The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

 

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

I’ve had a couple of busy weeks at work, both jobs, and I’ve enjoyed it mostly, even though some of it was stressful. But waking up this morning I felt the full weight of the default depression land on me like a big slobbery dog who’s pleased you’re back. All the petty concerns I’d put on hold while I was rushed off my feet came back and had a pity party in my head. My teaching job is currently in some jeopardy as they are moving premises and it’s going to be a lot harder to get to work; I’ve resolved that the first near miss as a car clips my bicycle signals me quitting. I love teaching, I really do; it’s one of my talents and in many ways, I am wasted where I work. If you’ve seen Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, it’ll give you a clue about my style of teaching; but it also means that even had I the correct bits of paper, I’d be sacked in a week in a state school. So I am on the sharp look out for a new job, one that is year round, and which doesn’t have the substantial drawbacks of my current one (of which I will not speak here)

But my return to sullen misery has woken me up to something that slumbers much of the time. That’s the realisation that even changing jobs, changing homes or whatever significant life change I might sometimes crave is only a distraction from my real work in this world. Six months into a new job, or a new location, and the same old issues come creeping back, like rats who realise the ship was not sinking after all.

That’s a bit of a scary realisation. It means that anything I pursue, success, fame, wealth, whatever holds no power to change anything internally. If I become a NYT’s bestseller, nothing changes. If I get the job that seems to fit every talent or skill, nothing changes. Oh for sure my mood might alter and improve, I might even be happy for a while. But nothing deeper changes.

You see, any real change has to come from within, not from anything external to me. I’ve never been someone who found retail therapy anything other than a disappointment, and while I have certainly chased success as willingly as any writer, I’ve started to grasp the fact that such success does not and cannot make me anything other than momentarily happy. I can see now that my lifelong pro-wrestling match with the Black Dog has saved me some expensive mistakes.

Chasing things because you believe that they may make you happy is a futile exercise, and one that frankly underpins the whole economy of the prosperous West. It is endless and caustic to the human soul, because it is tantalising and drives you on to seek more and more and more to less and less satisfaction, and eventual bitterness.

What then can bring peace to the troubled soul? What can tame the Black Dog and make it an ally and not an enemy?

Well, my current theory is that it is meaning that brings peace. It’s certainly how people survive the kind of catastrophic experiences that send many over the edge and down into insanity.

It’s only a theory but is one borne out by such luminaries as Viktor Frankl, and also by personal experience. I can accept and even value my own sufferings when I realise that they have shaped me to be the person I am now, and the riches of compassion and empathy that have been uncovered within me. They’ve made me a far less selfish person than I would otherwise have been.

Native Americans have a saying, something they speak as a prayer when they enter the sacred space of a sweat lodge. They say, “For all my relations,” as they enter, and by that they do not mean their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and so on. They mean every one of us humans, and all the animals and trees and plants, right down to the Stone People, the rocks we kick aside and split asunder.

So my prayer today, in honour of all that I have endured as a human and all that I will endure, is that it is done in honour and support of all life, all creation, and that I will find meaning in all.

For all my relations.”

Amen.

On Why You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks But Why A Leopard Can’t Change Her Spots.

 

On Why You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks But Why A Leopard Can’t Change Her Spots.

My most recent trip for work took me to Austria and beyond my comfort zone in a number of ways. I made a decision some years ago to try new things even if they scared me or I thought I couldn’t do them and by and large, I have succeeded in doing things I never imagined I could ever do. I have learned a lot of new skills in the last five years but my most recent attempt to master(or at least try) a new skill was probably my most monumental fail to date.

You’re going to laugh when I tell you what I decided I was going to have a shot at.

Ready?

I decided that since I was out as a ski rep, I’d have a try at skiing.

Yes, aged a few weeks short of forty five, never having so much as glanced at a dry slope, I decided I’d try a day of skiing. I’m fairly fit, have a reasonable sense of balance and a sense of humour. What could go wrong?

