Saturday, 29 December 2012

Upwards, or just Onwards?

2012 - not a year of unbridled joy, despite Olympics, Royal Jubilee, etc. 

2013 - more austerity, fiscal cliff*, and the weather here in dear old Blighty has been unusually foul recently. But alongside all such gloom, there are the patterns of individual lives, hopes, fears, despairs. 

You know all the stuff about the 1970s being awful? Well, there was a lot of awfulness about in the 70s (Winter of D, IRA, loon pants...), but that was the decade in which my children were born, I had a really nice job, and it's full of happy memories. My 70s are not the 70s of facile TV soundbites and retrospectives. It had its horrors and terrors, like any decade. How futile is it, to sum up a year, let alone a decade?

The above photo is a wall panel set in a splendid relief mural on the outside of the Bristol Eye Hospital. Here's what it says:

"Disaster and crisis were always advertised, settlement and tranquility seldom. Only in retrospect could we see things in their relations. When we passed from the years to the centuries, and from the centuries to the whole expanse of man’s story – out of chaos into life, from animal life into humanity, and on into civilization: when we saw man in his cosmic setting, the latest child of a universe wedded to an eternity, his thought transcending matter and seeking deity – there was no room for ignoble despair: rather would our minds be filled with wonder and our hearts with thankfulness.
                                                                                                                                   1st Viscount Samuel."

OK, the narrative of constant progress and humanity's forward march is greeted with much well-deserved scepticism these days - what with: 


- fit in your favourite anxiety. 

And I don't know how many of us are actively seeking deity - though I think I can see how the phrase might work, even outside religious belief systems.

The first two sentences seem to me incontrovertible. Some analysts argue, or demonstrate, that mankind is getting less violent, that there is better education and healthcare in the developing world than in previous decades, that the frequency of serious crime in the UK is less than it was decades ago. You'd never think so to look at our media.

"Disaster and crisis were always advertised, settlement and tranquility seldom."

But to move beyond millenarian** gloom, we don't have to get drawn into polarising arguments about better or worse. I think we just need to look about our ordinary lives, recognise contentment when we see it, accept the fragility of life itself and therefore its value; let The Balance assert itself, which it will, given half a chance. So take heart for 2013. Things really could be a lot worse. Maybe they will be, for any one of us. But until they are, seize the day! 

"There is no room for ignoble despair." It's pointless. And disabling.

So - come what may, Happy New Year!

*good name for a snarly, sarcy rock band?

** not in the strictly Christian sense, more like that general "it's all going belly up, we're doomed, the end of the world is nigh" feeling.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Season's Greetings

Enough already with the grief and death for a while:


Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

May your peaks, of whatever sort, be ascended in fine style in 2013.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Love and Grief

On the Danish crime thriller "The Killing III" recently, a pastor said to a couple grieving for their missing child: 

"Sometimes I think grief is love that has been made homeless."

This made me think hard once again about the function of a funeral. Love is made homeless when the life to which it was attached has become just a body. The love is left floating free, disoriented, in pain. A body isn't a person, but it was a person. Huge mystery, disjuncture, pain - grief. Essential, unavoidable, erratic and ultimately, healing.

If a funeral helps grieving, it will be because it helps people to say goodbye to a body and move towards the meaning of a life. It will be because it helps the homeless love to settle down with meanings and memories that came from the body-that-was-a-life, but now have to stand alone, bodiless. Huge change, the symptom of which is - grief.

It takes a lot longer than the brief ceremony we usually allow ourselves at the local crem. But even that can help - I hope, I hope...

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Balance part III (conclusion)

I think what I was trying to get at the other day is that people seem to need a way of feeling in balance; at home, in a profound sense. They want to feel linked to the rest of the world about them, and not just to human society; they want to feel a sense of unity with The Way Things Are.  

Aspects of physical and biological science can help us do that via reason. For example, the characteristics we share with other living creatures, the way the seasons work on us, or the wonders and mysteries revealed by astronomy. Such insights can lead to a fuller identification with the rest of the universe - e.g. some of the things Einstein wrote in later life. Sometimes such insights are labelled "spiritual," a complex and conflicted term these days perhaps.

