Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘god’

flolI can’t believe it’s twenty years since this book came out. I was in the Lake District on a walking holiday. A bill for car repairs the week before had left me a bit short and I calculated that after food and petrol I’d have about a tenner to spare. I spent £5.99 of it on this book for company in the evenings. It took me close to the wire, but it was money well spent. I don’t remember any of the walking now, I just remember reading this book in the B+B.

One part is set in a rural suburb of Dublin and describes the relationship between young Nicholas and his father, a man who gives up a steady but uninspiring career in the civil service in order to paint. He believes God has called him to do it, but it’s a calling that also plunges his family into poverty. Then we have Isabelle, growing up on a small island off Ireland’s west coast, her childhood overshadowed by an incident in which her musically gifted brother was struck down by a life-changing seizure, and for which she nurses a deep, though irrational, wound of guilt. She’s a bright girl but flounders when away at boarding school in Galway, squanders her chances of university and settles instead with a cloth merchant, Peader. By turns passionate and cold, tender and violent, Peader is not a good match, but Isabelle goes along with it, thinking of it as her punishment for past sins.

For most of the story Nicholas and Isabelle live entirely separate lives, and it seems impossible they’ll ever meet. But we know they must because in the opening of the book we are told, somewhat enigmatically, Nicholas was born to love Isabelle. It’s a mystery why or how, but all that’s just what’s on the surface, the bare bones, if you like, and it’s a tiny fraction of what this novel is about. The author’s characters are drawn from humble lives, the kind of people you wouldn’t second glance on a bus, yet through their struggles they take on such noble and god-like proportions it’s hard to see the world in quite the same way again.

We have Nicholas’s father, on the edge of madness, gaunt, white haired, messianic, striding into the west in broken old boots with his paints and his easel while his family starves back home. Ordinarily we’d dismiss him as a selfish old fool, but through Nicholas’s eyes, though at times he hates his father for what he’s done, his overriding love for him elevates their story to the rank of an Homeric Odyssey. And Isabelle’s father, a small-island schoolmaster, sometime poet, and semi-drunk, raising his pupils with kindness and compassion, and a dedication such that they will not be looked down upon by their mainland peers – another small life, but for all of its obscurity it is also heroically huge and inspirational.

Religion runs strongly throughout the book, God being ever present in the workings of fate, in the lives of the characters and the events that touch them. The characters wait on signs that will tell them what to do, they interpret them as best they can, and they have visions, see ghosts via the medium of dreams or delirium – all of this in the sense of a folk religion that’s been overlaid with a tradition of Catholicism. You can read the universe and your life as a meaningless, or you can see it as something more, something epic in which fate and love are bound together, a visionary experience of life in which we are invited to take our part. The choice is ours. The latter adds colour and meaning to our days on earth, and makes a kind of mysterious sense of things, if only in retrospect, while the former adds nothing.

There is only one priest in the story, and he shuns the idea of miracles, is afraid of them, would rather the Bishop had the pleasure of them, and when the miracles start to happen, the protagonists literally shut him out. It’s more that God is in every stone of Ireland, in the breath of the wind, in the mist over mountain and bog, a God that is immediate and personal. It’s a book that stirs the spirit and ravishes the senses. It is not a romance, but it is deeply Romantic, and the language is lyrical, pellucid, utterly mesmerising. This is one of the most powerful and compelling works of fiction I have read, and I have re-read it several times now, always something fresh leaping out – a passing observation, a few lines of description triggering an avalanche of revelation.

The moment when the author reveals how Isabelle and Nicholas are finally going to meet will take your breath away and it’ll have you laughing as much out of relief as anything else. But this is not your usual “will they won’t they” kind of story, the kind to be forgotten as soon as the last page is turned. The ending is subtle, powerful and, like the rest of the book, rich with meaning, and it leaves you wondering.

It’s a story you’ll be carrying around in your head for a long, long time.

Read Full Post »

The Triumph of Death - Pieter Bruegel the Elder - 1562Hardly a day passes without news of another terror related killing, somewhere in the world. As for the largely unreported killings, result of the civil war in Syria, the scale will not be known until the war is over, and then the horrors revealed will be so large as to be barely comprehendible. It must be bad because even our most holy of men are now asking the perennial question: where is God? It’s a common response to disaster, and nothing new in it: this terrible thing is happening, why does God not intervene? Why can God not heal this appalling wound and prevent more killing? Does God even exist?

My own head has been taking refuge in shallowness of late, playing computer games where the sun shines all the time, and no one dies – at least in the kinds of games I play. Until now I’ve resisted lending another voice raised against the violence, mainly because I am incapable of forming a proper judgement when I have only news reports to go on, and these hardly qualify as reliable data. But this sudden call to God is interesting to anyone on the spiritual path, and calls me in turn to reflect.

Terrible things happen all the time. Every second of every day someone dies a terrible death. We forget human suffering is an ongoing story – today’s disaster forgotten, overshadowed already by news of tomorrow’s. And at times of disaster theologians wring their hands; they frown, their sermons deepen, but they are less than coherent in explaining the absence of God.

I saw rather an apposite poster recently. It flashed briefly across the blogsphere, caught my eye, then disappeared back into the collective, and it said something to the effect of: “Your God is too small for my Universe”. I have sympathy with this view – that in order to comprehend God we must look beyond the child-dream of a benign, interventionist deity. We must look to the universe within, through the telescope of an evolved consciousness, and search the inner space from whence our human “being” arises.

And we need to reflect and ask what it is that turns a young man or a young woman into a homicidal maniac – and not one or two, but hundreds upon hundreds, and bannered, all be it perversely, in the name of God? Indeed there seems no end to their number, that every time we sleep, they will come.

