Snapshot in Ice

I had a return of the severe pain on Saturday, much to my surprise. I didn’t pass out this time, and didn’t go to hospital but instead managed the pain at home. I’m feeling very tired and weak. I’m sure you probably know that the UK is unusually cold and snowy at the moment and I hope to write something about it soon. But the medication and the tiredness are not helpful for inspiration so I shall share a poem I have posted before. I hope to have something fresh for later in the week.

Snapshot in ice

 

The world is frozen,

Every web edged in ice,

Occupant huddled under leaf

Awaiting a thaw.

Seedheads, candied in frost,

Return to brief flowering,

Coated in fragile crystal

So dense it seems furry.

Ferns are turned to fossils,

Chrysanthemums to pom-poms.

Even the air is frozen,

Full of microscopic ice.

Foghorns call across the miles,

Invisible as owls in the night,

And the sea, oblivious,

Crashes softly on the shore.

Time to Heal?

 

Time to Heal?

I have been a great fan of Terry Pratchett for many years and have been deeply moved by some of his novels. While they are generally hysterically funny, they also contain some quite profound wisdom.

One of my favourites is Masquerade, one of the series of novels written about the witches of the Ramtops, a coven of extraordinary women, lead by the inimitable Granny Weatherwax. Esme Weatherwax is a force of nature, someone you want on your side, and not someone to cross lightly. In Masquerade, she performs a feat of magic, or so people think, by catching a sharp sword in her bare hand without being cut to the bone by it. The following comes from two passages very close to the end of the book; the first she is discussing events with her oldest (and best) friend Gytha(Nanny) Ogg:

‘Everyone was very impressed, I reckon, when you caught that sword in your hand. . .’

Granny sighed. ‘Hah! Yes, I expect they were. They didn’t think clearly, did they? People’re just lazy. They never think: maybe she had something in her hand, a bit of metal or something. They don’t think for a minute it was just a trick. They don’t think there’s always a perfectly good explanation if you look for it. They probably think it was some kind ofmagic.’

‘Yeah, but. . . you didn’t have anything in your hand, did you?’

‘That’s not the point. I might have done.’ Granny looked up and down the square. ‘Besides, you can’t magic iron.

‘That’s very true. Not iron. Now, someone like ole Black Aliss, they

could make their skin tougher than steel. . . but that’s just an ole

legend, I expect. . .’

‘She could do it all right,’ said Granny. ‘But you can’t go round messin’ with cause and effect. That’s what sent her mad, come the finish. She thought she could put herself outside of things like cause and effect.Well, you can’t. You grab a sharp sword by the blade, you get hurt.World’d be a terrible place if people forgot that.’

‘You weren’t hurt.’

‘Not my fault. I didn’t have time.’”

*

 

 

The trees were bare when Granny Weatherwax got back to her cottage.

Twigs and seeds had blown in under the door. Soot had fallen down the chimney. Her home, always somewhat organic, had grown a little closer to its roots in the clay.

There were things to do, so she did them. There were leaves to be swept, and the woodpile to be built up under the eaves. The windsock behind the beehives, tattered by autumn storms, needed to be darned. Hay had to begot in for the goats. Apples had to be stored in the loft. The walls could do with another coat of whitewash.

But there was something that had to be done first. It’d make the other jobs a bit more difficult, but there was no help for that. You couldn’t magic iron. And you couldn’t grab a sword without being hurt. If that wasn’t true, the world’d be all over the place.

Granny made herself some tea, and then boiled up the kettle again. She took a handful of herbs out of a box on the dresser, and dropped them in a bowl with the steaming water. She took a length of clean bandage out of a drawer and set it carefully on the table beside the bowl. She threaded an extremely sharp needle and laid needle and thread beside the bandage.

She scooped a fingerful of greenish ointment out of a small tin, and smeared it on a square of lint.

That seemed to be it.

She sat down, and rested her arm on the table, palm-up.

‘Well,’ she said, to no one in particular, ‘I reckon I’ve got time now.’”

