Sunday, 29 December 2013

Belief validating itself

First off, things have been a bit busy at Mundi Mansions, for delightful reasons (visiting family) so it is not for Scroogist reasons that I've not offered Christmas greetings to my multitude of readers. Here's a seasonal picture of part of the rolling Mundi acres, not taken this year of course, no snow yet:

and it comes with very best wishes for the New Year - especially if you have no electricity and are wondering how to dry out your flood-soaked sofa.

My topic is paganism and belief, my source is such a neat little book review, written with a conciseness and insight , that I need say no more about it except to suggest you click on the title above and read what Weeping Cross has to say. As I have so often found,  your time at the Hearth of Mopsus will be well rewarded.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The present moment with music: Finch+ Keita+Bellowhead

Well, not all on the same bill, obviously….but two cracking gigs recently, both of which in different ways demonstrated yet again that if music is powerful enough and we are ready for it, then it holds us in the present.

Catrin Finch is a miraculously good harpist, as I expect you know. She is touring with  Seckou Keita, a kora player from Senegal. "Oh dear, another interesting but somewhat forced marriage of dissimilar world music genres," you might be thinking. But the kora is of course an African harp. It was a wonderful evening. The music is of itself not especially complex (the harps are!) but very beautiful.

For much of the time, I was solid gone, as people used to say. Gone where? Into now. No planning and worrying, no regretting or re-playing, no narratives being spun in order to justify and explain.

Here they are in action:


and in more reflective mode:

They have a CD out. It's not for me to tell you what to buy for Christmas, but….

As for Bellowhead - I may have mentioned them before. A ridiculously exciting and absorbing experience which, later on in the gig, had a similar effect, despite being such a different sort of music.

Nothing to do with genres, then, just to do with being fortunate enough to find two musics that enable presentmomentness.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Spooky Times in Liverpool with Stephen Taberner

Last weekend, to the fine city of Liverpool, and a singing workshop led by the extraordinarily talented Stephen Taberner, Spookmeister. ( If you haven't seen or heard the Spooky Men's Chorale, with their beautifully-sung subversions of stereotypical masculinity, then hie thee to YouTube.)

The Chorale, above.

He taught us lovely songs over an evening and two days, and we ended up with a brief performance in the Walker Art Gallery. He described us as "The choir that is and now is no more." We'd never met up before, and he got an astonishingly good sound out of us. And now we are no more - we were unique, once-off, in the moment or two.

Above: Stephen threatening us with violence if we don't pull it fact he is an extraordinarily productive mix of firmness and gentleness, huge skill and creative guile.

Now then: what has all this to do, I hear you say (it'd be nice to hear anyone say anything around here these days apart from me...) what has this to do with my usual themes of mindfulness, spirituality (whatever that means these days) living in the moment, and funerals?

A great deal.

I find singing in this sort of style, especially with what for me was demanding singing, can create a warmth, a sense of release and acceptance. It frees off something broader and calmer than the usual me, it keeps me in the moment. 

We also sang in some wonderful places, such as the Lutyens Crypt of the Metropolitan (i.e.Roman Catholic) Cathedral, below:

and the Dome Theatre. The locations certainly helped.

Such singing in a funeral creates a space in which people can feel what they feel, a release sometimes for their grief. That's why we need more funeral singers like Threnody (see a couple of posts from a celebrant involved with them, on the Good Funeral Guide blog: 

Not the formal, immaculate, traditional eg Male Voice type choir, wonderful though they are - that's too distancing for many of today's funerals. A community-type choir, people singing in their natural voice, in harmony. It draws the congregation in.

Such singing has in it a lot of love. Not "lurve," but - caritas. Compassion. Unselfish warmth. 

I felt really uplifted by singing a song by a friend of Stephen's, Rachel Hore, called "Love is Born." I think that title describes what happens when the singing is going really well.