They are our nightmares, and like nightmares, we might think of them as self created, as the symptoms of a neurosis arising from a collective insecurity, a blindness to the failings in ourselves, and in the world. If we think of the images on our TV screens cast as symbols rather than as facts, if we read them as dreams, a different story emerges from the one that is told.

What we suppress, what we deny in ourselves comes back at us eventually – personally, as individuals, or collectively as a species. It happened in Europe in the 1930’s. It’s happening now in the Middle East. We reap what we sow. To think otherwise is to think too narrowly. It is to take the images from the TV screen and translate them literally, then to react emotionally and in accordance with a story that is too simplistic to mean anything. It is to view the world as if through a straw.

The human race stands upon a bedrock of inherited psychical energy from which rises all our stories and, thereby, all our behaviours, all our insecurities, our hopes and our dreams. When we look at another human being there is the illusion we are looking at someone entirely separate to ourselves, when in reality every person we see is simply another version of ourselves. Therefore the misunderstandings, the misdeeds of others are a shared responsibility, and to disown that responsibility without thought, without at least a degree of self analysis, of reflection beyond the immediate horror, is to make the mistake of setting ourselves above others, as if we were better, more human than anyone else.

This is unskillful thinking. It is the kind of thinking by which, down the ages, one tribe may survive at the expense of another, at least in the basic evolutionary sense, by the combative might of our egos and our arms, yet we also lose our way in the greater scheme of things by eradicating God from the collective heart. And even if we do proclaim God in our name it is invariably as too small, too literal a concept, therefore more of a danger. We do not do this intentionally, or in as violent and corrupt a manner as when we kill others, but we do well to recognise the call for such a small God to heal our splintered souls at times of tragedy is useless. The God we must ask for help in all of this is the God we find when we look inside ourselves. This is a God who sees what we see, always, and how that God reacts, how that God intervenes in human affairs depends entirely on us. It’s an idea rejected in puritanical circles as a kind of humanistic madness, as the megalomaniacal deification of our own person. But this misses the point. It is one thing to be humble enough to find God within us, quite another to adopt the mantle of omnipotence.

We are both of us – you and I, the eyes and the ears of a universe made conscious and feeling, and appalled at the lengths it will go to in order to inflict suffering on itself, while remaining in ignorance of the true nature of its own reality. We are each of us a part of a universe struggling to awaken from its own nightmare. We can only help it do so by awakening to our own universality, to our own infinite and intricate interconnection with all beings and all things. Until we understand this the only change in the world will be an increase in the killing, as the means become ever more sophisticated and barbarous.

For now I waver between the pessimism of this view and the occasional optimism that, eventually, sufficient numbers of individual minds will light up and thereby enable the universe to awaken sufficiently to banish the nightmares. Only when that happens will the overwhelmingly pessimistic story of human endeavour thus far become a thing altogether more hopeful and marvellous.

The future, as presented nightly on my TV screen is one running permanently into Armageddon. And though it is a half truth, with as much of the story missing as is told, the rest to be guessed at by the lost fragments and the ghost whisperings of our online world, the theme is clear, if not the detail: there is no future as things stand; our collective human heart is broken, and we are thrashing around, beating our breasts in despair at one damned thing after the other, at corrupt ideas, at perverse thinking, and at ideologies both twisted and shrunken into mere pathologies. We can view this as the end of the world – one that is permanently just a few years away and never quite arriving, or we can view it as a call to raise our level of consciousness, our thinking.

At the very least it might spare us from an ignominious extinction at the hands of our own violence, avarice, and stupidity. Who knows we might yet move on and achieve the greatness, and the largeness of spirit we are otherwise so clearly capable of.

Read Full Post »

warrior girlMy dream takes on the sound of the sea and the feeling of a warm night. At some point Rebecca and I have spooned up, and even through my closed eyes, I know her by her heat and by her scent. And keeping my eyes closed I carry with me the impression of dawn breaking, and of waking with her beside me still.

My spirits lift.

It’s enough, and I don’t care where we are now, nor what point in time we have emerged back into an ordinary waking reality, so long as we are together. But the sea is still washing on the shore, a reminder of last night’s dream, also harbinger of the fact I have not truly woken, that I am likely still dreaming. Then someone is touching my arm and I open my eyes to see Emma crouched in the sand, looking tenderly down.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” she says.

I turn to Rebecca but she’s no longer there. She’s waking, somewhere, and I find myself once more alone in the dreaming, with Emma. I’m afraid, because Emma is usually the herald of much strangeness, and I can bear it no more. I want simplicity. Pray God, I want the coherence of a single line in time. I must escape her.

I must!

I cannot force myself awake, and dare not ask it of the dream to take me back in time again, though ironically this seems the easier thing to do if the last occasion is anything to go by. Instead, I do the next best thing, the safer thing; I close my eyes and ask it of the dreaming for a change of scene. But even as I feel the giddiness of the transition, I am aware of Emma’s hand upon my arm; it is therefore no surprise when I open them to find she’s still there.

“You must be wide awake to loosen my grip,” she says. “And you are not for waking yet. You’re so tired of the world and all that’s in it; it’ll be a while longer, I’m afraid. If ever. But what is this, my love? Anyone would think you did not trust me any more.”

I do not like it, the suggestion I may never wake up. I wish she would go easy on me, but that is not her purpose.

We are back in the mythic levels, as we were before, the pair of us seated in Sunday best, upon a cold flat rock by night, facing the lake. I did not ask for this location, and why the dreaming thinks it is important I do not know, other than the fact it is but one step removed from Rebecca and her prayers for deliverance. Is that where she’s gone now? Is she not waking to a fresh dawn somewhere, but still sleeping, like me? And is she still dreaming of delivering the world, through her ministry?