Before scientific methodology and rational analysis, people found this harmony in ways that might not stack up rationally, but I think they can still have a symbolic beauty for us, and even, for some of us, a functional utility.

Astrology is, I think, not rationally supportable (which is a polite way of saying that at the literal level, I don't believe a word of it!)  However, sensible, bright people follow it, including a lovely colleague of mine. It's unwise to think that people who believe irrational things are foolish; patently not so. 

We should look at the purpose, function and symbolic eloquence of such systems as astrology, even if we don't accept them ourselves. I believe they help some people who are looking for a sense of balance and belonging, unity with the universe.  Edmund, the wicked bastard in "King Lear," says in effect "It's nonsense. I'd be lecherous and uncouth whatever stars reigned over my conception and nativity." He was a modern man in his day.  

I don't know enough about other cultures to generalise, but there is one well-known symbol of balance, the ancient Chinese Yin-Yang. Like many profound things, it is beautifully simple.

Thus saieth Wikipedia, helpfully I think:

In Chinese philosophy, the concept of Yin-Yang, which is often referred to in the West as "yin and yang," literally meaning "shadow and light," is used to describe how polar opposites or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other in turn in relation to each other.

Everything has yin and yang aspects, opposite dualities that are ultimately interdependent, different ways of seeing and understanding an inexpressible unity. The symbol may have become a cliché, but the mode of thought is fascinating, and I think productive. To risk stating the bleedin' obvious, you can't have light without dark, music without silence - life without death. These dualities are not opposed, they make up the one, even if we see first yin and then yang.

The Balance. Ever changing within us and without us. If you veer away from death, deny it in your life, you drain your life of meaning and intensity. If you are incapacitated by your (natural) fear of death, you darken your life.

The Balance is there all the time, you can't will it within yourself. You can't say "I will be mindful today," or "I will stop worrying about the end of my life." 

Meditation is one way to let The Balance emerge. But enough from me, on the way. You know what's coming next:

"The Way that can be named is not the perfect Way."

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Balance - part II

We depend on internal balances in our bodies to keep us alive, and some or many illnesses come from that balance slipping. What about balance in the universe around us?

The wider universe, astronomers physicists etc tell us, is a place of unimaginable power, randomness and (according to Hubble) beauty. Exploding supernovae, colliding planetary bodies and collapsing neutron stars, let alone black holes, are not places of balance - though just maybe there is a larger, all-encompassing balance in it all, I don't know enough physics to take that further; some would call such a balance God.

In our own planet, balance sustains us here too. Air pressures, water temperatures, ocean currents all move together, and when they are out of the usual balances, you get - hurricane Sandy etc. When the tectonic plates are not evenly balanced, you get movements to put them back in balance and - people suffer earthquakes.

A holistic view of medicine is almost a commonplace now - looking at the whole person to see where in her systems something is out of balance, rather than finding a magic bullet drug to deal with the symptoms of one problem. (Mind you, magic bullets are very useful sometimes!) The quest is to get the person back in balance, as far as possible.

In medieval and Renaissance times, it was taken as a commonplace that we are composed of four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood.) OK, it's quaint - remember, they hadn't yet found out that blood circulates round the body, and they had little idea of what the brain did. They believed that if the four humours weren't in balance, you fell ill, or at best behaved oddly. Too much blood made you choleric, i.e. bad tempered. Too much black bile made you depressed. The work of Shakespeare and his pals is full of it - one of Ben Jonson's plays is called "Every Man Out Of His Humour." These people were not stupid primitives. They simply made wonderful work out of prevailing beliefs, which is all you can ask of any artist at any time, surely.

The four humours corresponded to the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, and again, these elements were made to stand in for personality types, or even types of creature: Ariel, in "The Tempest," is all air. Caliban is all earth.

Furthermore (hang in there please, there is a point to all this) the elements and the humours were influenced by the motion of the stars and planets. Human affairs were thus affected by heavenly bodies. "When beggars die, there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes." (Cue convenient comet...) And vice versa.

