derive our sense of self from them anyway, which is weird, isn’t it?

Well, not really.

But there’s more. If we withdraw sufficiently inside our heads from the noise of the physical world, it’s possible to arrive at the fact our identity lies, actually, not so much in thought or memory or dreaming, but in a state of disembodied awareness without whose presence memory or thought or dreaming cannot arise in the first place. And that’s a very strange thought indeed.

Stranger still, if we can fully enter into that state, there comes the startling revelation of a rapturous, effortless awareness, and the realisation this is more who we truly are than who we actually think we are. And if that were not enough there also comes the certain knowledge there is nothing “out there” at all, that “we” and “it” are the same thing, that all objects are pure invention, that all there is is a kind of mind-stuff.

This is a bit of a leap, I know. Indeed, it’s counter-intuitive, a hard thing to swallow for anyone still possessed of a rock solid ego, but it’s a state none-the-less many human beings have experienced. And if it’s so, then perhaps our purpose in life is to work towards achieving an awakening to that awareness, which seems to involve dissolving those aspects of the personality that prevent it. Purpose then becomes our graduation from the university of life by the dispossession of destructive personality traits, and it is in this psychological process we find our purpose.

Of course it’s not certain any of this is true. All it tells us for sure is there is no meaning to be found in the material things of life itself, in the objects, in the world of thought and thinking, nor even in all the fine things we have built and worked to artistic effect. They’re simply there, and we can enjoy them for a time, but they’re transient as dust. What life does provide us with now and then are clues to the existence of a side to ourselves that transcends the physical, and it gives us ample opportunity to allow ourselves to be drawn in that direction, the direction of our true identity, and the source of all our existential longings.

Or we could apply our efforts instead to working out how to get rich at the expense of others. We might succeed in that, or we might waste our lives trying, corrupting also the lives of everyone we encounter along the way. I don’t advise it, because then all we’ll ever be is an object with as much meaning as a spoon or a shoe.



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Hartsop old wayThe source of our creative energies is a mystery. All I know for sure is it’s not a physical thing. Provided we have sufficient strength at least to draw breath, stay awake and sit down at the work desk, it’s simply a question of opening the valve inside our heads for the creative steam to come gushing out with a vigour untempered even by age and infirmity.

But we can weaken it,…

I’m weakening it now by talking about it. It builds pressure over time and we can either nurture it, then let it out in a sustained, calculated burst and achieve something significant with it – a novel say, or a painting, or an epic poem, or we can be constantly leaking it off in short squeaks until there’s nothing left and we are reduced to a state of creative barrenness.

Bear in mind, once upon a time, words like these would have had no outlet beyond the private diary. In so keeping them within the bounds of a closed personal awareness, they would not deplete the source. Indeed quite the opposite, for maintaining an intimacy with one’s self is both to respect one’s self and also the daemonic forces within us. But now our heads are stuck inside this box and we’re venting words the hyperspatial vacuum, which does nothing but empty us of our creativity.

Listen, we can either do a thing, or we can explain to an imagined audience why we’re doing it – explain it through our blogs, our tweets, our Instagrams. But in explaining it, in chattering about it, and self justifying, we lose the point, the point being the thing itself, rather than the describing of it.

I have talked a lot about Tai Chi on this blog, why I do it, only lately to realise, actually, I don’t do it any more. Meditation – ditto. I talk about it, but I don’t do it. And if I’m talking about writing, I’m not writing. So I guess what I’m thinking about at the moment, what I’m exploring tonight, is the perennial problem of self-justification, of explaining ourselves to the imaginary “other”, when what we’re really doing is comforting our own egos.

We cannot help our insecurities. It’s human nature, this feeling some of us have of being pulled away from the tit too soon, and we assume the other person wasn’t. We assume the other person has no insecurities at all, that they are not the same lost child we feel ourselves to be when we close the door at night and face our selves, alone. Well guess what? They do. The problem then is one of self assurance, of reassurance that what we are is all right, that we need not explain ourselves, nor less try to impress others with how successful, interesting, cool, sexy or even just how extra-specially normal we are. To this end we wear a mask.

Everyone born has ample reason to simply be. It’s just that we aspire to be more than we are. More than what? Well, more than anyone else, perhaps – more cool, more insightful, more intelligent,… and just well,… more! This is what the mask conveys. But if we forget the mask, forget the usual external appearances, the difference between me and you is nothing much. We both arise from the same collective milieu of unconscious potential, like periscopes, each to pierce the surface of this, a somewhat denser and less yielding reality. Our uniqueness lies only in this individual perspective, our singular view of the world.

