Friday, 29 April 2016

Jackdaw, cat and us - how do animals think?

I really don't know, of course. But I just watched a jackdaw arrive at our bird-table.

As his head flicked from side to side, as his intense little black-and-pale-yellow eye looked briefly at me, I realised what a fast and skilful risk estimate he was undertaking, before he stuck his greedy gob into our very expensive peanuts. (I'm fond of jackdaws, great characters, bit yobby - but they do tear through the peanuts!)

As far as I know, and exceptionally smart though he is in birdland, he couldn't, with a brain that size, rationalise his situation. He couldn't think about it. He was simply and most effectively - in it. Lightning-fast (literally -we should say "electrically-fast") circuits were flashing through his entire system - eyes/brain/wings/legs. That much we do know. He was his situation, at one with it.

Then there's our cat. Super-adapted to his environment. Surely eligble for an award as the most spoiled, smug and contented cat in the UK.

I can watch his behaviour patterns. Enter, pause, check armchairs, note a visitor in his favourite seat, sit at stranger's feet and glare at her - no good.  Move to next favourite chair. Curl up. Sleep. But at the sound of a neighbouring cat at our cat-flap he will, with remarkable speed, pour himself silently across the room and out of the door to investigate.No pauses, no if or but.

Sometimes experts try to make comparative measurements and pronounce that dogs are cleverer than horses (or vice versa) Maybe the real question is - how far is a creature a successful part of their environment? How far are we?

New-born antelopes can get up and totter about almost at once, whereas babies take months just to stop their heads flopping about. But if the antelope's environment were to suddenly change, he'd swiftly become extinct. Humans are exceptionally adaptable, hence their lengthy infancy and childhood. Lots of neural connections and circuits to build, lots of different circumstances to adapt to.

But we don't so much live in the moment as our cat and the jackdaws outside do. Humans seem to need Stuff, novelty, excitement, future dreams and past regrets. We can rationalise and analyse and compare things, we can act successfully on a huge number of varied sensory inputs from the world around us. Yet we seem to be altering our environment in ways that might soon leave us as bewildered and helpless as a baby antelope in downtown New York.

Politics, science and technology are trying to find ways of diverting catastrophe. Maybe we also really badly need an inward revolution, one that helps us stay in the present, accept who we are, understand where we are and what's in front of us. We need to be as sensitive to our environment and as in the present moment as the jackdaw. Life would be simpler and harder, more about essentials and less about distractions from distractions by distractions.

Friday, 22 April 2016

what the wavelets said

They weren't shouting. Nothing special - no crashing breakers, no flying foam in a roaring wind. Simply wavelets in the sunshine, a beautiful bay, and more distantly, the huge misty arc of mountains on down the coast of Cardigan Bay.

 An inexpressible (for me) sense of being, in a wide-open space filled with light.

I wasn't alone; the walking group are good friends, so I drifted in and out of conversation, and I took a little time to myself right down on the shore.

I wasn't looking for consolation, just a little presentmomentness. Which, of course, is always there all the time, if I can let the presentmomentness become me, and me, it. 

Certainly, it was in the wavelets. And so, because I wasn't thinking about consolation, I wasn't trying to get myself consoled, the moments at the sea's edge were calming and consoling. All you have to do is be with it and let it work. And a beautiful place is a big help!

Bending before the storm - whatever your storm may be

It was clear to the occupants of the little village that a terrible storm was going to sweep down upon them, a taifung. Knowing that their fragile dwellings would be swept away, along with their lives, people ran out of the village and began tying themselves to the biggest, strong-looking trees they could find.

Except one man, who led his wife and his son into a bamboo grove and made them tie themselves to the three strongest bamboos they could see.  

Other villagers, running past them, cried out that the man was mad, they would all die, how strong is a bamboo compared to the trees on the hillside?

Night fell; the wind grew relentlessly in its power, until it roared and screamed through the village, destroying all in its path. The three bamboos were flattened to the ground, with the man and his family tied to them. They wept in terror.

Eventually, dawn broke on a scene of utter devastation.The storm had rushed on and left them. The family untied themselves from the three bamboos and looked around them, wide-eyed with horrified wonder. There was nothing of their village left standing.

Where the great trees had stood on the hillside, there were only holes in the ground, smashed branches, tree-roots....


     The Man Watching 
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers' sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
                           Rainer Maria Rilke trans. Robert Bly
Thanks to Annee for passing this on from Cindy Cooper to whom it was passed by her friend Rosie, and the line goes back through who knows how many others to Robert Bly, and so on back to Rilke...a community mostly unknown to itself that has thought about and felt  something profound, immediate, practical.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

For anyone speaking at a funeral: doing grief, doing ceremonies part 3: conclusion

The previous post, about working as a celebrant for a family member who's died, is really a specialised subset of a much more frequent situation: being asked, or wanting to speak at a funeral, as a family member or friend. So rather than bang on about my recent experience, it might be more use and less solipsistic to make a couple of suggestions for any "civilian" thinking about talking at a funeral.