I need the protection of my girls.

They are already disembarking from the skiff; bronze breastplates glinting beneath cloaks of Phoenician purple. They draw swords and fan out cautiously, prepared to do my bidding, but looking all the while hesitant, unsure, as if afraid I would command them injure a vital part of my self. Then Emma’s own entourage emerges from the shadows, all leather Basques and straps, and fishnets and whips, like a comical teen fantasy.

My girls draw swords, Emma’s unfurl their whips.

Emma laughs. “Gracious, what a curious stand-off. How shall we resolve it, I wonder?”

She yields, lets go of my arm. Her girls withdraw into the shadows. My own sheathe their swords and step back to the shore. I see the glitter of relief in their eyes.

“There,” she says. “That’s better. Now we can talk.”

“Please,… no more talk, Emma. Can’t you see how overwhelmed my senses are with all of this?”

“Then let me show you something,” she says. “It shall make all things clear at last. And afterwards, I’ll let you wake up. I promise.”

Thus the scene is set for the denouement of my story. We’re a hundred and fifty thousand words in, so it’s been a long time coming. What will Emma show me that’ll make everything clear and lead me into the final chapters? I can’t say, and for the simple reason that, although I am the author of this story, I don’t know, because she has not told me.

What she has told me is that a damaged life is not a ruined one, that it is upon the whetstone of adversity the human spirit is most keenly sharpened. Yet, naturally, if given the opportunity to invent our own realities, we would edit out all forms of adversity, all forms of pain. We would invent for ourselves a paradise of pleasure. But pleasure is a thing we do in resting. Adversity, suffering, is the thing we do for a living. We cannot help ourselves. Lives are broken on its harsh anvil, while others are made more meaningful, and rise more beautifully from the ashes of suffering, redeemed, enlightened,…

And eternity is a long time to be spent merely resting in pleasure.

Is any of this true?

What’s true is the world is a place of immense suffering, and at times it’s impossible to see the good in it. Our ignorance sows an ever more bitter harvest, one spotlighted with brutal efficiency by our global news media, which shall surely one day put a camera on the very tip of a bullet. A hundred years ago, we were less aware of the suffering in the greater world, unlike now, when there is no end to the live commentary by which we might probe its ills, from the very comfort of our living rooms. And our analysis reveals what? That the innocents run from the juggernaut path, that it careens blindly, scorching vast swathes of the earth, returning them to barbarism. Our capacity for the creation of suffering immense, yet seemingly the work of mere moments of madness. Conversely our ability to subvert the suffering of the world is pitifully weak, itself fraught with conflicting opinions. And it is the work of generations.

But if we could realise the dream, what kind of earth would it be? Easy, one might say. There would be no living in fear of our neighbour; there would be plenty to eat, and everyone would possess a secure roof under which to make love and nurture children. Returned to such an Eden, we might then vent our energies and our intellect in the creation of what? Great works of art to uplift the spirit? Contemplation of God’s will? In such a world no man need fear being anything other than his true self, and he would certainly not fear his neighbour might rob him of his goods, or his life.

From such a secure foundation, a man might then exercise his ingenuity, coupled with his spiritual instincts, and all so he could explore the million and one ways he might do good, and express his loving nature in the world.

But Eden has fallen.

In schizophrenia, the sufferer experiences a breaking through of unconscious energies from deep within the collective mind. They manifest as voices, as a dire urges, as a debilitating cacophony of destructive thought that burst with uncontrollable fervour upon the defences of the personality. They overwhelm us. Literally, they swallow us in madness. And these energies are amoral, grotesque, irrational, the very antithesis of order and calm. We see this too in the world, this breaking through of hitherto unimagined disorder. We see it night after night on our TV screens – a veritable daemonic orgy of death, destruction, and the ever more imaginative ways one human being can do harm to another.

One might have thought ten thousand years of civilisation would have yielded some defence, a key, a wise philosophy by which we might all live in harmony, and in doing so turn back the tide. But if such a philosophy exists, we have rendered it in so many layers of myth by now we can do no more than argue over its interpretation. Meanwhile the earth burns; and the pace of this awful breaking through of banshees from the dark depths accelerates.

As with schizophrenia, there is no cure for what ails man’s dominion over the earth. It might be controlled somewhat, moderated in its worst excesses by targeted therapies, but the overall prognosis is rarely positive. It is something we have to live with, something we must manage as best we can.

Is it this, the thing Emma would show me?

Would she take me on a tour of Bedlam to show me only the hopelessness of it, the absence of any cure to mankind’s most pernicious malaise? One might be tempted to say yes, except there are some humans who dare to look the daemons in the eye as they tear screaming though the gates of hell, and to ask them their names. If these are the denizens of the nether world, their residence in that abode seems only to have rendered them all the more destructive to a higher purpose. And the more we dream of Utopia, the more we seem only to feed their appetite for chaos and destruction.

But is Emma not herself a daemon?

She has all the qualifications, existing solely in imagination, her form rising from the archetypal foundations of the psychical sub-stratum of experience. Semi-autonomous, she draws me into her world, reveals to me forms that are infinitely malleable to my will. Meanwhile her brethren invade my own realm to torch the forms I cherish, to torment the living even as they flee from the shadows. And she reveals to me how readily I would escape the world, escape the madness, when my place is still firmly rooted in it.

“It is as Lao Tzu taught us,” she says, “that a man stands most strongly when he has one foot in the outer, and one foot in the inner world.”