Before the great 17th and 17th century astronomers - Coppernickers, Galileo, Kepler and all - everyone thought the sun and the planets and the stars revolved around the earth. They were fixed on crystal spheres, which made impossibly beautiful music, if you were spiritually advanced i.e. holy enough to hear it - the music of the spheres. Outside the stars and planets was - God in heaven. The stars etc, and of course heaven, are unchangeable. Below the moon (i.e. on earth) all is change, all is mortal. On earth was mankind, higher than the animals but "a little lower than the angels." At the centre of the earth was hell, and at the centre of hell was - Satan himself. God-angels-mankind-animals-devils-Satan.

(This is all too neat, there were lots of variations...but for now...)

So what is sometimes called the Great Chain of Being linked God in heaven through the stars and down to mankind on earth, trying to be good so as to ascend to heaven. Stars etc affect our moods, our health, the events in our lives. It's all linked. The virtuous, healthy person keeps it all in balance; the sinful or just plain ill person has lost their balance. Huge injustices on earth will be mirrored in the skies, as happens when Julius Caesar is murdered, Macbeth kills Duncan.

OK, the universe, we learn from science, isn't like that. (Put God where you like, He's not the issue here.) Our bodies don't work like that. When awful things happen on earth, the stars couldn't give a damn - they are too busy being convulsed in beautiful and terrifyingly vast explosions.

But hang on - out of all this, lets pull The Balance. Because we are not just machines to be oiled by medicines. Emotions affect physical well-being affects emotions. The passage of the seasons affects us, via amounts of sunlight falling on us. Our brains are continually modified by how we use them, i.e. by the impact of The World on them - printed book, or X-Box? Both will influence the structural working of your brain. The world moves through us as we move through the world. 

The beautiful intimacy of the old Chain of Being myths no longer convince. 

But we generate and expend energy every day seeking The Balance, at which we will function best - healthiest, happiest. Millions of people go walking, listen to music, meditate, in order to feel balanced. When we run out of energy, our bodies give way, and we die. We have had to give up the balance through which we live.

The pre-Copernican universe, the view of our bodily workings pre-modern medical science, these myths were just rather lovely ways of trying to comprehend order and balance in the universe. We know enough now to maintain essential balances, which is just as well, because order and balance isn't inherent in the workings of the universe, in any physical sense. We know enough to hold the balance, but all too often we don't seem to be able to bring the knowledge to bear.

This isn't my clearest ever post, but there is something here I don't want to lose sight of.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Balance:depression and meditation

Our bodies need to be in balance for life to continue. Apparently our endocrine systems (glands, mate, and not just the two you are probably most interested in) work continuously to sustain the balance of our systems. When the balance slips, we get ill. White blood cells/red blood cells. Sugar/insulin. Etc. 

One crucial balance is between movement and stasis, energy and tranquillity. It seems that when people suffer from depression, the sort that is induced by stress and exhaustion, this is what happens: the limbic system in the brain that controls our moods, is unbalanced because it is overloaded. We are trying too hard, we want to please, to get things done, to validate ourselves. Bang. It's too much. The fuse blows. The mood sinks down and down.

Seretonin, the hormone that is important in connecting up the tiny neurotransmitters in our brains, can't do its job properly. Slump. Tears about nothing in particular, exhaustion, and at its worst, Sylvia Plath's "Bell Jar." You can't connect to a world deprived of meaning, you can only see it through the glass. You are disconnected, and isolated. 

To use a modern term, depression really, really sucks. And it is widespread; it seems endemic in our culture. It is a real fully-grown illness, not just a bad mood; if you are suffering from depressive illness and a well-meaning friend tries to tell you get a grip, it'll pass, pull yourself together, try and muster the energy to tell him thanks, but just piss off. It's like telling someone with with a broken leg  to get a grip and hurry up.

(Any neuroscientists/doctors reading this can stop sniggering please and go and read something else; I'm doing my best...besides, my real point isn't hormones, it's balance.)

