Friday, 28 October 2016

belief, and a pre-lived leper.

There is a lot more to the power of a word than its dictionary meaning. We may need to let go of words and verbal concepts at times, for example in meditation, but other than that, words are where we live, and our language/s shape our concepts, feelings, our view of the world. Many words do so from a long way back.

Take 'belief," for example. It's not an easy word sometimes. Do you believe in Jehova/Allah/God? That Jesus was God's son?  Do you agree with, sympathise with, accept a set of beliefs? Differing beliefs about The Big Stuff (God and all) can run a rift through a family.

There are two groups of words, as is common in modern English, around the concept of belief. There are those from the Latin "credo," I believe, eg incredible, credulous. 

Let's leave those to one side for now; more of the time, we use words such as belief, believe. They come from an Old English root "leof," related to "lufu," love.

"Leof" is used in the first English poem "Beowulf" to mean pleasant, dear, beloved."Lief" came to mean willing, something we liked or loved to do.

In Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, the Old Man who wants his  life to end bangs his staff on the ground and says "Leever Mooder, leet me in!" "Dear Mother, let me in!" He's ready for his grave.

So in its very make-up, drawn up from its roots, "belief" involved something dear to us, something we love, something or someone much valued. 

Not merely something our intellects allow us to agree with.

And yet we argue over beliefs, we analyse people's beliefs, we bring the bright and narrow beam of reason to shine on them. Someone said to me the other day that belief isn't a matter of rational analysis, it's a matter of what you commit to - because it is lief to you. It suits you, it's dear to you, you like to do it.

Here's the paradox in this approach, though: it opens the door to, - well, a load of bollocks, you might say, seen from the middle-of-the-road, sensible world view most of us like to think we have.

A recent Doonesbury cartoon neatly skewers the wildly improbable narcissism sometimes to be found in this age of believe-what-you-like. 

A young woman is telling her partner that in previous lives she has been a middle-kingdom midwife, a Babylonian astronomer, a holy Roman empress, a leper in fin-de-si├Ęcle Marrakesh. She's finally realised that what these past lives had in common, what "connected them to the divine spark of my higher self," was that each of them always tried to look her best. Her partner's reply? "That's one plucky leper."

It's often not too difficult to puncture for ourselves (though not for the devout)  the beliefs of others by using reasoned argument or just a laconic putdown. But does it matter what other people believe, if they would as lief have it so? If the belief is useful to them and harmless to the rest of us?

It seems to me that it's what people do with and because of their beliefs that matters. Someone said ages ago, "Your freedom of thought and action stops an inch from the end of my nose." Or should do so, whatever you believe.

Anyone close to the young lady who "knew" she had once been a Babylonian astronomer and a fashion-conscious Morrocan leper might worry about her well-being - I doubt many of us would want to spend too long with someone who talked such tosh - but it would probably be harmless for the rest of us. 

Some beliefs may be seen as more of a risk to unbelievers than others, of course, and more likely to topple over into destructive action, especially when religious belief becomes intertwined with politics, territorial struggles and visions of power.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

How to disagree in a civilised manner, when to avoid the opposition: a middle way from Maalouf and Buddha, sort of

Thanks to the website "Brain Pickings" for these insights:

“To approach someone else convincingly you must do so with open arms and head held high, and your arms can’t be open unless your head is high,” the Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf wrote in his timeless, increasingly timely reflection on how to disagree

It is in times as divisive as ours and as sundered by conflicting perspectives that the mastery of such intelligent, kind-hearted, and considered disagreement emerges as a supreme art of living. To respond in a reactive culture, to marry firm moral conviction with a spirit of goodwill and the porousness necessary for appraising other perspectives in order to evolve one’s own, is a Herculean feat of character. 

And yet there are instances in which it is unsound to engage with another whose values are so antithetical to one’s own that the collision is bound to shatter one’s sanity rather than build common ground." 

Wise words for our times, in which we seem increasingly polarised; we Facebook opinions around our friends and our "friends," not seeming to realise that we we are often merely shouting into an echo-chamber. (Facebook is a lousy medium for political exchanges, since it consists of short, often shouty declarations from individuals, plus links to things they agree with. A lot of it seems to me to show a need for reassurance, and also a degree of showing off how many ways we can agree wittily or aggressively with what's already been stated,) 

We Tweet even shorter minimanifestos of for-and-against around the planet.  And in Mr Trump's case, we decide the election has been rigged before it happens.

Being a member of the clickocracy is much easier and quicker than being a functioning part of a democracy, an individual open to genuine debate and discussion, in which individuals can disagree without reaching for an electronic blunderbuss, in which people of opposing views can still like each other.

A friend of mine, a long-time member of the Labour Party, said she could no longer support Mr Corbyn, but she expected she would lose old friends in the Party over it. That is sad, in the full sense of the world.