If we shut ourselves off from the inner world, it’s excesses will lay waste to the physical, to the world of forms. Its energies exist, whether we believe in them or not, and their natural tendency is to flow into the world, through us, regardless of our will. If they do so, untempered by our communion, the result will be a world always falling to chaos, no matter how carefully or rationally we have built it. If we turn our backs on the physical, sink back into the inner world from whence we came, seek escape in our dreams, we will lose our selves, and our purpose, and all meaning, in its infinite possibilities.

I have betrayed my kind. I have betrayed my self.

“Time to wake up,” she says. “You’ll be late for work.”

And then, as she said to me at the very opening of my story:

“The most vital issue of the age is whether the future progress of humanity is to be governed by the modern economic and materialistic mind of the West or by a nobler pragmatism guided, uplifted and enlightened by spiritual culture and knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo 1872-1950

So, after all of that, am I any nearer my conclusion?

Don’t count on it.

Thanks for listening.

Read Full Post »

CLAPHAM CHURCHScanning the news items over this Easter holiday I was interested to note the Media headlining the PM’s assertion that the United Kingdom is a “Christian country”, and they’ve contrasted this with a cautionary letter, signed by an impressive cast-list of writers, broadcasters and intellectuals who say it’s not. The letter suggests that the repeated assertion by politicians that the UK is a “Christian country” is merely pandering to right-wing conservatism, that it is divisive and a retrograde step for any progressive, multicultural society. But rather than running for cover, the government came out fighting this morning, the PM’s comments being backed up by a couple of party big-guns, reminding us that the foundations of British social and constitutional history are indeed quite demonstrably “Christian”.

I feel the waters have been rather muddied with all this stamping about, but I agree that, since the narrative of my own past is at least nominally Christian, this is likely also to be true for many British people, and certainly those who are of middle age today. It is also more likely to be true the further one goes back through the generations. But regardless of whether we call ourselves Christians, surveys do indicate the majority of us now actually practice no faith at all. So, while the political view is that the UK is, or should be, morally and constitutionally “Christian”, intellectually, culturally and socially, it isn’t – at least it isn’t any more. Only when extrapolating the data backwards do we see a more religious, Christian, faith-based society; extrapolating the trend forwards, we see it declining still further.

The narrative of the UK, like much of the western world, is secular. Its public face is business-like and pragmatic. Only in private do its citizens express their religious views, if they have any. That a politician, a business leader, or indeed anyone else, attends church every Sunday and holds fast to traditional Christian beliefs is a matter for them, part of their private, rather than their public life, in the same way as their sexuality and their ethnicity should not be seen as having any bearing on their ability to do the day-job.

I recall it’s not the first time the PM has spoken out on religious matters. Recently, he was urging Christians to be more confident in expressing their faith. I think we need to return here to the distinction between those who actually practice Christianity, and those who merely accept the label for want of any other. Those practising Christians of my acquaintance certainly lack no confidence in matters of faith, so it’s unclear to whom the PM is addressing these remarks. Meanwhile, of the overwhelming majority of “nominal” Christians among my friends and family, I’m sure none could care less about religious matters, so long as the vicar can still be persuaded to marry them in church.

A decent country needs decent, energetic, intelligent and competent people in charge, but such qualities do not come with a religious, sexual or ethnic label. I have known practising religious “Christian” people who, outside of the church, were very cruel and stupid, and it makes me pause when I contemplate what possible political motive there might be in trying to render the “C” word once more synonymous with positions of power and influence. Whilst as a spiritual philosophy Christianity, or indeed any other faith, holds a profound spiritual wisdom for those in search of it, as a social authority, or an instrument for control or influence of large populations, “Religion” in general is very much a tainted brand, and politicians should be careful how they handle it.

When I filled out my census forms in 2001, I probably entered Christian in the “faith” box, as I had always done previously, but this was purely out of convention rather than conviction. As a child, I went regularly to the Anglican church because my nearest school was faith based, and it was therefore “expected”. This has coloured my view of religion somewhat, and rendered me sensitive to carrying out any action merely for the appearance of things. Throughout those attendances as a child I was not really a Christian, because it takes much more to be a proper Christian than an hour a week. But in the mill-villages of the North of England, certainly in the sixties and early seventies, there was still a stigma attached to unfastening that label. When a people are defined by the badges they wear, there is something rather daunting about openly admitting one has no badge, no belonging. It’s like saying you are nothing, that to be faithless is also to be tribe-less; it is to risk being cast out into the wilderness, without protection.

I have not attended church services regularly since 1971, when I left the faith based education system to enter the bosom of a shaggy haired secular comprehensive. There, God was irrelevant in the day to day, and was presented to us in religious education classes more as a private matter, than with any evangelical zeal. There I found myself with half remembered bible stories and a wad of certificates for Sunday school attendance, while seriously lacking proficiency in basic mathematics – a handicap that took me many years to catch up. Still, it was not until the 2011 census and, in the absence of anything more descriptive, I finally entered “none” in the faith box.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to leave the bosom of the communion by so simple an act as ticking a box, but then my parents were fond of telling the story of my christening being bundled through by a vicar who, in a hurry to go picking blackberries, got my name the wrong way round, so the State has me down as one thing and God quite another. Thus it was with casual indifference on the part of God’s representative, and helplessness on my own, I was accepted into the faith in the first place, so perhaps I should have fewer qualms about the reciprocal casualness with which I have subsequently cancelled my membership, some fifty years later.

Such at least is the experience of one middle aged UK citizen in his nominally Christian country.

This is not to say I have abandoned the spiritual quest, nor do I suggest that it is in any way unimportant. Indeed, paradoxically, spiritual thinking is now more than ever central to my approach to life, though hardly in a way that anyone could describe as religious – it’s just that there’s no box that will define it on the census forms. The secular world is remarkably dynamic and productive, but without a moral compass it can easily founder. Religion alone can do nothing to address such shortcomings, and when it does get involved it usually ends up making things worse. It is the human spirit in its most sincere manifestation, and in whatever language it is expressed, that will move the mountains and clear the path to a better world, and it is from the human spirit, unfettered by dogma and ritual, we derive the moral compass that is universal to all cultures.