1. I'm a bit down on "ought," "should." Do you want to, that is the question - even if you're a bit nervous about it? S/he may have said s/he'd like you to speak, or the widow/er might ask you. But if it's going to work for the gathering, it needs to be what you want to do (with appropriate guidance, of course.) If you really don't think you can, or really don't want to - then best not to. You can always write something down and give to it someone (celebrant, another speaker) to read it out for you - though best not to spring it on them at the last minute.

2. Much depends on the setting, on the circumstances of the person's death, on who else is speaking, so a bit of background enquiry and thought will help.

3. Once you've thought about 1. and 2. above, just be true to your own feelings; probably best not to "put on a Sunday voice," as Joyce Grenfell wrote!

4. Having said that, if you can get a sense of the general tone of what's going to happen (funerals vary enormously in this) you will be able to avoid anything truly inappropriate. But there's no need to be mealy-mouthed.

5. Write it out, and send it to the celebrant/vicar/officiant etc, (or  if that's not possible, the undertaker.) If all speakers do that, s/he can check for overlaps, incongruities etc - though it's best to try and find out what other speakers will cover. e.g. "I don't know much about her early life, so I'll leave that to the family, but I worked alongside her for 25 years, so I'll speak mostly about that - OK?" And the bottom line is if you should be seriosuly delayed, you can stop having a coronary because you can't get to the lectern in time - the celebrant can read it out from you, as it were.

6. Try not to worry about getting upset, because: they're all on your side; there's nothing wrong with pausing for a gulp and a sniff; if the celebrant has a copy of what you're going to say, you'll have the confidence that s'/he can carry on if you completely collapse - and knowing that, you won't.

7. Read what you've written, rehearse it aloud, get inside it. This will mean that you won't have to read it out ponderously, like Orders of the Day, but can look at the people from time to time (but don't look at the front row if they are upset!) And stop your rehearsing the night before - just a quick read-through on the morning of the funeral.

8. Much depends on the setting - acoustics vary hugely. Try and get there early, see if there's a quiet minute to try out speaking from the front (lectern, pulpit, whatever). Generally, I think people need to speak a little more slowly than they think, even after they have told themselves to slow down, and a little more loudly than they think, even after they've told themselves to speak up. The gathering does want to hear you! Nerves can make you speed up - so: breathe....

9. Take your time - it's your space and time, for a precious 3.5 minutes or however long you've got. Own it - somewhere between intimidated and cocky is where you might want to be.

10. Keep to your time allocation - it can really screw up the other speaker/s if you decide on the spur of the moment to pop in another few stories for four minutes. We don't allow enough time for crem funerals in this country - but there's not much you can do about that except stick to your time. The next family in will thank you for doing so.

11. You could always just wing it and speak not from notes or a script but straight from the heart with whatever is on your mind on the day - but I can only remember three or four people who did so in 360+ funerals.  One of those gave one of the very best tributes I've ever heard, but he is a genius. One of them was - truly dreadful. Personally, I'd write down every word. You don't have to stick rigidly to it, of course (though nb time allocation) - but it's there, in front of you.

If you do a good job for someone who mattered to you, you will feel not just relieved, but pleased and justifiably proud afterwards.

So if you've decided you'll do it - go for it! It's an honour to speak for someone you cared about, and everyone there will/should feel grateful to you.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

doing grief, doing ceremonies part 2 - celebrants and the funerals of relatives

(This is a slightly more specialised post than usual, since it's about carrying out the role of funeral celebrant for someone who was close to you; if that doesn't, quite understandably, interest you, you are excused! But if you are a celebrant, it's an issue worth considering, because sooner or later....)

During my training as funeral celebrant, we were advised not to lead the funeral of family or close friends. This warning rang round my head a little, as I prepared for the funeral of a close relative last week. He had asked me, during his long final illness, to take his funeral for him, so I did. One or two friends commented that it was a big ask - so it was, and I'm very pleased he asked it.

                                                      (that's not me above, of course...)

These things helped:

1. There was a slightly longer interval than usual between his death and the funeral; I was pleased to have done a fair amount of thinking and grieving before the event. For example, his son emailed me his fairly brief eulogy in advance; I read it and started crying. Better at my desk than at the lectern. It was beautifully written and beautifully delivered on the day.

2. My relative had put up a tremendous fight during five years of illness, and his death was expected often during those five years. "You're a tough little bugger," one surgeon said to him. So he was - and a courageous one too. He was facing death calmly the night he died in his sleep, having told us a few days earlier that there was no point in being sad, he'd had a great life. (Which helped with the nature of our sadness -  it wasn't a shock.) Impossible that he isn't still here of course, but not a temporarily disabling shock. That would, I guess, have been a lot harder for me as celebrant. So if you're asked to lead a relative's funeral, just check out how the death happened, what you feel about that, how long you've had to adjust. If this doesn't sound too cold: it's a professional judgement you have to make.