People who suffer from depressive illness, argues - no, demonstrates - Dr Tim Cantopher in his outstanding book "Depressive Illness: the curse of the strong" - may feel they are weak, they have failed. Not so. It is their generous strength, their sensitivity, their outpouringness, the high standards they relentlessly apply to themselves, that got them depressed.

One thing such people do is worry like mad about upcoming things, and worry like mad that they haven't done something as well as they should have done. Dammit, that's just exhausting, isn't it?

What mindfulness meditation can help you do is to live in the present. Doesn't stop you planning and achieving, doesn't stop you doing things well. In fact it will help you do so by keeping you in balance, saving your energies, preventing it happening again. It will lessen your worries, ease your anxieties, find The Balance. You'll still be sensitive, hard-working, generous, but in balance more of the time.

This isn't snake oil, I know it works. You may need anti-depressant medicines, but the meditation will come in longer term and stave off your system's tendency to get out of balance by doing too much.

More about The Balance next time - yes, watch out, I feel a miniseries coming on...

Friday, 16 November 2012

Mindfulness and "ordinary" life

Meditating every day for a certain length of time can be difficult if your regular routine is disrupted, for good or less good reasons. Recently I left Mundi Mansions with the Long-Suffering One for a short break, which we filled with lots of visiting. "Hold everything for 45 minutes please whilst I meditate" is still possible, I guess, but not an appealing offer.

So I thought I'd use the holiday time to work on the border between structured meditation and "ordinary" life. (Ain't no such thing - perhaps "usual life" would be better.)

Throughout the Isles of Britain people are exclaiming delightedly about the autumn colours this year, and the length of time it is all lingering. So an autumn stroll was obviously a prime time to let go, look at these leaves here and now, and simply be, in silence except for shuffling feet. Even for three minutes, it felt good. And even I can shut up for three minutes without anyone starting the search for a pulse.

The almost flat, grey, empty North Seascape was also ideal. An early morning stroll whilst the LSO got ready for the day was a good opportunity to take five just watching the horizon. I think the knack of it is not to contemplate the beauty, but just to be in it, and do the usual focusing on the breath, feeling the ground against the feet, moving the thoughts to any sounds as they occur, returning the attention to the present - all as usual, but a different here and now, especially a beautiful one, seems to help. And it was followed by a particularly good breakfast.

Who likes slow traffic, who likes driving long distances on our motorways? I found just a minute or two on a motorway services bridge surprisingly useful for a short burst of the old here and nowness. And it was surprisingly beautiful, too. The knack seemed to be - to let it be itself, and to let me be a part of it. Not a generic scene "typical M6, busy evening" but this in front of me, now. Of course, watching steady traffic is hypnotic; that sort of hypnotic (I don't mean Arkayeff's hypnotic!) can work against being in the present, but for a couple of minutes, it was fine. A different sort of refreshment from the thing I'd just about managed to eat at the other end of the bridge...

These short moments, these pauses and stillnesses, don't work for me in the same way or at the same depth as a lengthy, structured meditation does, but they are invaluable. 

"What time does the meditation class begin?"
"It's always happening."

Now that's a state of being,  worth not striving for but simply becoming. One day. Even on the M6.

Friday, 26 October 2012

An architect of troubled sleep?

In his excellent, humane and practical book "Depressive Illness: the curse of the strong," Dr Tim Cantopher warns sufferers (or any of us) about the various ways we can make it difficult for ourselves to get to sleep at night, and how to get round those sleep preventers.

My current sleep preventer is an old friend who has turned against me, and specialises in spiteful and abusive rhetoric. So of course I spend far too long running scripts, working out justifications and defences, and generally bothering myself up. Needless to say, all this hurt comes welling up at bedtime. I can't get to sleep.

You can't will yourself to go to sleep, can you? Worrying about not sleeping guarantees you won't sleep. So - what can mindfulness offer, how can being in the present moment help?

Firstly, the simple insight that what is troubling me at bedtime are thoughts - my thoughts, and nothing else. My ex-friend is not attacking me at that moment; the assault comes from the thoughts her actions have generated. There are no other events or phenomena at the time I cannot sleep - it's just thoughts.