Regrettably, in all this Media fascination with religion and politics, in the sound bites, the muckraking, mudslinging, feather-preening and tub-thumping, I note that matters of the spirit are entirely absent. Whether the UK is a Christian country or not is, I believe, entirely irrelevant in addressing the challenges we face as we go forward into the twenty first century. For myself, the thought of a half-century time-slip back to the Christian conservatism, and the back-stabbing religious hypocrisy of a sixties mill-village, is not one that I particularly relish.

Read Full Post »

southport beachI didn’t see the figures on the sands when I took this picture. I was more interested in seeing how the polarising filter would help bring details out in the sky, while leaving the sands recognisable as, well,… sands. It was only later when I put the picture up on the bigger screen of my PC, then cropped and zoomed,  other details became apparent, and the ghosts emerged.

No, I didn’t know they were there, I don’t know who they are, and of course I don’t know where they are now. They’re simply gone. But for that moment, at 14:53 hours and 53 seconds on the 17/2/2013,  they were everything, creating a living harmony out of what is otherwise nothing.

I get this same eerie philosophical melancholia from watching crowds. There are so many of us alive, and each life of infinite importance to itself, each of us viewing the universe from the centre of ourselves in a uniquely different way.   But for me there’s something about the lone figure or a small group of figures set against a vast landscape that turns up the wick, and applies a more intense heat to the question of what it is to be human in the world.

On the one hand the seeming smallness of our presence can make the individual life appear worthless and futile, while on the other it might be said it’s in the very uniqueness of our  perspective there lies a value that goes beyond the material –  that it’s in adjusting to this perception of ourselves, and seeing more clearly through what one might call the eye of spirit,  we each have the potential to realise the preciousness that is the individual life lived well, no matter how fleeting and superficially futile that life might appear to be.

I’m reading Field and Hedgerow by Richard Jeffries at the moment. Jeffries (1848-1887) was a small-town English journalist, essayist and novelist, who, after labouring long in obscurity, became quietly popular in the late Victorian period. Another of his works “The Amateur Poacher” has been my companion since childhood, and I still find much in him to admire. His particular forte was nature mysticism. To say Jeffries revered nature doesn’t quite get to the point of him, though revere it he most certainly did. Here was a man who could look at  a grain of sand under his fingernail and tease the meaning of life from it  – all without the aid of opium –  but he was careful not to over-romanticise – being conscious and respectful of the red-in-tooth-and claw dimension of nature as well. He was also a man who saw more of God in a Greek statue than in the whole of King James.

Stay with me, this is relevant.

lilithOf course we’re not all blessed with the divine attributes of a Greek statue, and I suppose Jeffries was getting at more than seeing a literal image of “God as deity” in hominid physiology. What the Classical Greeks saw in the human form, Jeffries hints at in his various works, while the rest of us cover it with loincloths for modesty, mistake it for a perverted Eros, and childishly titter at it. What is it? I don’t know, but if you’ll allow me a moment’s nudity, I can gaze for ever at John Collier’s Lillith (Atkinson Memorial Gallery, Southport UK), and see more than just her bosoms. There’s a ghost in her, and like my figures in the landscape, she gives me pause.

Getting back to the subject of nature, in “Field and Hedgerow” Jeffries writes of an unemployed farm labourer rejecting the grim soulless state-handout sanctuary of the Workhouse and choosing instead to survive the winter living rough, sleeping in out-buildings, finding what few scraps of charity he can from the farm wives. Jeffries suggests that in his struggle to maintain a personal dignified independence, against the rigours of nature, there is something noble, even Godlike about him.

Nature is impassive, impervious to our complaints. The rain falls and the frost bites regardless of our wishes, or the quality of our clothes. Still, on a sunny day, when the butterflies come out, you can look for God in it, a God that transcends deity, as the Romantics would say. Indeed when it’s not inflicting pain upon us, there’s enough stillness and sublime beauty in nature to see projections of all sorts of things. But whatever we discover, compassion will not be among its qualities.

In my  photograph, the tide is out. Three hours later it would be in, and the small lives that had scampered across the sands that afternoon would have to scamper for safety or be washed away. The beach is also known for quicksand. An unwary figure going down in them could not rely upon nature, or the gods, for deliverance. For the survival of calamity, or nature’s worst excesses, we’re always going to need the compassion and the selfless intervention of other human beings. We might pray to our deities but it will be another human being who pulls us from the mire, offers reassurance at our tremblings, and a hot cup of  tea to soothe away the aftershocks.

Some might take this as evidence the Divine works through us, that our capacity for compassion is a manifestation of the ineffable at work in the world. I’m coming to the same conclusion. It was Jeffries who taught me you don’t find God in mere deity, (Story of my heart), but only through a higher form of soul-life. And, incredible, as it seems, the fact remains that in a world apparently on fire, torn apart by the darker side of our natures, it’s only in human beings we find the contrary, even paradoxical evidence of a divinely transcendent and infinitely compassionate dimension, a dimension, the existence of which, is the only thing worth all the living and the dying for. If we are to understand the value of the individual life, no matter how fleeting or anonymous, like my figures in the landscape, we must first do what we can to nurture a compassion for the lives of others, and trust we’ll find it in others when we’re most in need of it ourselves.