3. I've taken over 360 funerals; I couldn't have done it, I think - or if I had, it would have been a horrible experience for me - if his was my third funeral. I was able to put on my professional shoes, as it were, and concentrate on the job (well, part of me, at least, could do so.) I didn't have to worry about procedural things; I knew what to do if one of the other speakers over-ran; the music was taken care of, and I remembered not to look too hard or long at the front row - grief is very catching! Let me be clear: it's not that I was worried about showing emotion, only about being able to speak clearly. We all have our feelings, but as a celebrant I know said, "you know you've got the balance wrong when the family start to comfort you rather than vice versa..."

3. The crem isn't one of those gruesome cramped pseudo-Gothic dumps that we have to put up with all too often:

                                     (Havant, since you asked)
A matter of taste, perhaps, whether you like Victorian Gothic or something emptier and determinedly modern - but I think it had a big effect on the congregation, and it certainly did on the celebrant! Calming, spacious, light, etc etc. So that helped. Excellent technology, too (webcasts, recordings, slide shows all available.)

4. My family and friends were all very supportive, and that is an invaluable reassurance and comfort.

When the curtain came across, we had one of these:

                                                          (Not this one, obviously...)
My relative had seen active service with the Royal Marines, and so they sent along a bugler in full formal dress. Whatever you may feel about the military, ranging from pacifist abhorrence to gung-ho militarism, I defy you not to find the Last Post a deeply moving sound. It was beautifully played (it isn't always, believe me..) and I had to stare very hard at the carpet when that sound rang out and the curtain came across.

It sure was tough, but it went well, and I felt privileged to have been able to do it for him. So following on from this experience, my entirely unasked-for advice would be: don't say no as a matter of policy, but do take time to think through whether or not you can do it well for someone so close, and do look after yourself. You have your own feelings, and yet you do have to be of use.


Monday, 11 April 2016

doing grief, doing ceremonies

It's commonplace, and perhaps therefore obviously true, that you can't tell the depth or nature of someone's grief from their face; grief happens in different ways.

At present we seem in the middle of a huge wave of books and journalism about grief and how to do it properly (or well, or effectively, or honestly - add your own exhortation.)

I'm really not sure how much help we need to grieve for a loss. Seems to me when it happens, we feel grief. It's not a thing, it's a process, and it fluctuates. We might need help to deal with it, if it is in danger of turning into depression or obsession, but grief is hardly a skill to be honed. "Teach Yourself Grief" would be a useless title! And yet there's a book on my shelf called "About Grief," and I'm told it's very good. I must read it sometime.

The books and essays may help people to help people who are grieving, of course.  I wonder if the welter of advice is a product of our highly individualistic culture, in which common ways of doing the big things in life have fragmented, along with religious beliefs? 

So each of us needs to grieve in our own way. But we'll do that anyway, and I guess always did even when the church had a handle on what people were supposed or expected to feel. Grief was never, I guess, a standard procedure.

I've met, in the course of my work and in my private life, a lot of grieving people, including as it were, myself. I've seen people desolate and crying out with it at a funeral - almost howling with grief; I've seen people apparently completely unmoved. I've learned to avoid comparative views, let alone judgements. I've learned, above all, to ask and to listen.
Is it the job of a funeral to help with grief? Perhaps, up to a point. It's a communal experience and one kind of goodbye, it marks off a phase in coming to terms with a death, it can help us face the impossible fact that someone no longer exists. But it's only a brief ceremony.

Funerals in this country tend to be less demonstrative than in the USA, I understand. I worked briefly with an American who at the time thought she wanted to be a celebrant, and after the first funeral she observed she said that everyone there seemed very repressed and flat. It seemed a fairly typical British crem funeral to me, and we discussed cultural differences. Each of us likes to think our responses are unique, but of course they are also culturally and socially shaped. For example, it's harder not to weep (if you think you shouldn't) when people around you are weeping.

Some funeral radicals think our British reserve at funerals is unhealthy, or unhelpful. Some more reserved people seem to feel it's shameful, letting the side down, to show much sadness at a funeral. "How's she doing?" people ask. "Well," comes the answer, which usually means she's keeping a grip on her feelings and showing little of them. Is this good, or bad? Or simply how she does her grieving?

Perhaps there's a danger here in thinking grief should be expressed or "done" in a particular way; who is any one of us to say how we should or shouldn't express ourselves in public?

We do grief, we do a funeral ceremony, each of us in our own way and each of us alone, and yet with people round us who share, we know, at least some of our feelings. So although the public nature of the event can be a burden for some, it can also be a great help and comfort. We are, after all, social animals.

"No man is an island, entire of itself...never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Strange paradox - we can't feel the particular nature of another's grief: what is more dismaying than when someone says "I know how you feel." No you don't, despite your good intentions. And yet we can share in another's grief. 

 "If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
I know thee well enough, thy name is Gloucester;
Thou must be patient; we came crying hither"

We aren't all Lear or Gloucester, thank goodness; but shared grief, however it happens, is surely a powerful and helpful thing. I don't know why; why should it help, to have someone else share your pain?

It's part of our common humanity, and despite the pain - perhaps because of the pain - grief is a rich and strange thing.