If this sounds a bit solemn - it's also really, really good fun!

or "Choir at the Walker" on YouTube

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Obsessed by death

There was recently a thought-provoking post on the Good Funeral Guide, sparked off by an empty hearse.  Your cursor on my title will take you there the moment, of course, you have finished reading these golden (if opinionated) words... 

Charles Cowling compares the common public reaction to a funeral procession many years ago, to what happens now. Nothing. Apart from impatience at the slowness of the cortege. He takes this as an indication that we have lost a more shared, communal response to an individual death; it's more of a local issue, happening to someone else. The cortege is a nuisance.

So a temporary traffic disruption instead of a shared understanding. Depressing thought.

It may be that this lack of shared feeling is part of our obsession with death. I agree with Barbara Chalmers (brilliant website "Final Fling") that death isn't a taboo subject, that's a tired cliche, and yet the ways we talk about death, the way we do funerals, suggest we are obsessed by it. How can you tell that our culture is obsessed with death? Because however much we think we are talking about it, we are often simply shying away from accepting its inevitability. Because:

  1. we hide it away in production-line funerals and brief ceremonies
  2. we try to gloss over it, talking too easily of the "celebration of a life"
  3. by relentlessly trying to "personalise" a funeral, we may inadvertantly paint over the universality of death in life
  4. many people don't talk about or refer to their mortality - although given the chance, an increasing number of people realise how liberating it can be
  5. the cult of youth doesn't help; it's natural for older people to think more frequently than young people about the end of their lives, and we are urged all the time not to grow old, just to be youthful whatever out age

If we accept our mortality, if we stop pretending we are not going to die, we value our lives, and the lives of others. If we deny our mortality, we distort and trivialise life itself.

So we ignore funeral processions, we tidy away the physicality of death, we jolly up funerals and deny our grief, at our peril. 

Well, I warned you it would be opinionated.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Learning from the commonality of grief

Interesting stuff recently on the Good Funeral Guide, about grief, had me thinking.

“I’ve lost him; but we had a good life. Now he’s gone, I can hold that much close to me out of the desolation.”

Grief on your own can be desolating. Perhaps a shared grief is a less desolating pain?

Maybe dealing with grief, one’s own and other people’s, can sometimes move us gently backwards from the immediate pain to a position of acceptance, a wider view.

That distancing is not the same as avoidance; it could be a wider view than the immediate pain of bereavement. It could be, in a positive way, a possible easement. It could involve feeling a link to the generality of suffering as a constant in the world, and placing a single loss in that wider field.

People need to share their grief, and their fear of mortality, in some way or other, whether it's in a big wailing session, or by a restrained, oblique comment - or just a hug. We need to know that other people get how we feel. When they do so, it makes a powerful bond, and perceived break-outs from that bond may be harshly treated - that's what this GFG posting "altered identity" suggests to me. (Cursor over the title above will take you there, thanks Sir Tim B-L.) 

Those combat troops who return from a war have commented on the powerful bond between them, which comes not just from the dangers of battle, but from shared loss.

In a (happily!) more mundane way, perhaps funeral work can also move us gently back from the potential or actual pain of our own mortality, and the pain of those close to us, by continually making us experience loss as a generality.

In the same way, shared joy widens its effects on us.

Monday, 7 October 2013

"Unofficial" meditation situations

There's no such thing as an official mindfulness meditation situation or procedure, of course, but as anyone who has taken the eight-week course knows, there are recommended procedures, positions and techniques. They work, I find, no doubts.

But: a common complaint amongst veterans of the eight-week course is that it is difficult to fit in a 45-minute sit-down every day, so the practice slides. Feeling that is sliding makes it harder to get back into it. Whilst acknowledging that "fitting it in" suggests an unhelpful set of priorities if you want to do this invaluable thing, I can see the point. It happens to me, too. Though  you'd hope even busy people can find a moment or two, like this bloke:

Here's some settings and situations I've found conducive to a few mindful minutes, no need to cross legs, ring bells, lie on your back:

1. Walking, if you're alone. Even a stroll along a lane or footpath seems to make it easier to be present, as the hedge or fence slides past and the foot-steps fall regularly. I let my mind stay on the movements - mine, and the world moving slowly towards and past me. If you like hill walking, even better, after you get tired enough! Watch the feet - they belong to someone else, they make their own way, your mind stays with them and on the path.