(Masquerade by Terry Pratchett)

How often have we done the same feat but without swords and magic and put off dealing with wounds?

I have.

I do it all the time and one of the reasons is because I lack the skills to mend myself, the way Granny stitches up her own hand without flinching. So the wounds go untreated and they fester until a greater surgery is needed and I need open-hearted surgery.

At the moment I am thinking(and talking about, especially with J) very deeply about a form of healing that does away with so many of the things we think are essential to the healing process, like the line between patient and therapist and the rigid following of guidelines that had become Holy Writ.

I’ll keep you all posted.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- by Robert M Pirsig(a review of a classic book)

 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- by Robert M Pirsig

 This classic icon of twentieth century philosophy is regarded as almost a myth; my daughter’s boyfriend indeed believed it to be an actual urban myth and not an actual book, and I doubt he is alone. First published in 1974, the book has been a corner stone for some of the hippy movement and yet, its subtitle, An Inquiry into Values seems at variance with this. Indeed, one of the central themes of the book, the careful and loving maintenance of motorcycles seems also at variance with the hippy movement too and this is one of the many apparent contradictions this book throws up.

It’s a truly disconcerting book to read, because it fits no genre and it shifts at intervals between both style and format. The book starts simply enough, as an account of a road trip taken across America by the author and his young son Chris, and for a while two friends as well. You get the sense of a fractured relationship between man and boy, in the process of being mended, as well as an uneasy friendship with their two travelling companions John and Sylvia. There is a focus on the minutiae of their daily life, on the mechanics of motorbikes, both of which are at once alien and familiar, that many might find dull or even boring. Persist with them; to some degree these are important background. You’re not reading a simple story.

The narrative shifts to a kind of flashback to a different story, the tale of someone who lost the plot and lost himself in the process. Phaedrus, the man who lost the plot, is central to the whole book, but I shall say no more about him now. It’s best you discover his story for yourself.

The other facet of the book is a kind of overview narration that links together the road-trip with its focus on details and meticulous attention to them with the story of Phaedrus. It’s this aspect of the book that really, really messes with your head. Let me explain.

I was given the book as a Christmas present by my friend J, but like books I know are important, I wanted to read it during a time that gave me both time and context in which to read it. I read extremely fast, but that’s not always a good thing, so I wanted to have an opportunity to read in segments dictated by an external force I had little control over. So I read it during a road trip of my own, this time across France during a work trip in May. This was the same trip that brought back the photograph that rocked my world when I went home, to be seen here. But during the six days I was away, I had a number of times where I did wonder if I might not actually return at all. During the quiet moments during my trip, lying on my hotel bed or sitting somewhere out of the way, in various places like the centre of Caen, in Bayeux, at Disneyland(for about five minutes as I could not concentrate) and most memorably, sitting outside a French hypermarket, I dipped into the book and read.

I sat there, on a marble step, by a display of plants, trying to take in what I had just read. I watched the ants, ferrying food backwards and forwards, and tried to keep my mind from bubbling out of my ears. It felt like an earthquake in my head.

I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.

The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us- these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road- aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see, We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From this awareness we must select and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p 82)

At this point, or shortly after, I shut the book and stuffed it back into my rucksack and waited till the students came back to meet me. I felt disjointed, and uneasy but in the kind of way that you get when you know you are onto something important but that you need to tread very very carefully. I knew also, don’t ask me how, that my own sanity might well be at risk at this point if I rushed it. These things take time to sink in and you do well not to try and grasp them all in one go. Once, as a student, in a senior common room I had no right to be in but had been invited in by a lecturer in astrophysics, I had Relativity explained to me. For about three minutes, I grasped it but I let it go when I realised I could not hold that concept in my head for long without going slightly mad. I wasn’t ready for it.

So I stepped away that day, because I was working and descending into catatonia was possibly not the best thing I could do at that point. I am still digesting the concepts and the implications of those concepts now. I am no philosopher, in all honesty, but I am a seeker after meaning. This is a book that has given me more tools in my own search for meaning.