Secondly, before I go to bed, a simple fifteen-minute meditation in front of an open fire or a candle (seems to help - beauty, reflections on changing states, awareness of transience, but mostly beauty.) Sit solidly, upright. Let the mind settle on the breathing. 

Bring the mind back to the breath, gently but firmly, when it starts running scripts. 

"And another thing - she said that I..." 

"Woa. Of course you feel these things, no blame, just get back to the breath.." 

It's the bringing back of the mind to the breath in the body that helps to create presentmomentness, so no self-criticism if thoughts wander, just return them. Meditation is a process, not a work of art.

Extend awareness to the whole body, sitting here, now, in front of this fire...and so on. (All a bit bald in text, but there are good CDs available to guide us in such meditations.)

Ten or fifteen minutes of this, and then slowly, deliberately and calmly to bed. Really works. She is no longer an architect of troubled sleep, and nor are my thoughts.

The other thing that works is at a common-sense level. Saying to myself three times each morning "she has behaved like a lying cruel cold-hearted piece of shit...."

Er - and then remembering that she's probably not in a happy state of being herself, or she wouldn't need to be so abusive. So - compassion, Gloria, compassion....grievances are an enemy of presentmomentness, stay in the now. Move on. She's an ex-friend, that's sad, too bad, you did what you could and it didn't work. So it goes. Acceptance.

Yup. That's better. 

But she's still behaved like a lying cold-hearted piece of shit.... 

Oh dear. It seems there are limits to mindful compassion; ex-friend may well have reached them. Final step - distance, calm, quiet. Let it all rest in the past. 

Goodbye, ex-friend. Go well. Without me.

Monday, 22 October 2012

A Good Song for a Funeral?

Is this a good funeral song? The title works, but like many songs that get used for funerals, it seems in fact to be about a love relationship; it abruptly works into context towards the end.

It's Bob Dylan's song, couldn't find the original, so thought Ms Peyroux's versions pretty cool, and it's easy to hear the words. Nevertheless, here they are:

I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before
Never been so easy or so slow
Been shooting in the dark too long
When somethin’s not right it’s wrong
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
Purple clover, Queen Anne’s Lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much, love
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever and never realize the time
Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go
Yer gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’
Stayin’ far behind without you
Yer gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
Yer gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to
I’ll look for you in old Honolulu
San Francisco, Ashtabula
Yer gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

mindfulness for schoolchildren

I think this is very interesting. It's a programme for schoolchildren, offered, at a price, by the Hawn Foundation. There are some cross, and some not very rational, comments from teachers in the USA about this programme, on YouTube. And in fact the comments, too, are interesting. 

All respect to the point about the money the programme costs compared with the fact that one reason why a of lot children can't concentrate is down to material factors (e.g. no real breakfast...) But mindfulness meditation is a material factor, in that it can change children's behaviour, calm them down, help them concentrate, help them - if they need it - to feel better about themselves. It develops the way the brain works; so does a good breakfast. 

Changing a young brain's characteristic patterns can be done in many ways - playing violent video games, for example - or doing a little meditation to help them in their school work. But it's all material - electric currents and hook-ups, chemical changes.

For some people, we need to keep saying: it's not a religion, it's not based upon religious faith.  The changes in people's patterns of thought when they meditate are observable via the usual electronic kit they stick on your head to measure brain waves, or in more detail via MRI scans. It's not a matter of faith. (Though naturally, if you believe it is helping you, it's more likely to do so.)

You might have your own views on how much it helps to have Goldie Hawn's name behind this programme. You may extend little sympathy in her direction because she was one of those who helped to develop the "dumb blonde" stereotype beloved of sexist comedians and saloon-bar wits; but those were her acting jobs. She's certainly trying to do something here that seems to me very worthwhile.

I always like the criticism "it's all touchy-feely." a) it isn't. b) would it be better if it was all done in a macho sort of way, more football coach than meditation teacher?

