Saturday, 31 December 2016

The cycle of seasons personified - The January Man


I've put this song up before, either on this blog or my previous one, so I hope you're not bored by it. 

The steady plod of the instruments under Karine Polwart's lovely voice suggests to me the welcome relentlessness of the seasons' cycle. It'll roll round no matter what we do.

On the last day of the old year, with lots of nervousness and fussing about the political events likely to occur in the year ahead, lots of gloom and dismay about what is happening to our own society and cultures, bitter divisions in politics and public policy, I find, and I hope you do, solace here - right here and now, 31:12:16 - in knowing and feeling that I am part of the seasons' turning. It is in me, I am of it.

It's not a matter of being controlled by these cycles of change, it's more being part of them, the same "thing."

Why do disturbed city kids respond well (often/usually) to programmes that take them out into the countryside, or into  city farms? Is it just some lovely views, some sweet furry animals?

I think it is easier in these locations for them to feel, even if not to know rationally or consciously, that each of them is a natural system, a set of changes that is part of something much huger than each of them alone. 

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age, that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever."

Are these lines lamenting the passing of time and the coming of age? I don't think so, because they contain both the wintry fever and the green fuse - the cycle.
That's how it is for all of us; we don't need to tell the crooked rose anything, in any literal sense. If we can be as one with the cycle of change, live in and with it, in this moment, then maybe we can carry our being-in-the-present through into whatever next year brings. It's bound to help.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

AA Gill on being a reluctant Christian

To fill the aching void between Christmas and New Year's Eve hangovers, here's someone (recently late and widely lamented) writing with wit and insight into a state more people than we might imagine find themselves in.

 "I am a reluctant Christian. I was once interviewed by Lynn Barber and I told her I was a Christian but not a homosexual . . . she didn’t believe either. “You can’t be a Christian,” she said, in her parlour maid’s voice, “you just can’t.” Well I can, that’s the thing with religion. Absolutely anyone can. “But you’re not remotely Christian,” she continued. “It’s another contrarian affectation.” What, like bow ties? “Yes.”

"I wish it were. Having a dose of religion, in my milieu, at this time, is as awkward and inconvenient as not having it in 17th-century Norwich. It would be so much more socially easy to be a vain fashion atheist.

"I was brought up by atheists. I honestly thought I was immune to religiosity. And I didn’t catch it in a Methodist way after signing the pledge, I began to have vague spiritual unease because of art at the Slade and that really was contrarian. I’d go and sit in the back of churches and feel wordlessly moved.

"There was a family friend, an Irish Jesuit and university professor, who occasionally took me out to lunch and I would confide in him. He was a radical libertarian theologist, which was exciting, and he said if at all possible religion was something to be avoided.
Who would willingly lumber themselves with a book full of medieval rules, superstitions and the possibility of an eternity’s agony by choice? Far better, he said, to adopt a general humanitarian goodness, be thoughtful, charitable and kind and trust in the benevolence of providence to see you all right. He pointed out that, statistically, religious belief had no actuarial benefits: you didn’t get to live longer, or have less cancer; religious people didn’t have prettier spouses, politer children, more sex — quite possibly less sex — nicer offices or better weather. They did, on the other hand, get guilt (point of order here: it’s the Catholics and Jews who get guilt, Protestants and Muslims get shame). And of course remorse.

"You don’t really believe that, do you, I said. “Adrian, I wish to God I did, but I can’t because the space is already filled with a belief in God.” I think I’ve got it too, I said. “Which flavour are you?” Well, that’s rather the thing, I’ve got a formless faith.
He said: “If you want my advice, go with what’s closest to home. Faith is ethereal, the practice of faith is cultural. If you become a Zoroastrian or a follower of Cao Dai, a marvellous Vietnamese Christianity that believes Muhammed, Moses, Louis Pasteur, Shakespeare, Lenin and Victor Hugo are all saints, then you’re going to have to learn a lot of stuff . . . and get over a whole lot of other stuff before you get to the good stuff and it’ll have very little to do with your soul.

"“Weren’t you baptised into the Church of Scotland? I’d stick with Protestantism. Actually, I think it rather suits you . . . low to middle. Anglo-Catholicism would bring out the worst in you, all the dressing-up would get out of control and you’d become an architectural pedant doing brass rubbing.”

"So that’s essentially what I am — a lazy, middle-range Protestant with a mildly pedantic crush on the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer."
with thanks to Weeping Cross' blog "The Hearth of Mopsus"

Monday, 19 December 2016

Betjeman on Christmas.

"and is it true?" asks the poet. Even if, like me, you think the last two lines are not true in any factual sense, I defy you (at a safe distance, of course) not to agree that there is truth, or maybe "validity," in the poem!

If I don't get on here again before Der Tag, here's wishing you all (both..) a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ?  For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
                   John Betjeman

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Christmas Life

"If you don't have a real tree you don't bring the Christmas life into the house." Josephine Mackinnon, aged 8

Bring in a tree, a young Norwegian spruce,
Bring hyacinths that rooted in the cold.
Bring winter jasmine as its buds unfold -
Bring the Christmas life into this house.