2. In the bath. Shower doesn't seem to work. It seems easy to relax, let the mind stay with the sensations of water on the immersed bits, and cooler air on the bits above the water-line. (Enough info already, they cried - rightly - but it works.)

3. Doing simple stretching exercises, e.g. a bit of very simple Pilates to get the ancient self creaking along better. You can't do this stuff well unless the mind is with the bits of body you are working on, and it's easy to leave it there, then move it on to the next bit.

4. They teach this on the eight-week course: choose a simple "boring" household task or situation and let your mind stay with it - walking upstairs, washing up, chopping sticks (best to keep your mind with that in any case unless you can grow spare fingers at ease), painting a wall. It transforms something you think is tedious and for which you don't have time into something doubly productive.

5. Oddly enough, driving sometimes works. (Never, of course, listen to a meditation CD whilst you are driving.) Not in heavy traffic, not if you don't know the road and are worrying about directions, but on a familiar road, the need for the body and part of the mind to do the driving stuff and be alert seems to help me stay in the moment. The world rolls towards you, the mind stays in it.

6. Music doesn't necessarily help. It can, in our daily lives, be too often a mild background distraction. But I remember the first time, last year, I heard the opening of Bach's B Minor Mass on good equipment at a sensible volume: it riveted me to the moment for 12 minutes plus - I was totally in the music, which meant in the moment. I hope that doesn't sound pseudo - it could have been Radiohead or Tricky, take your pick - it just needed to be, for me, unfamiliar, sublime and demanding. A couple of years ago I wrote about watching Bellowhead in the rain at Cropredy Festival - same presentmomentness, though much as admire Jon Boden, he's not sublime. Or is he?? And in me yoof I remember watching Eric Clapton with John Mayall playing "Have You Heard," in a small London club, and time stood still. Familiarity has taken that from me, and just left the emotional intensity. But I digress. As so often.

So: I suggest finding some frequent activity and using that as a mindful few minutes, when you think you haven't time for the full body scan.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Kintsugi - transcending imperfection

You can still listen to this radio programme on BBC iPlayer. It is on Radio 4 later tonight (Sunday). I haven't heard it yet, but even the description of it resonates:

"Mending Cracks With Gold.

What can we learn from a broken teapot?

According to legend, when a 15th century shogun smashed his treasured pottery, Japanese artists repaired it with gold. Kintsugi, as the practice is known, gives new life to damaged goods by celebrating their frailty and history. Samira Ahmed considers how we might live a kintsugi life, finding value in the 'cracks' - whether it's the scars showing how we have lived, finding new purpose through loss, or learning to love ourselves despite our flaws.

With readings from The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura, Haruki Murakami's After the Quake, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - and music from Michio Miyagi, the Rolling Stones and Elizabethan composer, John Dowland."

Perfection can surely be over-rated. The gold is in the cracks.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Are we going to war?

I interrupt my normal programmes, as it were, to quote a letter written by a friend of mine to his MP. Is it overstated nonsense, or does he make sense?

 "Gloria, you’ll have perhaps noticed that the UK may be about to go to war. (However “limited” an air strike might be, if it is against the government or the people of any state, it is an act of war.)

Here’s my open letter to my MP:

Dear MP,

I fear you face a difficult vote of conscience in the House quite soon. The vote shouldn’t be whipped, but it probably will be. Good luck, but please bear this in mind:

If you vote for military action by U.K. forces, I shall never vote Labour again. Here’s why:

1)   It’s taken me years to try to forgive Labour for going to war in Iraq (at least Mr Milliband has managed an apology), and I cannot forget that John Reid said, as he committed 3,300 troops to Helmand province in Afghanistan, "We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot." Wouldn’t we just, Lord Reid. The deployment was lethally mismanaged and…we all know the story since then. 