Children who are more proficient at being in the present, at being mindful, may perhaps grow up more able to accept their own mortality, be less death-haunted and more death-accepting, better able to accept that life is risky, impermanent, and precious because it ends. I would have thought, in a culture where many are obsessed with death-fantasy, with the idea that you can kill all the bad guys one day, with the idea that God is on our side - that a mindful child is a precious asset.

Friday, 12 October 2012

How Old Is Mindfulness?

This genial old cove is, allegedly, Lao Tzu, sage of ancient China, founder of Taoism and author of the Tao Te Ching.

My current meditation class leader teacher gave us a poem/passage last night:

Always We Hope

Always we hope
someone else has the answer,
some other place will be better,
some other time it will all turn out.

This is it.
No-one else has the answer.
No other place will be better,
and it has already turned out.

At the centre of your being
you have the answer;
you know who you are
and you know what you want.

There is no need
to run outside
for better seeing,
nor peer from a window.

Rather abide at the centre of your being;
for the more you leave it, the less you learn.
Search your heart
and see:
the way to do
is to be.
             Lao Tzu 

OK modern common sense says there may well be a better place, depends where you live; other people may have an answer for us, none of us can know everything. But there is a valuable centre to this which is about not being distracted by procrastination and wishful thinking. I particularly like "it has already turned out," and "the way to do is to be." 

Living in the moment, in yourself, not searching for non-existent alternatives but accepting yourself where you are right here and now - mindfulness insights. From the sixth century BCE. Historians say Lao Tzu  may be a synthesis of several historical personages, or may not even have existed. I don't know if he really wrote this, and to me, it doesn't really matter. 

Maybe mindfulness hasn't got a date of birth. Insofar as Taoism exhibits mindfulness teachings and insights, maybe it doesn't have such a date either. Maybe mindfulness is a tendency, a mode of thought and being, that is there all the time and has been there since whenever. Waiting for us when we're ready to find it.

I certainly think that we trouble ourselves night and day by not abiding at the centre of our beings. That is, by not living in ourselves, here and now.  The way to do is to be - not the other way round. 

Small audience, still blowing my horn

I like writing this blog; it enables me to work out a few ideas, when I've the time. It's also great when people leave a comment. In the past, some comments have been thoughtful and have carried discussion forward, made me think, been helpful; others were briefer but encouraging. 

It's gone very, very quiet lately. I feel as though I've been shouting down a well.

Now, don't get your hankies out, but I felt pretty discouraged earlier this morning. I looked at the little stats counter thing you can append to your blog for free. 

Over the last week, I had 151 visits. Four visits were for over an hour; two were for between five and 20 minutes, and seven were for between 30 seconds and 20 minutes. (None, as it happens, for visits of between 20 minutes and one hour.) Thirteen substantial visits. The rest stayed long enough to realise they were not interested, and moved swiftly on.

"Sod it," I thought, "I'll pack it in. Blogland takes up quite a lot of my time, and what I'm saying clearly isn't interesting people any more. No-one even bothers to drop by and say hello anymore, even my so-called colleagues, even.... (sob sob)"

Then I remembered an anecdote from Louis Armstrong. One night he and his band were due to play a gig in front of a tiny audience; one of the band was grousing that it was hardly worth it. Satch told him that even if there was one person in the audience, that one person might have driven for four hours to hear them, and their job was to get out there and play for him.

OK, that's a pretty ambitious analogy (Armstrong: magnificent trumpet player who changed the nature of jazz. Self: er, well....)

Still, it made me think: stop grumbling, calm your ego, greedy as it is for attention, and instead, say this:

Four of you out there spent over an hour reading stuff I'd written?

Thank you so much. I'm delighted you found something of interest. I hope the mindfulness stuff helps.

And - thanks, Satch.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Art Of Dying

Well, I don't know if dying is an art - if so, then we're all artists. Or potential artists. Maybe that's a useful idea in our death-averse culture, which is changing so very slowly towards believing that accepting your death means treasuring and energising your life. Anyway, just thought I'd pop this cheery little ditty of George's in front of you. If living is also dying, then let's get dying.