Well thankfully for everyone, nothing went wrong that a week or two of hot baths and arnica won’t fix. I probably should mention that I was the oldest in the beginner’s group, which was made up largely of 16 and 17 year olds, all of whom had dry slope experience. The two adults were younger than I and to put it bluntly were both smaller than me. I’m not especially tall or heavy but when someone described me once as being built like a pit bull terrier, I was forced to admit the truth of it. The only person I crashed into was the instructor, who was six foot five. But even he winced. I fell over. I fell over A LOT. I was just about getting the hang of staying upright on the slightest of inclines when I fell over and landed rather like a human pretzel.

You see, the one thing I never factored in was the fact that I have double joints. I’m basically endowed with the ligaments and tendons of someone six feet one, on my five feet seven body. I bend in improbable ways. I can partially dislocate various joints virtually without pain or effort, until later. When I did the impression of a pretzel, I fell backwards, sitting down between my own legs, splayed outwards and then flat on my back. I felt my hip joints strain and almost pop out.

Still, I got up again and had another go. This time, I fell sideways and I felt my left knee twist hard.

That was the moment when common sense and self preservation slapped me round the head and tried to talk some sense into me, and I limped off, carrying my skis. I explained to the instructor and he agreed: I was going to really hurt myself badly if I didn’t admit defeat. So after lunch, I trudged dejectedly off to the ski lift and faced something else that took me beyond my comfort zone.

I really don’t like heights. It’s not that I am phobic, as such, but I get vertigo. But there was no choice, so I scrambled into the wretched thing and made the descent alone. I felt tears burning my eyes, tears of self loathing that I’d failed and in all honesty, that descent was less terrifying because I had the chance to think about what had gone wrong.

I’d made a very basic mistake. Not only had I failed to take into consideration my own physical limitations but I’d also failed to understand that the whole purpose of skiing is to hurtle down a mountain side at speed. There’s no less than two things there that are incompatible with my core self. I hate speed. And I hate heights and find that I get dizzy and a little sick at heights. So given that the main objectives of learning to ski are completely counter to what makes me tick, it seems indescribably stupid to even try.

So you may ask, why on earth did I decide I would try? Well, I guess it’s one of those times where even though you know that the odds are it’s not for you, you feel you need to give it at least a single go before being able to say with confidence, it’s not for me. I think I am also keen to push myself beyond what I am comfortable with; often it has proved less scary than I thought. But this was one of those lessons where I discovered that I knew myself better than I would admit and proceeded anyway.

Thank God and my poor grey haired guardian angel that the worst that came of it is a lot of bruises and a few strained joints.

An Antidote to the St Valentine’s Day massacre (aka Rip-Off)

  An antidote to the St Valentine’s Day massacre(aka Rip-off)

 

The most dreaded day of the year for many dawns today (14th February) where husbands quake, wives sigh and singletons hope. Yeah, right, that day. I am not a fan of St V’s, not in the slightest. It comes not so much of being about as unromantic a soul as possible as the powerful aversion to media manipulation and peer pressure.

The ancient Greeks had a number of different words and concepts for love, quite different from our culture of one-size-fits-all LOVE. St Valentine’s Day focuses on probably the least interesting and most ephemeral of those love concepts, that of eros, or erotic, sexual love, and singles it out for special treatment. When the practise of sending Valentine’s cards began, in Victorian times, cards were actually sent to family members and friends, rather than exclusively to romantic interests. I find it sad that this charming practise has now been overtaken by the narrow definition of love.

Love is a complex muddled thing and is far more than hearts and flowers and chocolates and too often romantic expectations lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Love is a deeper, more exciting and eminently more confusing thing than Hallmark would have us believe.

For your delectation today, I have included four poems about love: one humorous, one serious, one somewhat sentimental and one unfinished fragment that starts the explore the darker side of love. 

 The first is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at falling in love. It touches on the pain of unrequited love, but that theme is expanded elsewhere.

Love (2)

Falling in love is much like falling sick:

It wasn’t part of the original plan.

There’s never a right time for it,

But when it happens, there comes

A terrible sense of inevitability,

A point when you can’t put it off

For a single second longer

And you succumb wholeheartedly.

It sometimes sneaks up uninvited

Like a stealthy summer cold.

You kid yourself it’s just pollen

That makes eyes and nose run:

The ache you feel is just overwork,

The heat in your veins merely

A reflection of the searing sun

And the shivers that shake you

Are geese parading over your grave.

But as the symptoms grow

So too does the unwelcome news

That there is nothing you can do

And it must run its true course.