This is the same world in which we call those whose views and politcal acts we disagree with "fascists" or "Trots." (Note to self and the world - never call anyone a fascist unless they really do support a totalitarian militaristic one-party state system based on racial purity and genocide. It's a gross insult to all those who suffered under fascism. And stop being hysterical about differences of political opinion and action that are minor, compared to the difference between our society and fascist Italy/Nazi Germany.)

Apperently Buddha said something like "if you encounter people who are agreessive and bothersome, and not open to reason and calm exchange of views, then it's best to avoid them." (Er...I may have adapted the quote a little.)

Maalouf gives us a mature and useful view of how to approach each other, and a practical view of when it's best to disengage. We surely very much need this vision in our daily, social and political lives.


Monday, 17 October 2016

Peripheries, centres, home part 2 - Tim Winton and WA

What is peripheral and what is central are, obviously enough I suppose, relative terms. When we moved back to North Wales, a Southern English friend said "but it's very remote." It's a long way by UK standards from there he lives, and he clearly saw it as a periphery. But where we live now is about as far from Manchester airport as Bristol is from Heathrow.

When as a student in 1967 I rented a delightfully primitive cottage from an Anglesey farmer, we were settling the rent in his kitchen and he asked me where I was from. To cut a longish story short, I said "London." He nodded, said "I went there - once..." and left it hanging in the air. It seems once was enough, for him. London was a distant periphery to his world, his preoccupations, responsibilities, interests.

Not that I want to set up one of those pointlessly polarised north-south, us-and-them arguments. Southerners, I've found, can occasionally arouse resentments at worst and piss-taking at least amongst Northerners, just by being Southerners. And let's not even get into Welsh/English stuff... Let's stick, quite neutrally, to ideas of centres and peripheries, home and away.

Five years later, in Grundisburgh, Suffolk, Joe Pike the osier (basket-weaver) who looked and sounded like someone from a previous century, asked us where we lived. "Waldringfield," we said. His face lit up, as he told us that when he went there, someone was selling oranges on the river-bank; "yis," he said, "I bin there once." It's about eight miles from Grundisburgh to Waldringfield.

In the eyes of the world, London is more significant than Grundisburgh, of course, and that's not just its size. Scienceartseducationtradegovernmentfinance. But surely what we do is set up our own centres, to which other places seem peripheral, unknowable, even, no matter what the world tells us.

The novelist Tim Winton

 is not only Australian, he's from the West Australian coast, where he still lives and writes. He's lived and travelled abroad, but he's a creature of this coast - which is huge, and mostly, outside Perth and a few other smallish coastal towns, very empty. "Underdeveloped," as people who want to make money out of a place might say. It's about as far from Albany on WA's southern coast to Karratha, on the northern coast, as it is from Santiago de Compostella, the NW corner of Spain, to Amsterdam.

Winton writes what I think are very fine novels, and he is known and celebrated around the world. His novels are mostly set in rural/coastal WA; he is, as one critic wrote, a man "of the littoral," a fisherman, surfer, writer, naturalist. 

WA is peripheral even to many Australians; there are fewer people living in WA than there are in Wales, and the population density is 0.9 people per square kilometer. (Says Wikipedia.) In Wales it's 148, and very much higher in England, of course. WA, even Perth itself, is the one place many visitors to Australia don't get to. So you could say it's on the edge of most people's consciousness as well as on the edge of a continent.

In his collection of essays "Island Home" Winton describes how in his youth, Australian references in novels risked seeming merely local and parochial - possibly incomprehensible to readers in Europe or America, the great "centres" of literary awareness and production. Or worst of all, quaint - like the occasional Aussie entertainer on BBC children's TV in the 50s. Tie me kangaroo down, sport, indeed. Anyone else over 65 remember Shirley Abicair?
                                                                  I rest my case.

What Winton has done is what any powerful "regional" writer does - make his region a centre. Hardy's Dorset, Dickens' London underworld, George Eliot's Midlands. He uses his context and makes it open out to people who have never visited it. He makes that context absorbing, specific yet also relevent anywhere in the world where a reader enjoys his books. 

Winton's local identity he takes further, in his own life, by arguing for a re-alignment of Australian attitudes, away from seeking to master the environment (the huge challenge for early European settlers) towards accepting and giving, being a part of it; he draws on and champions Aboriginal cultures' understanding of the natural world. He has fought, fiercely and successfully, as part of the movement to stop the exploitation of the Ningaloo Reef, WA's equivalent to the Barrier Reef.

Winton writes interestingly, in "Island Home," of how he came to think that he could reach a wide readership despite filling his work with local references - flora, fauna, land-forms. I often have to look them up, and I like that sort of independent, take it or leave it attitude. His world matters as much as, say, Ian McEwan's London, because he has written it out across the world.

What, I hear you cry, has all this to do with my usually meditative themes? 

Because the whole idea of centres and peripheries might be superficially useful, but it is ultimately problematic - potentially misleading and restrictive. As an old boss of mine used to say (when the waste products hit the ventilation arrangements) "well, OK, but we are where we are." 

Winton didn't become an Aussie import somewhere else, in one of the great litrary capitals. He made where he was a node of awareness, let's say, rather than a centre.