Read Full Post »

I’m sorry to say I’ve been pulled over by the police for speeding. One minute I was cruising along – in a bit of a daze, it has to be said – and the next thing I was sitting in a five series Beamer cop-car while the nice officer printed out my yard long yellow ticket of shame. After 34 years of motoring, my license is now besmirched with three skull and cross-bones (endorsements). There was also a sixty pound fine. The fine is neither here nor there, but those endorsements are going to haunt me for the next five years.

Altogether then, a bit of a bad day?

Well, yes, indeed a bad month so far really, but not on account of that traffic violation. After all, there are worse losses at sea, as my mother used to say. Strange, that use of the past tense – I’m still getting used it.

The stretch of road I was travelling is one I drive every day and it’s always had a forty limit. In recent weeks though, a two hundred yard stretch of it has been lowered to thirty. It sounds lame, but I really hadn’t noticed the new signs. It’s called “change blindness”, honest. So even when the cop-car settled on my tail, I felt safe, making sure the speedometer was reading a little under forty. The cars in front of me got away with it. I got the flashing blue lights and the humiliation of a very public pull over.

Bastard!

It’s no excuse of course, that my head was in a different place. I should have seen those thirty MPH signs, which are as plain as day now, and if I was really so distracted by my mother’s death, then I shouldn’t have been driving in the first place, should I? But at least I know it’s a thirty limit now. And I promise to be more careful, officer, in the future.

My sons thought it was ironic. They say I’m the slowest driver in the world and something of an embarrassment. Maybe my credibility has gone up a little now? Number two son was the most comforting, telling me I’d done well to reach my fifties without acquiring some kind of motoring violation. I suppose he’s right. My good lady also told me it was better to be philosophical about it than beating myself over the head. No use resisting it Michael. Remember that one? There are bigger things to deal with here – so get over it!

Resist it? No, I didn’t resist it. At least I tried not to. I tried to let it wash on through because I was conscious of being in a fragile state and I could do without the extra damage. So what did I feel, sitting there in that cop-car, while the man went through his “booking the motorist” script? Well, I felt very little, because only a small part of me was actually there.

Some of me was still sitting with the Reverend Deacon, attached to the local Catholic church, just an hour earlier, who, after a long and emotionally moving chat about my mother, had raised his hand, and the Good Book, and offered me his blessing. I’m not a Catholic, not much of anything with a label these days, and my mother, raised a Catholic, was severely lapsed to the tune of fifty years or so – though the Reverend Deacon politely and charmingly disputed there was such a thing as a lapsed Catholic.

Anyway, I didn’t really feel qualified to be receiving that blessing, but I was grateful for it all the same, thinking I could probably use the help. But to be pulled over by the cops an hour later? Well,… surely the Lord moves in mysterious ways?

Another part of me was standing in the chapel of rest at the funeral home, the day before. I’d not really been able to associate the deceased person before me with my mother, but she had at least looked peaceful, and though I’d known the effect was entirely cosmetic, it had helped to soften the memory of the last time I’d seen her, the day when in some distress, she’d passed away.

And of course, another part of me, perhaps the most significant part, was still there that day, at her bedside, bearing witness to her passing, while praying to a god I’d no idea I could be so familiar with. For good measure I’d also prayed, Chinese style, to the ancestors, calling them back from across as many generations as I could remember, to lend a hand, because in a situation like that you need all the spiritual support you can get, whether you believe in that sort of thing or not.

I have the feeling they didn’t let us down. I have the feeling that  in our darkest hour I crossed a threshold into the most extraordinary metaphysical realm and felt myself carried aloft, embraced by the loving arms of an ancestry I’d never dared trust, until that moment, to be real .

So,… there was the cop, a big chap, blank faced, broken nosed, in a nicely pressed shirt, but curiously grubby trousers, and he was telling me I’d have to take my licence in to the cop-shop within the next seven days. And there I was, making a mental calculation, wondering if I could fit that in with everything else that was going on – like the small matter of my mother’s funeral, and appointments with solicitors, and a million other pressing post mortem details. And I wondered briefly about saying to him: look, cut me some slack will you?

He might have made some sympathetic noises, I suppose, but I’m not sure how much power of discretion these guys have once the details of your misdemeanour have been punched into the big-brother machine, and anyway it seemed – I don’t know – undignified, I suppose. So I said nothing and took the ticket. And my mother would not have wanted me to be a cry-baby about it anyway.

I do not like the way policemen say “sir”. It’s better than being called something impolite, I suppose, but there’s always something false about it. This policeman’s sir came at me cold, impersonal and slightly weary. It reminded me of the cold, impersonal and slightly weary hospital doctor who, two weeks before, had discharged my mother at dead of night, in obvious pain, and unable to stand unaided – sent her home to die because there was nothing more he could do for her, and he needed that bed for someone he had more of a chance of helping than an eighty three year old geriatric with advanced terminal cancer, who might have lingered in his ward for weeks.

How many more of you are out there, tonight in that situation, you poor souls? My thoughts are with you.

So, I’d driven her home in shocked horror at the withdrawal of my nation’s compassion, a compassion apparently metered by the scalpel of economic expediency, and an ongoing political disaster piloted by opportunist powerbrokers, oblivious to the small lives who make up the conscious and moral majority of the people they claim to serve.

It was a short sharp lesson in contemporary reality, that although our professional public servants still do their very best, they’ve also got this unspeakable army of amoral bean-counters on their backs. So it’s unwise to rely on them to be there at your hour of greatest need – at least not in any truly meaningful sense. For that you’re going to need the presence of those who love you, also if you can arrange it, the loving presence of your god and, with still more luck, a blessed over-pressed and underpaid community nurse with a vial of Diamorphine, ready to send you off into your dreams.