2)   The primary duty of any democratic government is to protect the people who elected them. You might be able to finesse an argument that explains how an air strike against Syria would protect us all – can’t see it, myself. It’s surely likely to further inflame many in the Arab world.

3)   Choosing sides in this civil war means choosing between a revolting regime that seems to be prepared to poison some of its own civilians, and disunited and chaotic rebel forces a significant proportion of which consists of people dedicated to attacking Western nations, and prepared to throw acid at women seeking an education. 

4)   The videos are harrowing, and poison gas is an obscenity. So is white phosphorous; I don’t recollect demands for air strikes against Israel during its action in Gaza 2008-2009. So is bombing nightclubs full of teenagers, or rocket attacks on farms; no calls for attacks on Hezbollah or Hamas. What arrogance is it in us that we think we should be the world’s police force? Why should we think we would make things better? Have we, so far, in the Middle East? The most optimistic answer would be “yes..and no.”

5)   In any case, how would air strikes help the suffering people of Syria?

6)   If UK forces carry out air strikes, what happens next? We can’t know. Have we even thought about it?

7)   There is no such thing as a “surgical” air strike. If we attack, people will die who have nothing to do with the Syrian armed forces, or the deployment of nerve gas.

8)   Let us discount the arguments of Russia and China. They are as self-serving as most nations’ foreign policies. But even should they, and the UN, “legalise” military action, please don’t support it.

I’m not a pacifist. I think I may be an odd sort of patriot. I’m trying to be a realist. I can’t see how military action helps anyone, except just possibly some military careers." 

OK, it's nothing directly to do with mortality - though it sure could be do with death.

Normal service will be resumed etc.

Deathly prizes in Bournemouth

Everyone knows what Bournemouth looks like:

but beware! in ten days' time in a secret underground bunker below the deck chairs and the elderly people strolling along the prom, it will be full of fiends celebrating the Grim Reaper, and waving tiny coffins aloft with glee:

Don't be silly, Gloria, I tell myself (often...) The Good Funeral Awards celebrate not the Reaper himself, but the work of those who try to help us and ours when He has Reaped. 

As His Reaperness says whilst sharpening his scythe and looking longingly at our necks,"It's a hell of a job - in some cases - but someone's got to do it. Next please." 

The assorted undertakers, celebrants, sextons, grave-diggers, chapel attendants and others who will be attending might echo the Reaper's sentiments about it being a hell of a job,  except that I reckon many or most of such people regard the work as hugely privileged and fulfilling. 

I was astonished (no really, darlings) to be nominated for an award last year, and my gob was well and truly smacked when I was runner up in a category about significant contributions to the understanding of death. I couldn't alas attend, but I was mightily touched.

This year someone close to me has been nominated as funeral celebrant of the year. He doesn't expect to get an award (the list is long and contains people known to me and him as truly outstanding people) but he's going to totter down there.

Because of course it's not about a tiny model coffin, it's not about winning or not; it's about celebrating difficult but important work, about like-minded people getting together, and it's to move forward public understanding and acceptance of our mortality. 

Because the Reaper's success rate so far is 100%, and either we accept that and use it to live better and happier lives, or we try to ignore it. Personally, I don't think the latter is a sound plan.

So hooray for Bournemouth, and hooray for the two jovial coves below: Brian Jenner, organiser of the weekend, on the left. On the right, Charles Cowling of Good Funeral Guide fame, co-conspirator with Brian in  these deathly celebrations. Bravo, chaps!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Shrewsbury and identity quests

Rows of tented booths selling leather hats, tie-die shirts, mandolins, curries, and a huge marquee looming over all. Yes, it's a festival: Shrewsbury Folk Festival, scene of a swift one-day sun-blessed evaluation yesterday by your roving correspondent. 