Bring red and green and gold, bring things that shine,
Bring candlesticks and music, food and wine.
Bring in your memories of Christmas past.
Bring in your tears for all that you have lost.

Bring in the shepherd boy, the ox and ass,
Bring in the stillness of an icy night,
Bring in the birth, of hope and love and light.
Bring the Christmas life into this house. 

                                            Wendy Cope

Thursday, 8 December 2016

an inward revolution and Rowan Williams' eyebrows

Rowan Williams, 'To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need to live truthfully, honestly and lovingly - and is therefore a deeply revolutionary matter'.

Always the danger that because he was the Arch B of C,  those not of a Christian persuasion, or those who are but didn't care for his leadership, will pop that statement into a neat and dismissive box. 

Or socialists might see him as leading a religious grouping, and all such are irrational, and oppressive morally, psychologically, and materially. Or they may object to a non-Marxist idea of a revolution. 

Conservatives might see him as too liberal, and "wishy-washy."

I'm increasingly prepared to take him exactly at his word on this. 
In fact, let's leave him and his splendid eyebrows alone, and just look at those words.

I take contemplatives practice to refer to meditation (Buddhist or otherwise), deep contemplation, and prayer, particularly of the wordless variety as, for example, practised by Quakers and Christian or Sufi mystics. 

Praying for the name of the Derby winner or for your bunions to stop aching or even for peace in Syria is not a deep contemplative practice, because it involves the ego wanting things and making narratives about it. One-way narratives, I'd say because I don't think it works, but that is another story.

To jump to the other end of the statement, let's consider revolutionary practice that is not in the usual sphere of political and military action. It seems to me that the people who, historically, always suffer the most in violent revolutions, be they of the right or of the left, are the poor. I think we're too tightly interrelated now for a traditional "storming of the winter palace" - type revolution to be particularly beneficial, in the long term, to the majority. We need, urgently, a reallocation of wealth in our society, but spare us the Bolsheviki.

And yet we surely need massive revolutions across the planet in the ways that we live and interact. Whether climate change is or is not significantly caused by human action, it is surely happening, and so is the depletion of what we see as global resources (in terms of fuel, food, medicines and so on) 

That is, the resources people sometimes say that we need to "save the planet." Well, that phrase is misleading. The planet will be fine for many more millions of millions of years. The question for us is surely how long will we survive as a species, and, more narrowly, as a civilisation and a set of cultures? 

Maybe some people will be surviving somehow in a few hundred years' time, even if we don't stave off disaster. But we all know that sea level rises, if they come to the extent that the majority of scientists agree is possible/likely, will have catastrophic implications for cities such as London, Sydney, New York -  you complete your own list of cities that would be threatened by inundation, whether from the sea or from rivers. And that doesn't even touch the question of food shortages and animal and plant extinctions that could also threaten our cultures.

Oh, enough of all that, I'm not naturally pessimistic, I just want to establish that there is an urgent need for huge change in how we live. Most of the answers that you could call "we'll be okay if we carry on just as we are, but with a few changes" won't make much difference. For example, electric cars, which people refer to as if they didn't put out huge amounts of carbon in being manufactured, and as if their motive power, if it's not from solar panels, didn't come from power stations of one kind or another.

So we surely need to consume less and differently on our paths through life. We surely have to live less selfishly; any sense of species survival surely runs contrary to economic systems that generate a tiny minority to own, directly or indirectly, such a huge proportion of the planet's assets. 

If we follow a historical model, seize all those people's wealth and no doubt shoot them, then surely history tells us that inevitably, a new elite will take their place and that elite is unlikely to be happy living with much less power, influence and wealth than the previous lot. Few are the leaders anywhere who want to live, in material and ideological terms, like the more modest of those they rule.

How could contemplative practice possibly help?

Because it can change so much about what we are, how live.  More next time.
 (He's looking dubious because I'm not entirely one of his flock. Hang in there, Rowie, I'll get to the point eventually.)

superficial surfaces? Monet and Vermeer

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that only superficial people disregard the surface of things - and if he didn't, then he should've.

R4 on Monet just now - he was, apparently, criticised by some in his old age for not capturing the eternal, always painting the surface of things.

Fatuous comment.

Nothing is eternal; but the sense of the eternally changing yet changeless, the sacred in the ordinary, can only come to us through our senses and our mental states. Then, we can - perhaps - be with something beyond ourselves.

What could be more superficial and ordinary, and yet more thoroughly profound, than Vermeer's milkmaid? She is simply pouring milk from a jug. 

Somehow, somehow, Vermeer puts her so completely in her present and therefore in ours, that the moment seems fleeting, and yet permanent. He captures the paradox of the present moment. 

She, him, the jug - all dust and fragments now. But we are still watching her face, and the milk. Now.

(It doesn't work if you just glance at it, does it? There's no trick, it's not an optical illusion to look at for a moment in a Facebook post before moving on. It's worth finding a decent reproduction. But even this little image can work for you, I hope...)