Sometimes you recover, wake

To find the signs have vanished

Much like the glistening morning dew

As the sun warms the new day.

A faint uneasy memory remains

And you bless your luck at escaping,

Getting off so lightly this time.

Other times you toss and turn,

Boil and burn for years on end,

Find no relief, no end, no cure.

You get used to it finally,

Grow to enjoy the constant fever.

You won’t die of this disease,

But at times you might wish to.

Falling in love is much like falling ill,

But it is part of someone’s plan.

It’s timing is never our own,

And what we learn from it

Is both its gift and its curse.

The next poem examines love from another aspect, that of how love is what makes us human and vulnerable. It also touches on the element of divine love, and of sacrifice.

Love (1)

Love wounds us.

Like tribal scars,

Love marks us,

Shows us as new

Initiated beings.

Parallel slashes

Of raised scar tissue

Label us as different.

Love hurts us:

The brief bold cut

Dripping hot blood

Shows us changed,

Reinvented daily.

Only those who share

Our pattern of scarring

Can see and know

The person we have become,

Or see the beauty and power

Of those indelible wounds,

Invisible to those untouched

By Love’s kind blade.

  

The third poem in this cycle tries to examine how love feels, how the different seasons of love mimic the seasons of the year. It’s the poem I feel to be the soppiest, and the closest to the roses and hearts of Valentine’s day.

Love 3

Love is the spring wind

Blowing through the winter reeds,

Melting the edge of ice

And bringing scents of warmer climes.

Love is the electric crackle

That fills the summer air

Before the first thunderstorm

Breaks and rages over us.

Love is the dripping trees

And the fallen leaves of gold

Coating the cooling earth

As autumn chills the nights.

Love is the frozen crunch

Of footsteps through new snow

Treading where no one trod before,

And making a cold path to follow.

Love is the turning year

Where all is renewed

Season by blessed season

For eyes that can see the light.


 

The final poem is an incomplete fragment. I don’t tend to rework poems once I have finished with them but this one has defied me to finish it. I leave you to ponder on why. 

The Dark Side of Love

 

Love has a dark face,

Beyond the softness

and sweetness and the lost days

Of cherished childhood,

Love has a dark face.

Loves says “NO!”

When we want her to say yes.

Love says, “Never!”

To our hopes and dreams.

Is this truly love then, who

Turns our love away?

Turns us on our heads?

 

I hope these poems and thoughts go some way to defusing the bomb that is Valentine’s day, and whether you are single or in a relationship, that love of some kind is with you this day, and I end with a poem that has haunted me for many years, also with Love in its title.  

George Herbert. 1593–1632

  

286. Love

  
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,  
      Guilty of dust and sin.  
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack  
      From my first entrance in,  
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning          5
      If I lack’d anything.  
   
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’  
     Love said, ‘You shall be he.’  
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,  
      I cannot look on Thee.’   10
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,  
      ‘Who made the eyes but I?’  
   
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame  
      Go where it doth deserve.’  
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’   15
      ‘My dear, then I will serve.’  
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’  
      So I did sit and eat.  

 

 

 

Still Crazy After All These Years ~ or Why I Am Still Blogging

Still Crazy After All These Years ~ or Why I Am Still Blogging

Today is the second anniversary of my first post here at Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking and the last few days have been full of thoughts concerning why I blog.

Why does anyone blog? I guess to answer that question you might need to do a comprehensive survey because the chances are people blog for some very diverse reasons. I chose to blog because I felt I had things to say, and I sought dialogue with others. Unlike those who begin a blog with a ready-mixed agenda and function, I really didn’t know what I was doing or why. At the start, I had no clue about building a platform for my books, or any of the things I have since read that writers’ blogs aim to do. I just wanted to talk to people and to have them talk to me.

It’s said that at fifty you get the face you deserve and I think the same is true about blogs. When you let a blog develop without forcing it into a mould, it can become something that reflects you very clearly, and the readership self-selects too. People who enjoy what you write come back, they subscribe, they comment, and in many cases, they become real friends.

