Saturday, 30 July 2016

country and town, Canned Heat and Cavafy

Sitting in a cafe just round the corner from where I used to live, I took this shot of a road that was part of what I used to call home. I loved it here; our children grew up in this city. My coffee break was intensely nostalgic. Yet I clearly remember wishing we lived in the country instead. And now we do.

Here's another recent shot of a grandson in a big unspoilt open space just a couple of miles from the inner suburb shown above. It's all "the city."

I'm sure I could be content in the city as well as in the country, provided I saw city living as the path, the reality for me, rather than fantasising about another life than the one I was living...After all, I lived in the city for 23 years- though we did get away to the countryside when we could.

It's the work of staying with the present that would make it feasible - along with not having a rigid idea of what is city and what is country. I've read that suburbanites moving to an agricultural area are often dismayed by the noise and smells of the working countryside.

Here's a rather stern poem about the danger of avoiding the reality of where you are:

The City, by C. P. Cavafy

 "You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world."

Dreams of escape, whether from town or country, lead us away from living as fully as possible wherever we are. Wherever we go, we take with us who we think we are. Maybe that's what we need to change, if we want a real escape - what we think we are.

This rather feeble song from Canned Heat has classic rural escape fanatasy in it, back-to-the-country hippiedom.
"I'm going up the country, babe, don't you wanna go?
I'm going up the country, babe, don't you wanna go?
I'm going to some place where I've never been before.

I'm going, I'm going where the water tastes like wine.
Well, I'm going where the water tastes like wine.
We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time.

I'm gonna leave this city, got to get away.
I'm gonna leave this city, got to get away.
All this fussing and fighting, man, you know I sure can't stay."

I was pleased to leave the traffic, the haste and the noise of the city behind, "the fussing and fighting;" any of us might have good reason to move on from the city, but it needs to be agood reason. Idealising somewhere else than you are is surely a recipe for unhappiness.


(Dunno about you, but I much prefer "On The Road Again" with its loping rhythm and buzzing, slightly sinister backing.)

Billy Collins on Mortality via Drowning


This isn't really, or only, about actually drowning..

Sunday, 24 July 2016


On a lovely walk, in fine weather, on the north coast of Anglesey, we looked back at Wylfa nuclear power station, recently de-commissioned. Now "they" want to build another one, Wylfa B, or "Wylfa Newydd" yn Cymraeg - the "New Wylfa."

How you look at this curious structure, in the literal sense, depends on how you look at it, in the metaphorical sense, i.e. how you feel/think about nuclear power. 

If you think the safety risks of a serious accident from such a place are negligible; or if you think the radioactice waste problem will be resolved safely in the next N years; or if you think it's a ridiculously dangerous project the waste from which we'll be bequeathing to the planet and its ecosystems for millenia; or if you think it's needed to combat human-generated global warming and to secure electicity supply, or..well, that's enough, the point's obvious.

So you might look back across the bay with a mixture of fear, dread and anger at human folly, or you might think impatiently "wish they'd get on with the new one." You might simply make an aesthetic judgement - a blot on the landscape etc (it actually won an architcture award in its time - but then so did a lot of buildings...)

So your view of reality - what is real for you - depends on your point of view: the thoughts, opinions, emotions that you characteristically deploy in association with something out there in the "real" world. But the real world is what we make it. We still talk about the sun it seems to. 

This excerpt, found on the website "Brainpickings," turns all this into a wonderfully paradoxical circle. I had to read it slowly, letting each stage sink in a bit.

“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977. “What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

So your nuclear power reality will not be the same as mine. Can I find a harmonious balance in this scene - a lovely bay on the Irish sea coast, and a nuclear power-plant?

Well, on the walk I did:

In the political realm, choices have to be made. We can't simply let go and accept. But we might remember the immense power of paradox and contradiction. It's central to a part of Buddhist thinking and doing that I've found of very great value. I don't think Alfred Kazin was a Buddhist - or maybe he was?

Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.
                                                                                            Alfred Kazin

A desire for the stasis of an unobtainable and absolute balance is what Kazin is warning us about. We can achieve in ourselves an equilibrium when faced with such a choice; it's not a total harmony about the thing itself, which like any complex political issue is full of contradictions. So: accident?/waste/low carbon generation/cost/energy security... we have to look at the thing through its contradictions, accepting the full reality of them, before we can find the equilibrium we need, not just on a walk, but in order to make decisions about it.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Conran, time, jasper

I didn't want to suggest, in my last posting, that Tony Conran's poems were always difficult to fathom. Look at the imaginative power and directness of this - he was so good at poems for people he knew, for friends - he had a gift for friendship, and it fuelled his powerful imagnination.