It's a very pleasant, orderly, smallish, easy-to-attend festival; but I'm thinking that this folk music thing is actually stranger than it looks. Shrewsbury is well-established and successful, it all looks quite straightforward, but I'm not so sure it is. Why do so many of us like folk music?

The tradition evolves slowly, and is mostly anonymous at source. Contemporary singers and players find ways of delivering these songs and tunes to suit us and them.  This music grew out of a social, often a work-place, context, but it is now performed as art music. Why hasn't it died out as its social contexts have slipped away from us into our pasts?

My answer, for what it's worth, is that in a time of rapid social and cultural change, people who feel displaced, unsure of where they stand, go back into a real and imagined past. I don't mean that as a sneer; it's a bit more significant than nostalgia, and  - who wouldn't feel the need for solid ground underfoot when faced with the lunacies of Twitter and the relentless babble that insults us via TV adverts each evening?

At Shrewsbury there was quite a different feel from pop/rock gigs - less separation and adulation, smaller scale, less tension and drama around performance. Perhaps all this helps people feel connected through more than Facebook. (Festivals in general do so, I'm sure.) It felt convivial.

And of course a lot of the music yesterday wasn't folk music in any traditional sense. Singer/songwriters are usually lumped in with folk music if the simplicity of their presentation and accompaniment, as well as their singing style, is on nodding terms with the anonymous tradition - especially since they often sing more traditional music as well. What's in a label, anyway? But such singer/songwriters are perhaps seeking to connect their work with something much older than, say, Franz Ferdinand are looking for.

Morris dancers-  easy for a lazy joke. Signs are it's never been so popular as it is now (perhaps in part because women have been taking part for many years.) I'm no expert, but there was some marvellous leaping thumping and prancing going on yesterday. Again, morris dancing may be (even) stranger than it looks.  

I enjoyed the dancing very much yesterday, but after a while I began to feel I would simply have to sink my teeth into the next tinkling bell-bedecked calf than tramped past me. One can have too much of a good thing!

I reckon the morris is part of the same impulse, and it's this that makes a festival like Shrewsbury so interesting, as well as enjoyable. My theory is that it's full of people (including me) looking to reinforce their sense of identity, searching for connectedness and conviviality, wanting to grow roots down into something that feels old and solid. Even if it's actually quite recent, even if it was written yesterday by a named artist, so long as it shares a "folky" ethos and style.

Music matters so much to us that it's always about more than the music itself. It's about who we are.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The difference between a painted lady and a tortoiseshell: a new Way

I was recently lucky enough to be one of a walking group led, in a most unbossy and charming way, by a truly expert - I was going to write "botanist," which he certainly is, but the old term "naturalist" might be better, since his range of both knowledge and wisdom is huge, and it was put to excellent use for our benefit.

We walked around an area of coastal heath, then up to a high promontory, down to a disused lighthouse on a headland. We were lucky with the weather.

In case you're interested, I'll mention some of the creatures and plants we saw, such as this splendid chap below, but first I want to make my point before non-naturalists doze off.

If I want a sense of unity between me and the world, a sense of belonging and a feeling of balance, a usual route for me is via the natural world, and I think that's fairly common. But my typical approach to the natural world, and again, I'm hardly alone in this, is imaginative, aesthetic, meditative. Being in it, letting my mind stay in the present, looking at my surroundings as if for the very first time, feeling tuned in to the beauty of a place.

The Naturalist identified plants, birds, butterflies, land forms, soil types, underlying geology, and even the unbelievably ancient geological story behind it all. He did so in a typically gentle and encouraging way, which drew us out, and therefore in.

What the Naturalist saw and felt around him was based on  detailed and exact knowledge - science, if you like. People speak of reading the landscape. He seemed part of it, on intimate terms with it. He understood its inter-relations, its changes and time-scales. Of course he had aesthetic responses - he is particularly fond of toad-flax. His analytical understanding was always at the service of his powers of synthesis- I mean that he fitted things together so wonderfully well.

This is what he has dedicated his life to.