In two years I have posted over 460 posts, some of which have sunk into obscurity, and some of which still get numerous daily visits. My most popular post is the one concerning Susan Howatch, second most popular is About Me and coming a close third, Miracle at Mont St Michel. If you haven’t had a look at the astonishing photograph on that post, please do; I promise you it is genuine and unaltered.

A short way down the list of popular posts is Strangers and Pilgrims, about the novel I released into the wild last year. It’s doing quite well so far, but if you’d like to see this unusual and genre-defying story for yourself, it is available from Amazon and also as a download. The reviews at Amazon speak for themselves. I’m not very good at blowing my own trumpet, but thankfully others are happy to do so for me. Those who have read it have found it to take them on a journey that stayed with them long after the last page was read. I’d like to think it has changed lives in a small but significant way. Anyone who buys a copy and posts a review between now and the release of my next novel will get a free pdf of that new novel.

I’ve posted a number of short stories, which are currently being gathered into a book ready for distribution in the Spring. This will be available as a free download and also as a hard copy. If you fancy being one of the first to get your hands on this unique volume, please get in contact (details on the Contact Me page).

Anyway, finally, I would like to say a massive big thank you for all my readers, many of whom are now my friends, and express my deep gratitude to you for making blogging such a worthwhile experience and a journey that has taken me to places I never dreamed I’d ever go.

Thank you. I love you.

Just words

(For the record, this is an old poem. I feel like this intermittently, often daily, but for my lovely friends out there, I should say there is no cause for concern. Sometimes words are just words. Sometimes words seem to be magical and hold power and other times they are flat, merely bricks in building communication)

Just words

 

No one listens to me.

But then I have nothing to say

I have not said a thousand times before.

I’m dying for someone to hear

My silent screams

And offer help.

I’m searching for the words:

The right words

The magic words.

They’re just words;

They hold no power

To save or damn me.

Just words: no more.

 

When Do We Get To Do The Hazelnuts? A Review of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich.

 

When Do We Get To Do The Hazelnuts? A review of Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich  

The above photo was taken no more than thirty paces from one of the most remarkable sites of pilgrimage in the whole of the British Isles. The Julian Shrine, the site of the cell where Dame Julian of Norwich lived out her life as an anchoress, and wrote Revelations of Divine Love, is situated in an area of Norwich that was formerly known as the red-light district. Due to the advent of mobile phones, the girls no longer wander up and down, but there are plenty of unsavoury characters around, as well as a good deal of graffiti.

And yet, the small church of St Julian and the reconstructed shrine attached to it shine with a light that is not visible to the naked untrained eye. The retreat house where I spent a few days last month is a haven of peace and home-like tranquillity. The church was bombed more or less flat during the last war and the cell itself was destroyed during the Reformation, so that if you want to be pedantic about it, nothing is as it was. But what is? The essence and the atmosphere have remained.

We know little about Julian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_of_Norwich) herself, not even her original name, other than that she was born around 1342 and died some time between 1416 and 1430, and at the age of thirty and a half years suffered a life threatening illness. Indeed, her family thought her to be dying and she received the last rites. But during this serious illness, she was shown visions that changed her utterly, and her miraculous recovery led her to chose a life of contemplation and devotion to prayer. She wrote two versions of her visionary experience: the short form, written in the immediate aftermath and a longer, more complete version some twenty years later, having spent those years in prayer and meditation to try and understand what she had been shown.

The resulting books have been considered spiritual classics ever since, studied and loved and returned to by generation after generation of seekers. She was the first woman(that we know of) to write a book in English and since the advent of the printing press her works have never been out of print. The chances are that she never knew in her life time how successful her works would become; she may never have even seen her book except as her own handwritten version. There is some uncertainty to whether she did in fact perform the act of writing it or whether like Margery Kemp(a mystic contemporary to Mother Julian, and whom she met to give counsel to) she dictated to a scribe since Julian claimed to be illiterate. However, scholars believe that by this she means she did not read and write fluently in Latin. The vernacular was not considered worthy of any great works.

The time that Julian lived in were troubled, though I can think of few times in English history that have not been so, and life was hard for most people. Wars raged, and a great deal of uncertainty about the future meant that many worried constantly about how life would be. Not so very different from today, in fact. I could draw parallels with events of the moment but I will not. Suffice it to say that while Julian lived, the world was not so very different from how it is now, technology notwithstanding.