Jasper for John Jones the potter
Waxwork of a crag, a model of sea rock
In gleaming maroon –
Hear the waves break on it, see the fish fly
Under the moon!

A piece of witch-stone, jasper,
Red chalcedony
With a tidewash of grey quartz still ebbing
Back like the sea.

 I was given it, it has lain in my hearth
Nearly a year
To give peace by arbitrary charm
To fingerers here.

Each hand that stroked it, gave to and took
Power out of it:
Love warmed it with whitsun, it knew
Fire-tonguing wit.

It felt stillness in half-light, it learned
Like a wild foal
To stand calm in a crowdful of noise
In its deep quartz soul.

It is Welsh rock, John. A vein of it runs
In the nape
Of the hanging coast where the oaktrees
Knot the Straits into shape.

Earth, water and fire! and a girl’s hand that gave it
Dearer to me
Than gold! – I send you this shard from the wheel
Of the Welsh sea.

Your potter’s eyes found glazes in red grit –
You made them yours,
The piebald debris of metallic earths,
Ragbag of ores.

We finger a pebble for luck, or chance
Magic try –
But your fingers have lived with luck so long
They must have it, or die.

And your hands chance no amateur magic:
The wheel must turn,
The wet grey clay must rise like a genie
To teapot or urn.

Yet now, because you have left Wales, and sold
Kiln and wheel
And because your cottage sinks down to its knees
In an overgrown field,

And the racks in your front room shop
No longer fill
Quietly, quietly with the cups and jugs
Of your fingers’ skill

And because now, though the potter’s gone
And the clay dries dead,
We are glad that the love of a bride
Has graced your bed –

That ancient, amateur magic of hands,
A love and a luck
Richer than even from clay
Ever was struck –

Because of all this, on your wedding day
I send
All the power in a stone I can
To make and mend:

A piece of witch-stone, jasper,
Red chalcedony
With a tidewash of grey quartz still ebbing
Back to the sea.

And now I'm feeling hiraeth for John and his work, and for the time I knew him a little; I have a jug or two of his. His cotttage sunk down to its knees in an overgrown field....

We humans are in love with the products of time. Unlike chalcedony, which simply is a product of time and has - no purpose...

Tony Conran and the Purpose of Life....

I guess most of us at some stage wonder something like "why are we here?" "What is the meaning of human life, what's it all for?" Hence all the nervous jokes, e.g. "What if the Hokey Cokey really is what it's all about?" Or "42."

Here's a poet's answer.


Is there a reason
For us?
Like a hiraeth*
For the one shy kiss

Of first love, the question's
Beyond our imagining -
The first what-must-have-been -
The first love song -

The first time I was shown
The cherry tree
Of the world
Bending, flowering insanely

White around us
Like a blockade of stars,
My mother's canopy
And me in her arms.

                       Tony Conran

* hiraeth, Tony tells us, is not fully translatable from the Welsh, but it means something like nostalgic longing with a touch of grief.

Tony was often a pretty uncompromising modernist poet, so sometimes he can seem "difficult;" this seems to me movingly clear, and I hope his shade will excuse me if I lumber about in it a bit.

The first shy kiss from a first love, gone and un-revisitable, leaves us with hiraeth. Thus does the yearning for an answer to "why am I here" stay with us even when we know it's "beyond our imagining." We long for a home, a great and finally satisfying home, which could start with "why am I here?"

Such a lovely straightforward answer. Why we are here is beyond our imagining. In my simplistic terms: we simply are. The meaning of life is life. We can trace the evolution of a robin redbreast (Tony writes powerfully about evolution) but in the end, a robin simply, is. It has no purpose, in the usual terms of human agency. 

A bus has a purpose. I don't, and nor do you.  

Tony's "beyond our imagining" might well have had a religious context, at the personal and individual level (i.e. the answer might involve Divinity, if there is an answer) Yet it seems to me that for any of us, a final and valid answer is unimaginable.

"What am I for?"
"To be. That's what you are for."
"But one day I won't be. What then?"
"To be. That's what you are for. And when you've done with being, you won't be." 
No wonder we feel hiraeth about the purpose of life, even though "purpose" and "life" may be oxymorons.