Anyone other than me like the nice wailing guitar stuff in here? BTW, the YouTube heading is wrong - it's not the fab four, it's the Fab George on the album you see in front of you. Cool wellies, George - thanks for all the music.

Even the Beatlemania generation will haven to slip old Charon a few bob and hop on his ferry - I'm not sure this is one for a funeral, but it sure could be one for the run up your own funeral.

It's bein' so cheerful as keeps me goin'...

Art Of Dying *
(G. Harrison)

There'll come a time when all of us must leave here
Then nothing sister Mary can do
Will keep me here with you
As nothing in this life that I've been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying
Do you believe me

There'll come a time when all your hopes are fading
When things that seemed so very plain
Become an awful pain
Searching for the truth among the lying
And answered when you've learned the art of dying

But you're still with me
But if you want it
Then you must find it
But when you have it
There'll be no need for it

There'll come a time when most of us return here
Brought back by our desire to be
A perfect entity
Living through a million years of crying
Until you've realized the Art of Dying
Do you believe me

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

If Not For You

A thought sent me diving through the dear old back catalogue of ancient faves at Mundi Mansions recently, and the thought occurred to me that this could be just the right funeral track for half of a devoted couple. So I played it again, After All These Years.

Then I wiped my eyes, blew my nose, and decided to stick it up here for you.

Sometimes it's the simplest things that work hardest for you, isn't it?

* If Not For You *
(Bob Dylan)

If not for you
Babe I couldn't even find the door
I couldn't even see the floor
I'd be sad and blue if not for you

If not for you
Babe the night would see me wide awake
The day would surely have to break
It would not be new if not for you

If not for you my sky would fall
Rain would gather too
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all
I'd be lost if not for you

If not for you
The winter would hold no spring
Couldn't hear a robin sing
I just wouldn't have a clue if not for you

If not for you my sky would fall
Rain would gather too
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all
I'd be lost if not for you

If not for you
The winter would hold no spring
Couldn't hear a robin sing
I just wouldn't have a clue if not for you

If not for you

Too many in a week

I wouldn't want my reader to think that, having been a runner-up at the Good Funeral Guides awards last month (have I already mentioned that? Oh.) this blog was out to grass. In fact, my celebrancy work has had one of those periodic surges, and the blog has, with regret, been left in neutral for a week or three.. 

I know, I know, I'm "out to grass" - metaphor from keeping horses - and now I'm "in neutral." The few times I've been horse-riding, I wish the damned thing had got a neutral mode. It's a long way to the ground, I seem to remember.

But sloppy writing is what I fear when I'm overloaded. Here's the point: I think it's unwise (that's tactful for inappropriate) for celebrants to take on too many funerals. It's bad for them, I'd have thought, and they run the risk of not having the energy, empathy reserves and general calm concentration levels to do the job really well. One a week suits me, two a week is busy busy. 

Of course this may be just the ageing me, others may be able to do a splendid job at twice this intensity. But generally, I resist accepting temporary overloads. It's not easy saying no, there's not too many secular celebrants around here, but I'm going to be helped in this because another celeb is now working alongside me. Blessings upon her head!

However, sometimes a spot of overwork is unavoidable, unless one harden the heart. An undertaker I greatly respect rings me whilst I'm in the car (passenger) returning to Mundi Mansions after a brief visit to family. I accept - happy to help. Almost at once, the damned mobile clatters at me again. A friend's father has just died. Will I...well, of course. Then, same evening, I'm just loitering with intent by a glass of Merlot, and - phone goes. Another much-respected undertaker, with a bit of an emergency - one of those sad circumstances where a very elderly person has no surviving family, it's all via the solicitor executor, and it's soon, can I talk to a few neighbours, prepare a suitable ceremony...well, of course.

Four funerals in seven days. Hands a blur, throat roughens, head aches, the Long Suffering One suffers.

Am I grumbling? No. It's a privilege. It's just bloody hard work. I shouldn't work at this pitch too often. A.D. etc. Where did I put my feckin' glasses...not the Merlot, the other sort...see, even the jokes get worse when you overwork....

