Friday, 25 January 2013

Wilko says it right

You wouldn't necessarily expect a rocker to be an advocate for mindfulness, but in his way, he is, here:

Words back from the frontier for us.

Here's what Wilko looked like in his youth, with the mighty Dr Feelgood, piledriving rockers:

So I guess Wilko would rather have his health than land up on this blog, but nevertheless, I thank him, for his wise, heartfelt words, and all that rocking, driving music. I hope his farewell tour goes really well.

And here's what he sounded like in Feelgood  days:

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

R.I.P Tony Conran, poet

Tony Conran died recently and was buried yesterday. The meaning of his life and the poetry and other writings he gave us ripple on, touching so many lives.

What I write here is personal and inexpert. For a beautifully-written, expert view, go to:

Tony was a poet, and a - in my view, the - translator of Welsh poetry into English, and therefore the translator of a culture and a history. He was a critic and a teacher. He was a party-giver, and a generous host; he brought together a fascinating variety of people, who may not otherwise have met.

He had a powerful and fierce intellect, wide-ranging too. The poem below has in it a more-or-less technical term. Just like Tony to find, know and use the accurate geological term. He brought together the imaginative power that people sometimes call "romantic" with the clarity and accuracy of a natural scientist. He was an expert on those mysterious and ancient plants, the ferns. He had a fernery, which he was always very pleased to show you. He knew a hell of a lot about music, and provided a hub for the burgeoning traditional music scene in his part of the world.

In person, he could be forthright, never sentimental, sometimes deliberately contrary in order to stimulate discussion. 

He published a lot of his own poetry, often in small booklet form, though volumes of his poetry were also gathered. He published his book of translations, The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse, in the mid-sixties; it was revelation to me then and still is. It's titled "Welsh Verse" now; it is, disgracefully, not that easy to find outside Wales, although there is plenty of his stuff on Amazon.

I hadn't seen a lot of him in recent years; I saw a lot of him and his circle when I was a student; he gave me more than he could ever know.

He was not, despite his huge talents and dedication to poetry, an arrogant, over-inflated sort of man. He was courteous and sensitive.

I'm proud of this anecdote: at the height of the late sixties perturbations cultural and political, one witless McLuhanite of our mutual acquaintance told Tony that the days of poetry, and  indeed of books, were over, writing poetry was looking at the future through a rear-view mirror, the new thing was... whatever the hell he thought it was I can't remember.

Tony asked me - callow youth as I was - if I thought this was so. Tony was disturbed. 

What Tony had, which people like the McLuhanite couldn't grasp, was a traditionally-based but entirely up-to-date view of his work as a social poet. He would write beautiful little poems for an engagement, a wedding, a death; the recipients were awed, grateful, delighted. He wrote poetry to and for people, the community of people he built around him. (He also wrote much more widely-aimed poems, of course.)

Anyway, I asked Tony on no account to be thrown off-balance by such views, and said that in my humble opinion the bloke was a tosser. He didn't understand what a community poet was for, and that Tony's poems would be read and loved when the McLuhanite..etc etc. Tony smiled and cheered up.

In some ways, the least important thing about Tony was that he had cerebral palsy, except to say that the doctors told his parents he wouldn't make forty. Tony knew what he was here for, and he was a determined man. He wrote, taught, married, raised a family, and fulfilled his destiny as a poet. He died at the age of 81, honoured, loved and admired.

Pebble, by Tony Conran (1931 - 2013)

World pebble in my hand - 
Millimetre escarpments,
Cliffs, potholes,
Flat places.

It remembers 
A red mist of
Liquid stone
Slopping into the air.

Pressure was the heartbeat of living rock,
Millions of tons of it,
The pouring of world
To its centre.

Now this little lost stone
Must travel the trivial
Rivers of death.
Rub into dissolution.

Sharp gravel. Sand. Mud.
And then, deep down
Like a froth of rock.

Settle into the seabed.
Relax under the tons of deep sea.
Harden again 
To strata.

It could be my fingers
That the sediments
Into chert.

My thumbprints could be fossil next.
The pebble on its way to death
Might laugh last.
It would remember me.

This poem was read yesterday at his funeral.

Thank you, Tony, for so much.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Charity, compassion, bereavement

Highly recommended (by me, so get on over there) post on the Good Funeral Guide.

"Suffering isolates us; loving presence brings us back, makes us belong," says a priest in the original, quoted article.

Being there.

"Now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; and the greatest of these is charity"

"Charity" here is more than the business of bunging a few quid at the NSPCC because it's Christmas, which is of course fine, in itself;  but charity in this context is broader and fundamental. It's surely a love that has in it no possession, none of the desires of the lover, a focus entirely on the person who needs love. Compassion, not possession.

Compassion is almost scarily impersonal, that is, if it hits you it feels broader than you, nothing really to do with yourself. It simply arrives. It is demanding and tiring. For bereaved people, it is surely an essential need.