He was also able, of course, to be exact about the season. "It's late to see so many..." or "We are lucky to catch him, they've usually gone by now," or "they are mostly migrants, on passage to Africa, and they should be in south-west England by tomorrow morning."

I think when we put all this together, we've got a particular way of living in the present, in harmony with change, unafraid of the scale of the earth's timescales, able to accept how limited is our stay here.

As I left the walk, I felt the sort of calm elation I usually only feel after a meditation, or after an aesthetic and meditative experience of the countryside. The Naturalist's science-based gifts to me were visions I treasure.

(You don't seem many painted lady butterflies, and when one settled on a flower head next to two tortoiseshells, the Naturalist quickly pointed out the differences, in colouring, characteristic flight, in general what a bird-watcher would call its "jizz." So now I know, now I feel, more intimately, these two lovely creatures, and where they belong.)


The lady is on top.

Small copper, large blue, gate-keeper, meadow brown, grayling and peacock.
Eyebright, western gorse, bell-heather and ling, hairy vetch, toad-flax, sheep-bit, tormentil and creeping cinquefoil.
Grey seal, Manx shearwater, fulmar, cormorant and shag, buzzard and rock pipit, willow warbler and curlew.

Beautiful though they are, these are just names. Put it all together with the Naturalist's vision and you can approach something beyond names and concepts.

I think a life's dedication to studying and observing has given him a Way, a kind of enlightenment that is new to me. It's based on knowledge, but it's so much more than just knowledge.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Morbid? Moi?

Recently, chatting with friends about the ludicrous idea that eventually each of our lives will come to an end, one of them said she didn't want to be morbid, but...and went on to explore her sense of mortality, and how she felt about her father's death and his funeral. She then said that all this stemmed from my telling them about my celebrancy work. 

This got me thinking (always painful and sometimes futile, of course.)

Concise OED gives us: "morbid: characterised by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease." (It also has a specialised medical use, of course.)

Is my preoccupation with mortality morbid, (i.e. is it an unhealthy obsession) is it purely professional, or is it in any way valuable? 

I doubt undertakers are seen as morbid - I expect most of us accept that they do an essential job that 99% of us couldn't do. But celebrancy is, I think, different. For many of us it's not a primary way of earning a living, and it's certainly not a long-established role (obviously, I'm leaving aside ministers of a faith when they are leading a funeral ceremony.) Do we celebrants obsess about the end of life? Is it "good" for us to spend so long thinking about death and bereavement?

We'll each have our own answers to these questions. 

The work is fulfilling and difficult, and it is easy to get a bit obsessive, talk about it too much. However, I tend to find that people want to talk about funerals, and mortality itself, when they find out what I do.

My friend wasn't being morbid. She was taking the opportunity to explore her thoughts and feelings, and perhaps it's not so often, in a social setting, that she meets someone who is prepared to help the discussion on. 

To the cognoscenti, the GFG commentariat, this is all pretty obvious; but for many people, I think I can tell that to talk about death is a welcome and unusual opportunity. I don't think there is, to use a yawnsome cliche, a simple taboo about death in our culture, but I do think there is a huge avoidance of the fact of mortality, and a tendency to skate over our feelings - hey, let's celebrate a life, let's not mourn. See:

Maybe I obsess about the work sometimes; but I think the really dangerously morbid symptom in our culture is our inability to bring death into our lives, to accept that life ends and to live in that knowledge. I'll return to this topic soon, be warned. See, I told you I was obsessive.....

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Loneliness in bereavement, loneliness in death work

It's a commonplace that being bereaved can be a lonely and isolating experience, perhaps particularly in cultures in which emotional restraint and an assumed stoicism is the norm. (Are we Brits just now emerging from this norm and creating another? In my celebrancy work I come across plenty of stiff upper lips, but also plenty of wobbly lips and hugs.)