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Next World?

From "The Spectator," 8th September 2012:

The Unborn

mooch about and waste time
starting things they'll never 
finish. The next world
is nothing to them but shadows,
some don't have patience
for any of that crap at all - 

What, grass, they say, waving
their wobbly arms. You mean
you actually believe in grass?

                 Kathryn Simmonds

Brains, electricity and chemicals - more silly polarisation

Our brain activity is a matter of chemical transactions - not the sort above, bottles in the chemi lab at school, but tiny amounts, tiny quantitative changes. This is obvious, I guess - we all taker mood-altering chemicals: Pinot Noir, anti-depressants, best bitter, cannabis, etcetcetcetc. Our moods are a mix of reactions in the rest of our bodies, and reactions in our brains.

And our brains run on tiny electrical currents, connecting and disconnecting neurons all the time:

(I think I've got that about right so far, should have paid more attention at school. Mind you, that's so long ago that they taught us rather more about the stuff in the first picture than the second one.)

These facts have given rise to an unhelpful set of polarisations, which we might call romantic vs scientific. The first might be caricatured thus:

"It is reductive and mechanistic to say that we are only chemical reactions and electrical connections. Romeo says of Juliet 

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear,
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.

He doesn't say "Her pheromes are interacting with my hormones and I am developing reproductive urges towards her."

The second might go: "It is nonsense to ignore scientific fact. Romeo is simply disguising his wish to mate with Juliet in culturally acceptable terms, which owe nothing to reason."

Note weasel-words "only" and "simply."

This is nonsense on both sides (leaving aside the obvious fact that young man don't talk like this very often, and nowadays might well express their desires in rather earthier terms, but "RandJ" is a great play, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a lads' night out.)

The subjective reality of falling in love is every bit as powerful as the scientific explanation of what's happening. It's not either/or. The science is fascinating and rewarding to know, helps us understand our emotions and reactions to each other. To the extent that we now talk of "the right chemistry" when people get together. Shakespeare wouldn't have known what we meant.

The relevance of all this to mindfulness about mortality? It runs alongside and in some ways resembles the hopeless and useless duality of arguments between people who are close-minded about their religious beliefs, and those who are close-minded about scientific fact.

You don't have to believe in God and an afterlife to feel moments of grace, of spiritual profundity, of transcendence. You don't have to be a religious believer to acknowledge the validity of people's feelings about profound matters of life and death. You don't have to be a rigid materialist to wonder at the enlightenments that are coming from neuroscience.

I don't know what the chemical or electrical basis of compassion is, but it seems to be in short supply in our world.

"Faith, hope and charity, these three; and the greatest of these is charity."

That's so obviously true, even to one who believe, in a literal sense, only about one in a thousand of the words in the Bible.

(I'm told "charity" there is a certain kind of selfless love, and so translating it as "love" doesn't really work. Romeo's steam-heat ardour it is not; compassionate it certainly is.)

Who knows where the time goes?

A peerless song sung by its composer.

Perhaps one of the ultimate funeral songs?

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it's time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it's time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it's time to go
So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

Peerless, perhaps except for this one: 

We used to say "There'd come the day we'd all be making songs
Or finding better words" These ideas never lasted long

The way is up along the road, the air is growing thin
Too many friends who tried, blown off this mountain with the wind

Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge
When my time is up, I'm going to see all my friends
Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes around again

Yet now I see, I'm all alone, but that's the only way to be
You'll have your chance again, then you can do the work for me

Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge
When my time is up, I'm going to see all my friends
Meet on the ledge, we're going to meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes around again

But then this one might suit some, as well - my neighbour wants it as his send-off....

Farewell, farewell to you who would hear
You lonely travelers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call
And will you never return to see
Your bruised and beaten sons?
"Oh, I would, I would, if welcome I were
For they love me, every one"
And will you never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be?
And can you never swear a year
To anyone of we?
"No, I will never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be
But I'll swear a year to one who lies
Asleep along side of me"
Farewell, farewell to you who would hear
You lonely travellers all.