Maybe each of us, wherever we may be, is a node of awareness. Looking for the centre somewhere else in some other time is a false trail. (On the practical level, in the age of the internet this is even more obviously true.) We haven't all got Winton's power to bring a geographical edge into the centre of the consciousness of people all around the world. But each of us can turn away from a fruitless quest to be somewhere else that seems more important.

Someone I know well, living in Delhi, said he wanted to travel more widely in India. Natural enough, of course. But he also said he wanted to see "the real India." But the real India, for him, was what he saw every morning when he opened his eyes. The other India was merely a future possibility. We need to keep it real, whether we are in Bloomsbury or Greenough WA. 

Hats off to Winton for doing just that in his books, e.g. "Dirt Music," "Breath," "That Eye The Sky," " The Riders," (set in Ireland, if I remember well, which is only an even bet) "The Turning" (stories) "Eyrie" (set in a tower block but still I think, in WA - I haven't read it yet) and "The Shallows," set in a fictionalised version of Albany, the last whaling town in Western Australia, where Winton spent part of his youth.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Home: centres and peripheries from Australia

I'm away from home at present, in fact just about as far away as I could get on this planet, apart from a trip even further to New Zealand. (I wish, but the world is full of lovely places, and you can't see them all, even if you were prepared to ignore the environmental consequences of long-haul flights.)

Looking out over the ocean at Coogee Beach, past a few offshore islands, there's nothing between me and South Africa, and behind me the nearest city with more than 100,000 inhabitants is Adelaide, over 2000 kilometers away.

So you could say I'm peripheral to my home at present. 

Australia can seem very like home - they speak English, with an accent we're familiar with in the UK. You find familiar brands on the supermarket sheves, HMQ adorns the banknotes, etc etc.

Links are strong - there are loads of recently-arrived Poms in the Perth area, and for the less recently-arrived, there's still links with home. Grandparents ("grandies") visit, links are maintained with families ("rellos.")

 These family links are not just a Brit thing of course; there are very many different home countries amongst first and second generation Australians. 

 So although this place can seem quite familiar to first-time visitors from the UK, there are all the cultural generalisations "we" and "they" indulge in, with regard to social interactions and norms. We poms are tentative and over-polite; we say sorry when we needn't, we over-complicate simple things, and we whinge when things are more different  from expectations than we think they should be. (I think that might be less likely now than it used to be.) 

And yet poms can also seem brusque and unfriendly with strangers, in shops etc. We don't say "Hi, how're you goin'? Or "how are you today?I'll have a...." We just say "A flat white please." Uptight, hurried. Such things are fairly easily dealt with, though a nicely-brought-up pom, especially a female one, might need to work a bit at being assertive enough.

Here's a big difference - the approach to town planning, and the results of that. Huge areas of single-storey detatched houses each on a fair-sized plot stretching out for miles around cities and towns. Such suburbs, if spacious and quiet, can look lovely, especially in gentle early-morning sunshine. Looks like a good life could be lived here, a very different life from anywhere in the UK.

And then there's the environment. Early arrivals (intruders) from Britain looked for similarities, and didn't find them. Early landscape painters tried to do Australia in the  subdued colours of the Italianate style. In the later 19th century and early 20th century, people started painting Australia rather more in its own terms. It looks quite sudden, in the National Gallery of Australia. Artists like Walter Withers and especially Tom Roberts, who painted outback scenes, let the sun burst through; hot colours rampage under a blinding blue sky. It's dusty and sweaty in the sheep-shearing shed. They didn't want their pictures to look European. 

All the time, of course, Aboriginal artists were painting their dream-time visions, as they have been doing for many, many thousands of years, but that is - another story. 

Australian birds are splendidly different - fast, noisy, many are brightly-coloured, and they are surprisingly difficult to spot properly. Even the crows mock more harshly than back home. As for the red-tailed black cockatoos, as they sit scrawking and screeching up in a eucalyptus, cracking gum-nuts open and chucking the leftovers down around your feet....a punkish sort of dandy.

This is wildflower season, and it's been a late wet spring, so now the wildflowers are splendid. It's not the soft green setting of spring flowers back in the UK though; it still, even in a park or a reserve, looks like Aussie bush, though with spectacular flowers.

 Feeling at home in Australia in one sense is easy for us, with family here, and after eight or nine months living here spread over 18 years, there's a degree of familiarity that overcomes most of the superficial confusions of focus. 

But many of these thoughts arise from comparisons; they may be  enjoyable and interesting to me, but they won't of themselves make me feel at home. The way to feel a quite different at-homeness comes from a few minutes meditation. Let the comparisons and the challenges to the emotions die away. Even amongst family here, it is possible to feel a  brief longing for the familiar.

Being in the moment here is the same as being in the moment back home, or anywhere. The present is the present wherever you are, and it's in that mode of being that I feel in the place, part of everything around me. Then the eucalypts sway in an always familiar breeze, and the ocean - salty and bouyant, fierce like every ocean - sparkles now and everywhere.