Her words have brought great comfort to many souls who are troubled by life and their place in it:

Because of our good Lord’s tender love to all those who shall be saved, he quickly comforts them, saying, ‘The cause of all this pain is sin. But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said so kindly and without a hint of blame to me or to any who shall be saved. So how unjust it would be for me to blame God for allowing my sin when he does not blame me for falling into it. In these words I saw the deep, high mystery of God which he will show to us in heaven. Then we shall understand why he allowed sin to be. And in knowing this we shall have endless joy in God.The saints in heaven turn their will away from everything except what God would have them know… And this should be our will, too

 

I can hear you ask, what about the hazelnuts?

Well, I wish to end with one of the strangest examples of synchronicity I have seen in a long time. On my first morning of retreat, I headed out to find some lunch, and took a short cut down St Julian’s Alley, to come out at the Dragon Hall, a vestige of medieval Norwich that the bombs failed to flatten but before I got more than thirty paces from the church, I saw the graffiti and was so struck by it that I had to take a picture. You see, part of Julian’s vision involved a small thing like a hazelnut:

“In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it
was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and
thought “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus: “It is all that is
made.” I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have
sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my
understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.”
— Julian of Norwich

 

For me, this last piece of coincidence brings great comfort. To find idly scribbled words that unconsciously reflect one of the most treasured books of Christian literature on a half ruined building not many yards away from the source of those original words is to me a sign that we cannot know where our words will go and what they will do. Dame Julian can never have known in her lifetime the power her words would have and how long they would endure: endure beyond her own flesh, the established church of her time, beyond the stones of the cell and those of the church she worshipped at.

This brings me hope that truth and beauty and goodness have the power to endure beyond the troubles of their times and continue to affect people long after their creators have passed away and their names and true identities are lost in the mists of time.

 

A rant

 

A rant

I don’t do rants very often; they’re counter productive and unattractive and downright whingeing. I’m all for meticulous counting of blessings and as far as is reasonable, looking on the bright side of everything.

But I can only stay positive for so long in the face of overwhelming patterns of negativity. And I have noticed once more a pattern in my life that is bugging the hell out of me.

Let me backtrack to the trigger. This recent brush with a possible new job has reminded me how often I have been on the very brink of something exciting and life changing, only to have it inexplicably withdrawn at the very last moment. I was on the train, on my way to an interview where I was considered the strongest of three candidates, when I get told the interview is cancelled. Nothing I can do, nothing I have done; it’s a fait accompli, someone else’s decision.

Over and over, the same thing has happened. Something comes up, it seems to be the very auspicious start of something important and then, flop, it dies. I confess I had a horrible fear of standing at the altar, and finding my groom had developed second thoughts and had gone to Marrakesh to ‘find himself’, but getting(and staying married) has been the one thing that has not turned into dust before it reached fruition. Going through the various stages of submissions to publishers and agents has had the same frustrating and maddening processes crop up again and again. A publisher contacts me, excited about the MS I have sent, telling me how much they like it and so on. Then, they change their mind: the slot they thought they had is no longer available, or some other reason. Or they like the initial sample chapters but find they don’t ‘love’ the whole thing. Or the agent who took me on who tried a few of his tame publishers(whom he’d obviously thought of to start with) and when they were unable to take the novel, dropped me without ever bothering to actually tell me why. That one still hurts a LOT.

It’s been the same with a fairly large number of other things, where it has seemed that something big was about to start, only to have it fizzle out before it came to anything. I am not talking about times where I have built castles in the air and been busy choosing the curtains when the dream ended, but all manner of projects and ideas, where someone else has contacted me to work on it.

Can someone please tell me just what am I doing wrong? I follow up as far as is possible with things, I work hard and yet, things just wither in the bud before they bloom. It’s happened often enough now to be a very obvious pattern in my life and I’m sick of it. It’s like living at a perpetual stutter, always in preparation for some elusive something that never really lives. Imagine constantly getting pregnant, and within weeks or months, having the baby die inside you and never finding out why or what you can do to prevent it happening again. That’s what it feels like.

In the end it’s not about this stupid job that never came to anything but about this pattern that repeats at regular intervals. I ask again: what am I doing wrong?

Rant over, thank you for listening.