Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Journeys, change, realities: Rilke, C Day lewis, Eliot

We read these two poems in our meditation group today.
 First one by Rilke trans. Robert Bly.
"The Walk"

"My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by
 what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance –

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave ...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces."

And this by C Day Lewis:
 "O Dreams, O Destinations"

"To travel like a bird, lightly to view
Deserts where stone gods founder in the sand,
Ocean embraced in a white sleep with land;
To escape time, always to start anew.
To settle like a bird, make one devoted
Gesture of permanence upon the spray
Of shaken stars and autumns: in a bay
Beyond the crestfallen surges to have floated.
Each is our wish. Alas, the bird flies blind,
Hooded by a dark sense of destination:
Her weight on the glass calm leaves no impression,
Her home is soon a basketful of wind.
Travellers, we are fabric of the road we go;
We settle, but like feathers on time's flow."

To which one might have added (but didn't):

 "When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think "the past is finished"
Or "the future is before us".
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
"Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind."

            (from TS Eliot, "The Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages III")

A big journey tomorrow, and yet in an ultimate sense, no different from any day's journey. All processes, all changes, all flows. I (any of us) am not a fixed thing moving through space and time, I am the journey which is me. Fare forward, voyagers. All of us. "We are the fabric of the road we go."

Monday, 8 February 2016

walking, age, Ken Jones

I really hope the family and friends of the late Ken Jones, meditation teacher and poet, don't mind my posting this, as a tribute to a fine teacher I wish I had known. I belong to a walking group and a meditation group, to both of which I recommend this sequence.

Octogenarian Ramble

Rambling through old age -
she looks behind
to see if I'm still there

As her flickering compass tacks and veers, I lag behind with the map to shout changes of direction. In the interludes of easy going, my poles clicking on the tarmac, we once again strike out together.

Facing obstacles once taken in our stride, like this crumbling drystone wall.

Dignity dictates
I decline her proffered hand
this life in the past tense

Sometimes, however, I do accept a little push-up over a sheep fence.

Barbed wire yoga
the lift of my boot
just one inch short

At a broad, fast flowing stream she honours me - by not looking back. Left alone to enjoy both fear and audacity. Launched creakingly in mid-air, that second of freedom beyond age and youth. And Splash!

Old age is also about falling over.

Black and blue
the colour scheme
of this old body

Happily, the elegance learnt in youth remains. I can still fall gracefully, softly and unnoticed. Moreover, I can still provide some entertainment.

His roly-poly fall
down a gentle slope
her helpless smile

And so mortality eternally renews our weekly rambles through crag and forest, pasture and bog.

Getting lost together
blithely we make our way
towards the final destination


Watched a movie last night, "Still Alice." Beforehand, much debate by the fireside. Watching a film about Alzheimer's - would it only be depressing and scary, are we too chickenshit to face some difficult truths about it, etc. Anyway, eventually watched it.

 It's beautifully controlled acting and direction, and it was clever of them (and the original novelist) to choose early-onset Alzheimer's in a high-drive successful professional whose field is - words. The above still is from the secene when, out jogging in once-familiar surroundings, Alice (Julianne Moore) can't recognise where she is.

 The still below is much later on in the progression of the disease, with her daughter, who turns out to be strong-minded and self-denying.

 I don't really want to get far into the film itself. They are a family of prosperous middle-class Americans, so that cushions the blow somewhat, but it is still thought-provoking, moving, scary. 

I'm more interested in trying to contemplate the dissolution of a unique consciousness.

This next bit may seem a little stern, not too many laughs, so please leave now if you're feeling fragile!

OK, on we go.

Thing is, every consciousness comes to an end. We can ignore that knowledge, or live with it. Without dementia, consciousness comes to an end either abruptly, or gradually through illness etc, but either way, it lasts more or less to the end of life itself. 

Up to that point, our memories work away all the time, providing the basis for our sense of "me." That "me" isn't static, it is continuously reconstructed by our brain's activity; but with dementia, the lightning-fast continuous reconstruction job runs out of building blocks. 

There's an agonising scene in which after watching her daughter's performance in Chehov's "The Three Sisters," Alice goes up to her and asks her if she is staying on in town for the rest of the summer season. Someone has to tell Alice that she is talking to her daughter. Familiar enough situation to care workers and the family of dementia sufferers, no doubt.

Before she reaches that stage, Alice tells someone that she'll fight it as long as she can, and as her memory goes she will just have to live in the present.

Living in the present is all any of us can do, of course - the rest is memory, anticipation or fantasy. But eventually, inevitably, Alice can't carry on living in the present as "Alice," because she loses her sense of identity, of self. She just lives. Entirely in the present, but hardly aware any longer of herself as "Alice."

I think many of us are more scared of losing our "me" consciousness, our sense of self, than we are of death itself. So, what is to be held up against this fear and pain?

In Alice's case, the love of her family, and her love for them, which is not sentimentalised (her illness causes real problems and conflicts.)

Our culture is trying to get to grips with the size and scope of the problem - so many old people surviving illness until dementia strikes. But NB: it doesn't always strike. I know from my work as a funeral celebrant that very many people  live on into their 80s and 90s with no dementia, just memory loss, the sort that makes me forget where my glasses are. That's not dementia. Dementia is when I don't know what my glasses are for.

And there are things we can do to keep our minds going. As you might guess if you've ready any of this blog before, I'm placing a bet on meditation. And the love of family and friends. And the Guardian quick crossword.

It's not a depressing movie, ultimately. It is just a challenge being grown-up about this stuff. 

OK, you can come back into the room, I'm done with the scary stuff, more conversations with rivers soon.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

snowdrops, Lloyd George and riverspeak

A poetic cliché from school days is "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." (Points if you know who wrote it.) All very humbling, I'm sure, and there are no doubt those who would do well to remember it. But the paths don't only lead to the grave, because what you do en route with and for others is surely significant.  This:

is the grave of and memorial to David Lloyd George, close to the village where he was raised, and to Afon Dwyfor, a most beautiful river. Lloyd George was a very influential figure in British history, and laid the foundations of the welfare state. (You knew that, of course, just trying to remind you.) He was, like any powerful person, controversial, but his paths to this lovely spot mattered a lot to our people. (All right, all right, he had trouble keeping his trousers on, but that's not quite to my point...)

Our paths earlier this week led not just to, but also from DLG's grave along the river to the wonderful displays of wild snowdrops to be found thereabouts. 

Perhaps the star of the show for me was really the river. The company was good, so I didn't want to mooch about too much on my own, but I did find a few moments just to be with the river, its flow and its changes.
It was, as usual, a focus for me on the changeability of everything. A river isn't an entity, a thing, but an uncatchable flow of processes, water and air, vegetation and creatures, watchers and rocks and stones, all in an impossibly complex of undisentangleable (so why try?) elements. All this change and flow keeps me in the moment for a moment.

So this essence of processes helps me let go of the vain effort to be a solid defensible unchanging thing. Not so much going with the flow as being part of it and going nowhere but here. Belonging with it, not so separate from it.

Bah! Words. One tries.

The river had much to say to me in almost no time at all.