Your ego caves in, absolutely, at times like these. It realises resistance is futile, that for all it’s huffing and puffing, it’s pathetic self importance is no more than a teardrop in the ocean. And when the ego finally shuts the fuck up, you discover what’s left is, perhaps incredibly,  a stillness, and a loving peace like no other.

So even though I was sitting in a cop car, accused of an indictable offence, as the officer ominously put it, and being handed a speeding ticket, feeling it punctuating insensitively, as it did, one of the most emotionally sensitive periods of my life, I found it hard to take him seriously. Instead I felt an incongruous, yet also a very real loving presence. It held together the various bits of me that were still strung out and floundering in the wake of dark events those past weeks, the likes of which I can never speak of in full, and it was telling me to be calm, to be mindful, but above all to stop struggling. Because a rabbit caught in a snare basically strangles itself to death because its instinct is to struggle, and it lacks the insight to pursue any other course. If we can stop struggling, however, we stand a chance of untangling ourselves from the myriad snares of the world. We survive, and we discover a better way to be.

I’m not sure if smiling at a policeman is a good idea, for they are unpredictable creatures, but I found myself smiling at him anyway. I heard myself telling him it was no problem, that I should have been paying more attention. I think I even made some lame joke about it being a fair-cop. He did not smile back. He thanked me for my time in a tone of voice that implied no gratitude at all, and he dismissed me curtly with yet one more policeman’s  cutting “sir”. Then he swung that fat five-series-Beamer round and headed back to his hunter’s lair with his radar gun, ready to blow a hole in someone else’s day.

I like to think I dismissed his sickly presence from my life as quickly as he dismissed me. He was just a man doing his job, and it would have been churlish to wish him any bad Karma on account of it, but I trust he had slim pickings from the day he pulled me over.

We said our final goodbyes to my mother on April 12th. The Reverend Deacon did a splendid job, memorable and intensely moving, and I took comfort in commending her into the care of a faith she had once sworn an allegiance to. If I made a mistake in any of that, I hope you can forgive me Mum, but what we did was done with love, respect, and an appreciation for the life you lived, for us. Your children.

On the way home from the crematorium I sat in a black Rolls Royce, cruising along rural lanes I’d known since childhood, and the funeral director became chatty, talking about many things – the lovely spring sunshine, the bluebells, and the first dandelions making their appearance in the wayside green. Death and renewal – a curious juxtaposition, but a comforting one. He also talked about the speed limit, and how I’d do well to pay attention to a certain stretch of road that’s recently become notorious as one of the worst speed traps in Lancashire.

“Ah, yes,” I said. “I think I know the one you mean.”

Thanks for listening.

God bless you, Mum.

Graeme out.

Read Full Post »

So, what are you reading at the moment? I don’t know about you but my reading comes in waves, or moods – usually when I’m unable to write. So then I surf the tides of literature instead and can devour a novel in a couple of days, like I’m tearing it apart for the answer to why it is I can’t write. I started out with an idea about reading the Romantics, really settling in to Wordsworth and Coleridge for a bit, but an odd tide fetched up on Patrick Harpur’s shores instead, and in the space of a few weeks I’ve read both his “Mercurius” and “The Philosopher’s Secret Fire”. These books have in turn had me re-reading Carl Jung, and generally blowing the dust off that mysterious trail through the Perennial Philosophy, a thing that’s denied with equal vigor by both religion and science but is probably closer to being a description of reality than either of those curmudgeonly old sages will admit.

If you don’t know Patrick Harpur, but you’re interested in how you can tie up mythology, the Romantics, alchemy, Jung’s psychology, anthropology and even a belief in the fairies, then he’s your man. I wouldn’t say his books are easy going, but I’ve found them utterly engrossing, insightful and enlightening. I’ve just ordered his “Complete guide to the Soul”, and I’m looking forward to devouring that one as well.

I’ve also been reading “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, and a bleaker story I can’t ever remember having read, except perhaps for Hardy’s “Jude the obscure”, though both for completely different reasons of course. Jude was a reaction to a hypocritical morality, a bubbling up of unspoken nastiness through to the surface of the Victorian psyche. The backlash nearly ruined Hardy’s career. It’s thirty years since I read it and its  unrelenting break-heart bleakness has stuck with me ever since. Masterful though it is, it’s one the few Hardy novels I could never bring myself to re-read – it would just finish me off. In a similar vein, I’m wondering if McCarthy’s The Road is a similar bubbling up of something powerfully indigestible. It’s not  a very long book – you’ll get through it in a couple of days. The prose is beautiful but all the more shocking for the horrors it describes – you do need a strong stomach for it. It’ s a post apocalyptic vision that is surely without equal, and the benchmark against which all others will be measured.  I can’t remember the ending of a book that made me weep before, but this one did – and though it seems a long way off the other stuff I’ve been reading, I’m sure it’s all connected, all a part of the same meltings in the crucible of my imagination.

But apart from all that, and yet also similarly related,…

It’s summer, and it’s the weekend, and I’ve been sitting here in the garden thinking I should write something, if only to get myself in the contemplative mood. But that’s not how it works, so I’ve wasted most of the day, even to the extent of nodding off for a couple of hours this afternoon. All of this is trivial and not exactly what you want to hear, but there’s nothing much to tell, and certainly my reading isn’t yielding much by way of answers – at least not directly. The answers come like shy cats, and you can’t make a fuss or even look at them directly or they will melt away. But I’ve a feeling an answer is coming, and it has to do with the imagination, with the Romantic  sense, and an acceptance of its validity, though not in a literal way, and it’s this non-literalness that I’m beginning to see, thanks to Patrick Harpur,  is the important thing, the thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow. This is both complex and yet, I suspect, also very simple,… but I need to think about it some more.