Knowing what that view is, is one thing, sharing it with others is only useful to point. We are all of us on a personal voyage of discovery, and it’s ultimately our own vision, our own private view that is the essential thing. It is the picture postcard we gift back to the consciousness from which we arise. It’s not important then to capture every thought we’ve ever had, to write it down and self publish it – just because we can do it now, doesn’t mean we should. The importance of the moment has already been captured by the inner eye.

It’s more important then we notice when the sun is shining, important we do not feel the need to take its picture all the time. It’s beautiful, yes, but there’s a limit to the intimacy with which the essence of such beauty can be shared, because beauty is a thing with our unique perception at the centre of it. The urge to share it is the writer’s bane of course, but one should always be mindful that in sharing anything, the essence is always lost, and no matter what our skill with words, no one can ever truly know or see the world the way we do.

So go easy on the media. Take a break from the Blog now and then, don’t feel the need to post on Instagram every day, and don’t you ever go tweeting to the world what you had for breakfast.

Save a little something for yourself. And keep it safe.

Think outside the box from time to time.

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androidSeeking change: a new laptop, a new car, a new way of making notes on my ‘droid, a new ornament for my garden, a new pair of shoes, a nicer shirt, a fancier wristwatch,….  anything to satisfy this suddenly insatiable craving for change, for renewal, for improvement. I know this is not the right way of doing things. I know that all this seeking completeness in some “thing” betrays only my unquiet heart.

Yet still it gnaws at me.

I was like this when I was a child, seeking transformation in the next perfect toy. But it was a transformation that lasted only for the weekend, until the Monday morning when the same-old-same-old would rear its head, reminding me of the fragility of dreams, that no sooner sated and the thirst would return, as if the unscrupulous vending-meister had added salt to my beverage,… a salt called Ego.

One need not be consciously egotistical to be driven by one’s ego. We all do it. The ego is simply that part of ourselves that seeks to be something more than it is, something cleverer, something more satisfied, something richer, faster, bigger, more complete, more aware, more human than we think we are at present. It also works in reverse. If we seek smallness, stillness, calmness or spirituality, our ego will help us, seeking ways in which we can become smaller, stiller, calmer and more smugly spiritual than all the other poor soulless losers out there.

This is clearly not the answer either.

Ego compares, it measures, and seeks adjustment to the next level. It’s not really helpful, but even knowing this cannot overcome ego’s innate lack of wisdom when the mood is upon us. Ego is far too clever, far too slippery for that.

I know I don’t actually need any of these things. I know they’re not worth striving for.  Instead, I’ll do what I always do: sleep, let my dreams dissolve the longing over time, or I’ll talk to my private journal, flick back to hear the voice that is my own, explaining all of this to me. Again. Old lessons,… decades old.


I might also blog it, this idea of the unquiet heart,…

Yes,… that sounds interesting!

Except there’s my ego again, living through the imagined eyes of others, attempting to recalibrate itself, measure the degree of moreness to be gained by having others read my words, when what I really need is to pull the plug on this blog, and keep my words entirely between me and my inner self, and thus, like a celibate, preserve my power. Sure, the intrusion of an imaginary third party all the time is just another symptom of the craving for moreness.

But wait!

I realise my blog now references itself. This is becoming really interesting. It’s become a metablog, which is the kind of in-speak they’d use on university courses to describe a form of words, instead of simply experiencing those words and deciding if you like them or not. Interesting! Yes indeed! I’ll blog about it, except “interest” is the bloodhound scent that ego follows in its desire for moreness. It seeks interest in the forms of the world and if it doesn’t find them interesting, labels them dull instead, then moves on to something else.

Yes. That’s interesting! Now all we need is a picture to draw the eye of the passing reader, something really interesting to interest them. Let’s see, what have we?… I lknow, how about my ‘droid. Goodness my laptop is slow tonight,… what I really, really, need is a new one. How much better, faster, bigger I could be then!

Some doggerel to finish:

Be still my heart,…
Don’t let your craving start.
Seek not your thrills in toys,
Lest we lose ourselves in noise.
Nor grasp the world so tight,
We fail to see the light.
The world be found in its embrace,
An endless, fruitless, uphill race.
But if it’s ourself we seek to know,
Then chase it not,…
Just let it go.

Enjoy yourselves, and stay safe.

Graeme out.

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