That is why we all get so furious with people in the funeral "business" who either suffer compassion fatigue, or never could find much compassion in the first place. And that's why we are so pleased when we find people who can't help being compassionate. It just happens to them, they bring it to us, and it helps us to live.

The difference between compassion and sentimentality seems to me absolute.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

oooer! A coffin!

The fear of death is a huge subject, and here's an obvious enough thought: some of the fear may simply be unfamiliarity with death and its trappings. In our culture, each of us is very much less likely to be sitting with an elderly or ill person when they die, than would have been the case a hundred or so years ago. Each of us has to organise and go to very many fewer funerals than we would have done back then. Many many more of us die in hospital, when "everything" immediately after a death is taken care of. Inadvertently, we have shielded ourselves from the inevitability and obviousness of death. 

When I began celebrancy work, I felt a little of that same tension and sense of dread as a coffin was unloaded from a hearse that I remember feeling at a family funeral, or the funeral of a friend. This was a separate thing from a little touch of stage fright, which I still get in varying degrees, and which I welcome, because it puts me on whatever mettle I might have. (Any stage fright disappears, just as it does for actors, when I get going.)

The coffin thing is different from the stage fright, because I only felt it for the first two or three funerals, and it has now completely gone. It was the awful tremendous realisation that a body that was a person was inside that oddly-shaped box. It still is a sobering, steadying thought, and a big mystery, but the dread and the tension have vanished.

Maybe some familiarisation with the Grim Reaper's trappings helps to ease some of the more superficial fears we may have of death? Death is, in one sense, ubiquitous and commonplace, but it doesn't feel like it. 

If familiarisation with one small aspect of Reaperdom helped me, I don't know what use that is in general. You hardly want to be hanging around undertakers premises or crematoria gawping at coffins. But familiarisation with coffins may be a small step in a direction that perhaps most of us need to move in: engaging with the fact of human mortality, getting at least a little used to the idea. 

Living with the truth of our own mortality doesn't just help celebrants do their job; it enriches life itself, because it illuminates it for what it is. A bleedin' miracle!

Lives, lives, lives - celebrant's gold

Almost always, we celebrants/ministers are asked, or expected, to give an account of someone's life. One of the privileges of this work is that we learn about so many lives. Every life is a story to be told, of course, and each of them is unique. But  we have to be careful. On their own, the facts of a life may do little to bring significance to a funeral.

I well understand the paradoxical value to bereaved people of being told something many of them probably know  already. The real task seems to me to be using biographical detail to illuminate the sort of person s/he was, and looking for that smile or nod of recognition. That's surely what illuminates the meaning of a life for the people who badly need to take something away from a dreary old crem.

For me, writing  the script for a ceremony, it's always an imagined life. I like the challenge of using what I've been told and adding some imaginative resonance. "The vehicle weighted over a ton and a half, and when I tell you that he had to shove it back into the garage, on his own, we can understand just how strong and determined he was." 

Sometimes, I feel a life fact can stand on its own: "...and he fought his way from D-Day plus 2, to the banks of the Rhine," but nevertheless, an appeal to the congregation's imagination might help: "... and all that time, Emily didn't know where - or  how - he was."

Doesn't have to be dramatic or spectacular:  "..and he loved gardening. Many of us do, but how about this for dedication: Jill looked out of the bedroom window one night at two in the morning and saw a torch moving around the garden. She went to wake Bill, then realised it was him in the garden. Slug hunting. At two in the morning. In the rain..."

I've found it salutary to recognise, after hearing so many facts about so many lives, that an imagined life is more than the facts; yet at the same time, to accept that it is all too easy to over-extend the imaginative work and add something that won't ring true.

Well, there's no formula for these things. In we go to listen to a family, receptors tuned, looking to get it right every time. But getting it right is relative. Success is always limited; significant failure cannot be contemplated.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Overcoming the Fear of Death

I may have mentioned this book before. But not in the last few months, so...

It's been  enormously enlightening to me; I hope it can be so for you too, whatever your non/very/religious/don't know/ look just leave me alone belief system might be. It needs no puff from me, so if you'll excuse a personal note, I'll simply quote the text of an email I sent recently to Dr Yalom:

"Dear Doctor Yalom,
I have read and re-read "Staring At The Sun."
Thank you. The courage, compassion and insights in your book have rolled up the blinds for me and let in light.
I am a funeral celebrant. What I have gained from your book stands at my side every time I meet a grieving family.
Your book gives me strength to say the things that matter to them, to ask them the things that need to be asked.
What I have learned from your book is also part of my own inner life, my dialogues with myself as well as with others.
you write of "rippling." Your book ripples, and ripples, and ripples....
I just needed to say: thank you.

with very best wishes"

I sent this after reading a section of the book about a very simple and powerful idea: tell people if you feel gratitude towards them; don't wait until they are dead and tell their grieving families....