It's certainly true that each of us has to grieve alone, in so far as each must follow her unique journey of grief, each of us in her own way. But I think that grieving, the state of being for a while a bereaved person, can also bring people together. Not only in the obvious sense that family and friends may gather to support and help you, but because sometimes people will empathise, people you don't know especially well, and offer help -  emotional, practical or both. 

Recently, a couple I know were bereaved in tragic circumstances. New neighbours they had met only three times turned up with a casserole for my friends' supper, and took their young daughter off for a playtime whilst we talked. No fuss, no silly "Oh, I know how you feel, I remember when I..." Just essential, heartwarming neighbourliness exactly when it was needed.

Then there is the potential loneliness of funeral workers. Secular celebrancy can be a lonely business, in that it can generate high levels of uncertainty about the rightness of what we've written. I used to worry, in my more paranoid moments, that I'd be recognised and avoided in the street. I think this has happened only once. Celebrancy is in some areas increasingly competitive, so "colleagues" are less likely to provide the shoulder to cry on or the listening ear. The celebrancy organisations (BHA, IoCF, Greenfuse etc) offer some kind of support network, opinions on the efficacy of which, er, vary; nothing to stop celebrants from setting up a closed forum of like-minded people around the country. Could be of enormous value.

I think it must be much more of a problem for funeral directors/undertakers. The remnants of the old taboo about body-handling; the idea that the sight of the undertaker in his formal gear is a little chilling, a memento mori when we are not used to such reminders (in our culture, at least); the thought that we don't want to have to meet one any time soon; and the fiercely competitive nature of the business would, I imagine, create isolation in one prone to such feelings.

Actually, some undertakers I work with are generally quite jolly people. One is a lay preacher, an energetic, friendly man well known in his community; another is also well-known sociable, has a quip ready when people say "nice to see you, X, but not too often, eh?" (well, he manages not to yawn, at least!) 

Other seem to suffer a bit more from the various pressures of the work. Of course, any good undertaker takes the work seriously

but do they feel isolated by their work? I'd be interested to hear about it.

In fact, I'd be interested to hear about anything from anyone. It's so lonely being a blogger, you've no idea, you tap tap away, throw your thoughts upon the aether, and what comes back? Nothing. It's so.........sniffle sob sniffle....isolating......

Oh, suit yourselves, as Frankie Howerd used to say!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Drugs Trip vs Natural High vs Presentmomentness

Someone I know says that in one sense she has been looking, in meditation at which she is expert, for an experience that relates to her LSD experience. (Her alleged LSD experience. Which was a long time ago, officer...)

It seems she had moments of huge insight and benevolence, out of time, in harmony with the world around her, courtesy of LSD or other hallucinogenics. The doors of perception were cleansed, and she saw, as Blake said she would, the Infinite.

That interested me. Now I never took LSD way back then. Because I was terrified of it, I guess. But I did go and see Donovan, all dressed in a white robe, who sang about the natural high being better than the drug high.

Words slip and crumble, don't they, but I take "high" as being a different thing from "tripping." With my relative ignorance about hallucinogenics and narcotics, I assume being high e.g. on an opiate or on cocaine or amphetamines, as being quite different from a hallucinogenic experience. If that's so, then a natural high is lovely, and I think quite common. Who hasn't been both elated and calmed at the same time by a moment of intense natural beauty, a piece of music that moved you out of yourself? Who hasn't been excited out of her head by some sporting moment?

(Well, not me, obviously, other than possibly, the first shot...)

(This druggy talk will eventually relate to mindfulness and mortality, just you wait and see...)

So I think we can put the true natural high to one side for the moment. It can relate to mindfulness, but in a different way. And I think we can accept that sedative or stimulant drug-taking, however useful or pleasurable people may find it to be, is not going to cleanse the doors of perception and help you live in the eternal present.

Mindfulness meditation, Zen practice, various effective meditation techniques - can help you simply exist in the present moment. Further, out of that can come a calm acceptance of your place in the universe, a feeling of identity with an infinite and unclassifiable reality. And that state, lived in even occasionally, can help you accept the insurmountable and otherwise outrageous news that one day you will fall off the log, your physical being will disintegrate and be otherwise distributed. (Sorry if that's a bit of a spoiler for anyone's self-narrative...)