And then the poem switches to the cherry tree of the world, the absolute cherry tree of the poet's first meeting with one, the total unique fully and entirely present cherry tree of a small child's fully-absorbed wonder. Hiraeth here, and Tony's mother, and I'm close to tears. 

Tony Conran died a couple of years ago. I can't always get a lot from some of Tony's poems, because I lack the width and breadth of his eloquent understanding, but a poem like this is something for which I never stop feeling deeply grateful. It's to be found in this volume:

Saturday, 16 July 2016

remembering dear dead ones

Following on from yesterday's ramblings about regrets and words spoken or not: if you haven't come across it before, (I hadn't) you might value (I did) this thought. 

It was carved on one of those little plaques, all identical, that they make into walls at crematoria, thus ensuring that they all merge into something depersonalised. 

 I must have walked past it a hundred times and not noticed it amongst the scores of little plaques. It caught my eye on the way to a funeral on Monday, and it stopped me in my tracks.

"He is not where he was.
He is wherever we are."

Friday, 15 July 2016

Regrets after a death - Tiffany's thoughts

In an effort to pull my mind away from the news just now - what with Brexit, dreadful news from Nice, and the way the harpies are circling around the Labour Party, it's getting very nasty and we maybe all need to salvage some equilibrium, at the individual, daily level - I'm going to plunge right into a nice trivial subject; death regrets... I mean, the regrets you feel when someone close to you has died, regrets that you didn't say more. 

This is from one of the late Sir Terry Pratchett's novels, about the witch Tiffany Aching. Hey! don't click out of here if you don't like fantasy - nothing fantastic about this, and it could be useful next time you're in grief.

   ..."saying goodbye to his [dead] father in the coolness of the crypt, trying to find a way of saying the words that there had never been time for, trying to make up for too much silence, trying to bring back yesterday and nail it firmly to now.

Everyone did that. Tiffany had come back from quite a few deathbeds, and some were very nearly merry, where some decent old soul was peacefully putting down the weight of their years. Or they could be tragic, when Death had needed to bend down to harvest his due; or, well, ordinary - sad but expected, one light blinking off in a sky full of stars. And she had wondered, as she made tea, and comforted people, and listened to the tearful stories about the good old days from people who always had words left over that they thought should have been spoken. And she had decided that they weren't there to be said in the past, but remembered in the here and now." (my italics) 

"Trying to bring back yesterday and nail it firmly to now." Can't be done, we all try it, and it can cause comfort, but if it comes from regrets, then it can cause suffering. 

In our culture, because many of us are still quite reserved- and I don't feel that is all bad - we sometimes want to say big things, and don't. Things like "I love you" or "I forgive you" or "can you forgive me," or "I'll miss you, you old bastard.." I don't mean things like "the will is in the old tin box under the bed," that stuff is easy.

So if we want to overcome our reserve, we can say those things, in the moment, and maybe we should if we can. Or we can use the little signs and signals that Brits often use instead of saying things. Codes.

But if we can't get the words out, then after the important person has died, it may help to reflect that the words weren't for back then, because if they were for back then, we'd have said them then. They are for now. They are arising in the present. Focusing on the present moment may help us to allow regret to dwindle away, instead of chewing away at us.

Smart kid, that Tiffany.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Were you a 48% or a 52%?

Such troubling times. Political parties in turmoil, many people who voted Leave now wish they hadn't, some political careers ended (no bad thing in some cases, you might well point out!), the economy suffering, EU politicians angry and confused about the future - and foul displays of unwarrented aggression, of xenophobia and racism by a small minority, but a visible and noisy one, on our streets.

A friend of mine, a Quaker, said that she thought all the prayer and meditation that people like her do should provide some equilibrium for them. 

I think a bit of historical realism also helps - this isn't 1940, with the Nazis watching us from the other side of the Channel; it's not the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It's not the Irish famine, nor is it the Civil War. But it is troubling, whatever side you voted on.

I think meditation does help, if for no other reason than it helps us stay with the present, and not project possible and depressing future scenarios, which may or may not come to pass. 

But sometimes the meditation or the prayer might need a gateway out of the headlines and into a calmer space. I was one of the 48% who voted to Remain. Here's a little treat - the first prelude of a different "48," Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, book 1 prelude one of his 24 pairs of preludes and fugues. It could help you into a calmer place, whether you were a 48% or a 52% person.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

No Middle Way in this referendum

When I started this blog, I decided I would concentrate mostly on what was in front of me, in the moment. I felt this would not only help me in my own development but might even be of interest to my army of readers (er..that should read "small platoon" and thank you again for even bothering to read it.) So it wouldn't be political. "Old men ought to be explorers," says TS Eliot, and I wanted to explore the reality in front of me, in the present moment, applying to it what I am learning from Buddhism and elsewhere. I shall carry on doing so, usually.