Gent that he is, Dr Y replied courteously and briefly, which I much appreciate from such a busy man, at his time of life (he is 81) and probably at the peak of his celebrity. And he signed it "Irv." Dude, as his countrymen say. (Maybe they still do say it?)

So if the prospect of death scares you a bit/some/all of the time, this book is very helpful. If you are never ever anxious about death, I mean, the ending of your life, not death in general, please get checked over; you may already be dead. In which case, there's not point in buying this book; it's too late....

Sunday, 6 January 2013

"It's been one of those dog days, doctor."

We Brits are, it seems, more sceptical about psychoanalysis than people in the USA. If you're the sort of person who thinks they'll get more sense out of a Schnauzer than a shrink, you may like two stories, one quoted as fact (of course I don't know the bloody source....) and one anecdotal.

1. If an American wants to be cured of schizophrenia, s/he'd do worse than fly over here. You are, apparently, twice as likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic in  the USA than in the UK, if you consult a psychiatrist. 

2. A psychiatrist was delighted to see, walking down the street, an ex-patient who last he'd heard had been committed to an institution for his own safety, under the Mental Health Act. They chatted.

"So they have released you as well enough to go about your ordinary life?"
"So it seems."
"Great. So the voices have stopped?"
"Oh no. I've just stopped talking about them." 

Seems to me we're on a continuum; what's "normal?" I'm sure I'm often a bit "mad" in my head, but so far (where's some wood to touch?) it's not proved to be socially dysfunctional....

Despite my apparent sanity, and the fact I don't seem to need a psychoanalyst, I find some books by analysts and psychotherapists fascinating and rewarding. I reckon I'll read a new book,  "The Examined Life," by Stephen Grosz. The review by Michael Holroyd in Friday's "Spectator" is worth quoting, I think:

"Grosz invites his readers into his consulting room as a silent and invisible audience. So we learn what he has learnt: that achieving success often involves loss; that people like to use boredom as a form of aggression; that the eager promotion of self-esteem in children may well lead to laziness; that silence is valuable and can be interpreted; and that the only real time is the present ("the past is alive in the present...The future is not some place we're going to, but an idea in our mind now.")

Sounds like plenty of wisdom to be explored here. The last sentence, quoted directly from the book, relates in my mind to TS Eliot:

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable."

Eliot's explorations are often called "metaphysical," presumably because there's a Christian content to it, clearer at some points than at others. Grosz's are presumably labelled "psychiatric." 

I value anything that helps me explore the huge puzzles we find in Time, be it from a shrink or a poet. Doesn't matter how we label it when we find it in widely divergent fields of human enquiry, exploring presentmomentness is liberating and demanding. 

The future is not a place to which we are going; it is an idea, in my mind, in this present moment. Now that's a powerful thought to take on board, isn't it?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Calm Down and Listen to Granny

Maybe the start of a new year is a good time to state a bit of the bleedin' obvious, in order to fend off formal "New Year Resolutions." 

Stress, as any engineer will tell you, is an essential property of well-made things like bridges and buildings. Clifton suspension bridge would land up in the Avon gorge were it not subject to the "right" levels of stress. People likewise. No stress = disintegration. People often comment in surprise how peaceful a dead body looks. 

Too much stress in the wrong places and structures collapse. If you park end-to-end battle tanks on the Clifton Bridge....

Ditto for people, then. We tend to use the word as a shorthand for something like "destructive levels of anxiety," or "unacceptable tensions."

Granny's Obvious but Essential Points About Stress:

1.           Only be a perfectionist where you really have to be one. Often, good enough is good enough. Don’t provide a Rolls if they want a Mini.

2.           Where it’s safe to do so, lower your standards.

3.           Don’t think “if you want a job done well, do it yourself.” It’s a recipe for overwork. Let people do things their own way, unless the context is really important and you can see an upcoming significant error.

4.           Recognise and enjoy what you’ve done well, allow yourself credit, don’t skate over your achievements in order to reach the next task. Not crediting yourself  may hinder your confidence, and give you an inaccurate view of what you do.

5.           When you can, slow down – a second or two can make all the difference between more or less adrenalin. Adrenalin is essential - except when it isn't, then it's the body's loose cannon.

6.           But in work terms (see 1) be realistic when allocating your time.

7.           Avoid misery-making, tension-building experiences and inputs where you can; allow yourself to enjoy enjoyable things, and don’t take the miseries of the world on your shoulders.

8.           Most worrying things, in retrospect, are probably not really as important or worrying as they seemed at the time. Save the worry for when you really need it.

9.           Try to fit in a deliberately calming activity – might be yoga, might be running, doesn’t matter, so long as it helps.

10.      Ask for and accept help when you need it.

These points are distilled from anti-stress books and courses of the last 30 or so years.

Here endeth the sententious New Year pronouncements.