Now, this next paragraph may be nonsense. Do tell me if so. But my guess is that an LSD trip is much less consistent, much more variable, much less easily acceptable, and much more temporary. Most people - no, everyone - I know who took acid back then, stopped, eventually. Some people it wrecked, some people it hasn't. (I'm not moralising here, just observing.)

Meditation won't give you synaesthetic swirling wonderlands of colour, won't give you the sound red or visions of Lucy in the Sky. But it can be a door into the infinite. It can cleanse the doors of perception. It can take you beyond either/or.

And it won't give you flashbacks or bad trips. It isn't a substitute for a trip. It isn't a trip. It just is.

I'd love some old head to put me right here....

But I think

(Sorry, I do appreciate that you can't communicate a good trip through irritating graphics...)

is probably less useful a route to awakening, to enlightenment, than simply:

I mean, taking acid may have helped people escape a dreary conventional life, but has it helped people face their mortality? I'd really like to know!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Follow the heron into the springtime

It's a chilly but beautiful sunny morning at Mundi Mansions, and for my multitude of reader, time for another song from the wonderful Karine Polwart, about the end of winter and the coming of spring, with all the usual metaphorical richness relating to relationships, life, the whole business.
And there's a good feeling of acceptance in the last verse: we need the sermons of ice and salt water and stone, but we also need - daffodils. Don't we?

The clip has slightly scratchy sound quality, but don't you love the mud on her boots (festival time) and the nervy immediacy she brings to her singing? Live, indeed. Blessings upon her head, and yours, and mine too - it's SPRING!

Follow The Heron

The back of the winter is broken
And light lingers long by the door
And the seeds of the summer have spoken
In gowans that bloom on the shore

By night and day we’ll sport and we’ll play
And delight as the dawn dances over the bay
Sleep blows the breath of the morning away
And we follow the heron home

In darkness we cradled our sorrow
And stoked all our fires with fear
Now these bones that lie empty and hollow
Are ready for gladness to cheer


So long may you sing of the salmon
And the snow scented sounds of your home
While the north wind delivers its sermon
Of ice and salt water and stone


The Present Moment

Once you get into this stuff, little reminders pop up here and there....

This on a wall at Dartington Hall.

Over to you.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Evolution, comfort, Mrs and Mrs Darwin in grief

Last post was about evolution and how accepting it might be a liberating thing, might help us accept the impossibility, the outrage, of our own mortality.

But it's not always easy, is it? Even in the abstract. 

I think way back I posted a clip of this song, performed and co-written by Karine Polwart. I thought I'd pop it up again - it still works powerfully on me. The setting is Mr and Mrs Darwin grieving for the death of their daughter. 

I won't put up the clip of KP singing it, because you might just want to regard it as a poem as well as a song, it seems that strong and true to me.

We all look for comforts and supports; Darwin builds his own cathedral....

We're All Leaving

There is thunder on the skyline
And it tears her breath away
Like the twilight steals the day
A father's kind hand could not command her
To return to him once more
Like a soldier from the war
We're all leaving
Even the ones who stay behind
We're all leaving in our own time
We're all leaving in our own time

Each night surrenders to a morning
But beneath the April sky
He can hear an endless cry
On smiling fields there's a battle raging
And for every bloom he knows
Another flower never grows
We're all leaving …

And he has no Ark to bear him from this Flood
Just a broken vessel wrought in flesh and blood
Though the riptides pull him under
He will not cease to wonder
At the beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty

He brings her mother to the church door
And while she prays for what will come
He walks those woods alone
And there he builds his own cathedrals
And on every whirring wing
He can hear the whole world sing
We're all leaving …

Words & Music: Karine Polwart (Bay Songs 2009) & Dave Gunning (SOCAN)