At the moment my literal reality consists of this summer house I built back in the spring, and in which I am now sitting. It also consists of  a patch of garden, and some trees beyond. The sky is grey. It’s about 20 degrees, getting on for 9:00 pm and I’ve got work in the morning. I’ve just lit a vanilla scented joss-stick, and my head’s a little thick from too much cheap wine. But in imagination, I’m a long way from here…

In my mind’s eye I can see a  lake in a bowl of mountains, and by the shore there stands a pavillion, terracotta coloured, its pillars reflected in the gently rippling waters of the lake. I’m in the Swiss Alps somewhere, though perhaps not literally. It’s just somewhere that reminds me a little of the Alps. Anyway, this pavillion,… it has a domed copper roof, whose centuries old verdigris is luminous in the early evening light and inside, unseen, in the pavillion,  a woman is waiting for me, seated on cushions. I’m making my way to her. It’s been a while in coming and though I’m not exactly reluctant to have finally made this connection, I can’t hide the fact that I’m anxious, that there’s a gravity here I’m not sure I grasp properly, and I have to allow my unconscious to guide my hand now or my ego’s going to ruin the moment. I’ve no idea what she’s going to say to me because I’ve not written that part yet. It may yet be that she’s fallen asleep waiting for me, and I’ll spend the night just watching over her.

To what extent is this imaginative scenario a valid reality? Should one take any of it seriously? Where did the pavilion come from? I’ve never been there, but I know its shape, the feel of its pillars against my palm, the sound of the lake lapping at its base. I  did a watercolour of it yesterday just to explore it a little more deeply and if I were to see a photograph of it tomorrow I’d say: “Oh, yea: I know that place.”

It could be a subliminal suggestion of course, a pastiche of images, of experiences long forgotten. The thesis of  mentalist Darren Brown, for the degree to which we are suggestible is very convincing,.. and yet,…

Her name is Gabrielle. I don’t know where she came from, nor her sinister, gnome like parents who forbid me from having anything to do with her, nor the wily old hotelier, the white suited septegenarian, Herr Gruber, who seems bent on smoothing my way with her, if only I will take this thing seriously, he says. Indeed, he says I must, for all our sakes – his, mine and Gabrielle’s.

To be clear, I’m talking about a story I’m writing here – a story that may eventually be completed and stuck up on some free to download e-book emporium, or it may yet languish unfinished on my computer for years, like a puzzle unsolved until either time or carelessness results in its deletion. To some extent, the plot, the conflict, even the language,… these are literary devices that deliver up at the end of everything a story that someone else can read. It is a format for recording imaginary events, events that have no literal reality, no literal meaning,  but what about the abstract imaginative energy that created them? Where did that come from? And can it not mean something? That pavillion of my imagination – is it not a place someone else can travel to in their imagination, if I describe it well enough?

These are the themes that Patrick Harpur deals with – the daemonic reality, he calls it, and it’s the reason I’ve found his books so interesting. They are archetypal, and mythical, these themes – as all good stories are, and if I’d only studied the classical myths as a lad, instead of engineering, I might have a better idea of what my work is about instead of shunting myself into so many dead ends all the time. All right, if I’d clung to the writing at the expense of everything else, I would have starved to death by now, and I’m quite happy to be uncovering these kindergarten stories in my late middle age, thank you. You see, there are no new stories any more. They were all written down at the beginning of time, etched deeply into the bedrock of our mythology. Each generation of writers merely comes along and reinvents the myths in contemporary disguise and claims the stories as his own.

I think I’ve always  accepted the imagination is a window on a different kind of  reality, wherein dwell these mythical aspects of ourselves., these daemons – some of them close and personal, some of them much, much older, more fundamental, primeval, elemantary.  If we know how to balance our literal and non-literal realities, then I think we stand a chance of living as we should: we “think along the lines of nature”, as Jung said.

The trouble is modern man seems to have such an uneasy relationship with it. He can no longer think along the lines of  nature because two hundred years of Enlightement thinking has addled his brain. But we need to be careful in waking up from this delusion and jumping too far in the other direction. We can go too far in our acceptance of every little thing that comes out of the unconscious, not realising that it is the antithesis of logic, and that to analyse it in literal terms may be to tie ourselves in knots and waste decades of our lives until we can wise up and tell true insight from delusion. On the other hand it’s equally dangerous to deny the imagination any kind of voice at all  because it may end up coming back at us in ways we don’t like.

I’m almost convinced now of the ability of the collective imagination to manifest itself in some kind of  physical way. The thrust of  Dean Radin’s work on Conscious Entanglement is compelling, suggesting that human consciousness is capable of manipulating matter or events, that indeed conciousness itself may be the primary ground of being. It’s only a small leap therefore to speculate on what might happen when the collective unconscious becomes focused in literal reality.

People see things.

Only last summer a trio of tall angelic beings were spotted by a policeman near Silbury Hill in Wiltshire – part of the crop circle goings on that enliven that part of the world every year, and if that’s not a manifestation of a mythical reality, I don’t know what is! No amount of investigation ever yields a definitive explanation to these things. They are like smoke, and remain a mystery, fastened upon by the credulous and the needy and denied with equal fervour by the establishment as preposterous – yet people go on witnessing all manner of Forteana, all the time.

While we should be mindful of the reality of the imaginative dimension, and intuitively alert for any personal meaning coming out of it, it doesn’t do to spend too much time humoring its every whim. To be sure, the fairies are a beguiling crowd but we live in a literal reality while they do not. We are flip sides of the same coin so to speak, neither of us able to manage in isolation from the other, but equally neither of us are equipped to make way for long in the other’s realm, nor to make sense of it in any great detail. The literal reality is our domain, but it is perhaps the non literal that gives it, and our lives, its colour and its meaning.

Read Full Post »