And once you get used to the switching focuses on the book, the story itself becomes utterly gripping and strangely moving. You feel for the people(they are not characters, because it’s a true story, in the main) and you hope for them.

I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to delve deeper into what life is about, but I would also suggest that you give it the time and attention it deserves. It’s not a beach read to entertain you but a book to unsettle and disturb and challenge you.

Are YOU up for the challenge?

 

( for more information about Pirsig and his work, look at  http://www.levity.com/corduroy/pirsig.htm or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_M._Pirsig

The Hero-an analysis

This is an article I posted a good eighteen months ago but bears reposting. I’m too tired and unwell still to write anything new just yet. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week.

The hero

Once upon a time- that’s how fairytales begin. Or it might begin, in a kingdom far, far away. In days of old when knights were bold… but how old is old in a time when last season’s clothes are absurd antiques and doubts are cast not just on the courage of those bold knights but on everything else as well? The jury is out but the evidence is that they were anything but gentle, and the average modern football hooligan probably has more courtesy and honour. After all, even in today’s allegedly lawless times, it’s not considered honourable or even legal to strike the head from another man’s shoulders. There are some, I admit who practically beg for such treatment but I doubt politicians have ever been popular; the high king’s advisors have ever been known as lickspittles and toadies, and are so today whatever names they bear.

The age of chivalry was in fact a brutal one but pictures are painted and poems penned that portray it in the glowing pink light of artificial nostalgia. But that romantic world has grown brighter than the shadowy one that was real. We don’t want to know about the sweat and the dung, the short brutish nasty lives; we want mysterious ladies in gowns of floating silks. We want a hero whose armour shines and whose sword is never red with the blood of the innocent or of the incidental casualty. We want those rules that can never be kept, to have been kept: a code of impossible honour, a world of justices and joys. And we seek it not in our world now for we know deep down it can never be. So we seek it in the past: an ancient shining past where our dreams might once have been true. Atlantis and Camelot are both children of the same yearning dreams.

There is a Jewish proverb, better a live dog than a dead lion, and it sums up the kind of practicality we have deep down and yet are somehow ashamed of. Running from a defeat is never seen as sensible, practical or even right; we prefer death-or-glory stands to the canny retreat. In cinema, literature and in our view of history, our preference is always for the glorious defeat, the captain going down with the sinking ship, the king dying on a bloody battlefield surrounded by the slaughtered heaps of his faithful bodyguard. We don’t laud those who saw which way the wind was blowing and left before disaster struck; it’s not memorable, it’s not honourable and it certainly isn’t romantic! History and literature are littered with the bodies of lovers who said, “If I can’t have you, then I shall have nothing.” A myriad Miss Havishams wander the corridors of our consciousness, clad in wedding rags and one silk slipper like an elderly Cinderella who never got to go to the ball in the first place. We don’t applaud those who survived, moved on, thrived and found new love. The star-crossed lovers are not Darby and Joan, celebrating sixty years of happy marriage. No, they are the teenage Romeo and Juliet who died at their own hands rather than lose that one bright moment of perfection.

Let’s face it, when it isn’t us, we adore tragedy. I hesitate to say it but that’s why piles of flowers and teddies materialise at the site of an untimely death. That’s why Diana will always hold a place that Camilla never can. Live fast, die young- one way to achieve a kind of cheap immortality. Surviving, moving on, rebuilding simply don’t hold the same glamour. Rags to riches stories only really appeal because secretly we all hope for an equally meteoric fall back to rags. We say. “Oh how nice,” but I’m not sure how often we mean it. There’s almost always a secret shiver of spite and jealousy that quibbles, “Why them? Why not me? I’m as good as they are.” It feels better when we can say from a safe distance from a tragedy, “What a shame! Oh how sad!”

Arthur lies sleeping, our once-and-future king, but we should take great care we never wake him. There’s too much blood-and-guts reality in the true Arthur for us to stomach these days. We’ve grown beyond true monarchy. I’d rather we had our rough approximation of democracy than have the tyranny of the old kings back and tarnish and fray our romantic visions of the past.