But there are things about the EU referendum that run with my usual preoccupations, so I'll divert a bit from What the Water Says. This won't, I promise, be partisan about the outcome, so here goes.

Whatever you think of the referendum campaign outcome it has been a bitter, divisive process. We could have had a period of calm and factual exploration of what the EU is and does, of what our position might be outside it, or inside it with whatever changes might have been possible. 

Many of us didn't know much about the EU, and were wide open to crude and over-simplified sloganising from either side. And now it's too late, lots of people have apparently been Googling "what is the EU?" After they have voted to leave it or stay in it. FFS as the internet has it.

This was a very complex matter, arguably not well suited to a simple yes/no referendum. Early on, both sides tried to frighten us into agreeing with them. Half-truths and lies were told, and behind it all was the screaming hysteria of "news"papers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. 

Impossible to govern? But we have been governed, and continue to be governed, for better or worse.

What, all of them? From anywhere? To anywhere?

Politics in a democracy has to be divisive to some degree, of course. We have to divide along our political and social opinions, our differences, our prejudices, our efforts at rational investigation and thought, our so-called gut feelings. These differences take us towards conclusions which separate us, for a while, and to a degree. 

And then we carry on with ordinary living, after the election is over. Nothing wrong with lively, even heated, disagreement. "Damn braces, bless relaxes," to say it again. But it's an underlying tolerance and a sense of moderation that enables us to do so productively. 

So why does this referendum process and its outcome feel oddly and unpleasantly different? Why does my heart sink a bit (or a lot) when I find an old friend voting for The Other Side about EU membership, when normally I don't much care if he supports a different political party?

Polarization is my simple, and probably simplistic, answer. The drive to make opponents into The Other, into people who must be not merely opposed, but discredited. It's still carrying on now, over a week after the vote. 

For example: young people are blaming old people for the higher proportion of "out" votes, and all sorts of resentments and fears are swirling to the surface. "We" - old people - have stolen "their" futures, taken all the benefits, we're living on golden pensions. 

Illogical nonsense. "We" were fortunate with our education grants, more generous state benefits etc (though very many of us do not have golden pensions, and live in or close to poverty - I recognise my own good fortune in this area.) 

"We" have been pointing out that a considerably higher proportion of "us" voted in the referendum than young people did. And many of "us" are deeply disturbed by what has happened, what it might mean for our young people - my young people, children and grandchildren.

"We" might also point out that had today's young been offered what we were offered, they would, of course, have taken it. They probably wouldn't have worried that maybe future generations would have to pick up the tab.

See what I mean? What a futile argument, what pointless justifications. That's what happens when you polarize the public around an artificially simple decision.

That seems to me the basis of the nastiness. Leaving or staying in the EU isn't a simple matter, to be decided by a small margin of votes on a simple question. It is the artificial simplicity of the referendum question that enabled political leaders to crudify opponents' arguments, create the Other, attack each other in a startlingly irresponsible and unpleasant way.

It was the casual assumption that we all knew enough to make a sensibly-informed decision, either way, that helped crudify the debate.

The Other - hence the irritating "" I used around we and us in describing the useless age-group polarization. Lump people together, describe them in reductively simple terms, create scapegoats, crawl offensive messages about them on walls... 

We could have followed a middle way in the arguments about Europe. We didn't have to do this, like this. 

Referenda are a crude and dangerous tool; Hitler used them at least twice, I believe. A pseudo-democratic process when carried out in a culture manipulated by skilled and ruthless opinion formers and media power-brokers - and self-seeking irresponsible politicians.

To finish, and I'll be partisan now: whatever you voted, can you or anyone deny that this was launched on us to try to deal with the long-running divide in the Conservative Party and the threat to it from UKIP? 

A gamble that went wrong between members of a political elite has resulted in a dreadful increase in people - citizens, my fellow countrymen and women, visitors -  being insulted and harassed in the street. 

One woman reported that someone said to her "go back to Africa." She said she was puzzled, as well as shocked, and replied "But I've never been to Africa."

It's make you laugh if it didn't make you cry.