But we need heroes- no I shall go further and say we are desperate for heroes. And so we try and create them out of what material we think best: film stars, models, TV celebrities, pop and rock stars, and God forgive us all, footballers. And they fail us and we vilify them for merely being ordinary fallible venial human beings. They disappoint us and yet we create more.

Are there any real heroes left? Any lantern-jawed Lancelots left to charm and enthral us, fallible enough to be likeable but heroic enough to still command our respect and even our love? There are worthy men and women, heroic ones even but they lack that certain something, that magic ingredient that makes them special like Arthur, Gawain, Percival and dear old Lancelot. So I shall have to create my own heroes, spinning them out of my own yearnings and dreams like gold from spun straw. Arthur can live again, a modern Arthur born of this our real world but with some of the glitter and glamour of the Round Table, and his knights and ladies can dance their graceful steps around him. We all need heroes, but these days I prefer to make my own. I’m sorry, but there isn’t a pattern. It isn’t like painting by numbers or knitting. It’s more like freestyle climbing- massive risk taking, surges of adrenaline that might rocket fuel an elephant and the sense when you’ve completed it that you have done something hardly anyone else can do. I admit that failure doesn’t result in a plummet to the death but emotionally it can feel a little like that. And at the end of that creation process, there stands blinking in the sunshine a shiny newborn hero, fresh for a new world but with ancient genes that stretch back into the oldest memory, the oldest stories. We’ve all changed since our first ancestors told tales round the fire at night-so why not the hero too? Because there is something eternal and unchanging about an archetype- the hero simply adapts and grows with the generations but remains in all essentials the dream we all dream: the Hero.

Girl, interrupted

I had a pretty awful weekend and not one I planned either. Early on Saturday morning I woke with very bad pain in my lower abdomen and after taking some tablets, I found I was becoming more unwell and realising that I was going to pass out, woke my husband up. I’m too tired to write much but as a result of the pain, my blood pressure dropped through the floor and I started to lose consciousness. The ambulance came and whisked me away, a lovely paramedic called Steve gave me morphine to try and deal with the pain.

I spent all weekend and yesterday in hospital, but without what I would call proper resolution for the problem. No scans but  those for life-or-death patients are available at that hospital during the weekend so I was kept in till Monday, and even then didn’t get one. There is something fundamentally wrong with a hospital that doesn’t get that people get sick and injured at weekends and make appropriate arrangements.

Hospital is not a good place for a sensitive spirit; noise and lights and constant lack of privacy are only a few of the things that make resting impossible, so I am very glad to get home to rest.

I have had some interesting thoughts, but am still to befuddled to put them down so it may be a week or two before I can write them.

Sea, she

 

 

Sea, she

 

The sea calls me.

Some days I answer,

Worship at the threshold

Like an awed neophyte.

Other days I resist,

Turn around to woods,

Walk away, fingers in ears

Refuse to hear the siren sound.

I return, of course:

Sit on shingle, skim a stone,

Watch the ever-changing moods

Never the same from one day to the next:

Storms and smiles,

Shimmers and shades.

Natural born killer

Provider of plenty

Endless, mysterious,

Yet fluidly simple.

No wonder they refer

To oceans as She!

 

Back from Beyond

After losing so many dear people from my blogroll either to deletion, going silent or being made private, I am delighted to report that my great friend J is back with his blog Journey of Life. He’d been forced to make the blog private for a number of reasons but a change of circumstances and a change of heart has restored his blog to its previous accessibility.

There are a number of dark links still on my blog roll which I will clean up soon, and will be adding a few more too as time goes on. These days I am cautious of adding or deleting for various reasons but a blog roll reflects the changing face of virtual life and I am probably due a makeover soon.

Anyway, go over and say hello if this is a blog that is totally new to you or go and renew friendship if J’s is one of your former stopping places.

I can’t express how pleased I am with this restoration of the lost.