Seeing potential or seeing reality ~ why I’m not a good judge of character.

 

Seeing potential or seeing reality ~ why I’m not a good judge of character.

 

I dreamed last night of someone I’ve had no contact with for five years, someone who I was close friends with at university and for some years afterwards. Five years ago, our sputtering friendship sputtered out altogether in a heated exchange of emails that began as what I thought was an exploration of an area of metaphysics she’d become heavily involved with and ended with me being lambasted for not choosing to take on everything she believed to be true. At the time I was shocked and upset because it felt as though one of my oldest friends had turned on me and tried to rip me to shreds. It felt like it had come out of left-field and was completely unpredictable.

After years of intermittent reflection, I’ve realised it was very much a part of the patterns she’d already exhibited. I’d just never got in the way before. My only big hint was when I’d remarked that a company she was involved in back in the mid nineties, (which sold over-priced aloe vera products with some very grandiose claims) came remarkably close to being pyramid selling. This provoked a brief but fiery diatribe (fronted with those immortal words, “with respect”) along the lines that I knew nothing whatsoever about it and should just shut the **** up. I did. Analysing every scheme, company or church she was ever involved with now makes me see that she was far from the person I believed her to be.

We met when I was 18 and she a few years older and at that time she was very kind and caring. She helped me through some tough times. The long nights putting the world to rights, not to mention each other, showed me what at the time I thought was her true self.

Now I am far from sure. I think I saw her potential, and I acted for the duration of our friendship as if that potential were a here-and-now reality. So the final bitter exchange of words in email came as a huge shock to me, as if she’d changed so drastically from the person I’d thought I’d known. I can see now that she hadn’t changed at all. That in itself was the problem. The person I saw her becoming never arrived.

I’ve done this constantly in my life, but thankfully, so far only four friendships have ended in this way, when reality and my belief in someone’s potential have collided so violently there has been nothing left to salvage. It last happened over a year ago, and the pain it caused me was immense. But conversely, the discoveries it brought me might actually be worth that distress.

I seldom see just who a person is now without also seeing beside them a kind of ghostly hologram of their possible self, which shines and glows and is sometimes so compelling I can become entranced by that potential I forget ( if I ever realised) that this is not what they are now but who they might become. It’s this aspect of it that makes keener the grief of loss when a friendship ends, because it’s not merely the death knell of a relationship that enriched me, but it’s also a very real death of an unborn, unrealised shining soul. Of course, this seems very arrogant to imagine that the severing of my links with a person means that they won’t become a greater being; that’s not what I mean. It means that I will never get to see that transformation.

In the case of my old friend, I can only see a deepening of her flaws and when I saw a recent picture of her, I can see no joy in her eyes, joy that I know I saw once, when we were both young and hopeful of what life might bring us.

Time brings wisdom if we allow it, and now I wonder if I ought to try and NOT see the shining being standing alongside those I meet. Have I the right to impose my visions on others, with my unconscious expectations of their journeys? I do not know the answer to this. But treating everyone as the person they might one day become may be just the factor they need to achieve it, by having someone who believes in them now.

If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

 

Blind-sided by the bright side

Blind-sided by the bright side

(I wrote this article in August 2010, but the day I wrote it, I had some terrible news and I never finished it or put it up. I think it bears reading, even though I am still unable to complete it.)

I have been thinking long and hard about how to respond to a variety of things lately. I woke up at dawn thinking about how the whole alternative health, wealth and positive thinking community seems to view the world and how much is spoken about “being IN the moment” and “shifting perspective” and somehow how they can choose to shape their lives.

There’s a lot of stuff talked about being in the moment. Most of it is utter rubbish. The most powerful way to “be in the moment” is to suffer severe and chronic pain, whether this is physical, mental or emotional. I suffer with all three(I leave out spiritual because that’s an obvious one for any being with compassion in this world) on a regular basis. There is no cure for any of them. Not one of the conditions I have has a cure, as such. That’s wearing, knowing that. I think there may be perhaps five days a month where I don’t suffer some physical pain and I face the choice of whether to endure the pain or somewhat disable myself by taking pain relief. In terms of mental and emotional pain, there is no anodyne for that you can swallow as a pill or rub on. Much of what I do in terms of writing and thinking is my own work towards living with the pain. The important thing is that I do not know whether it will cease. The most enthralling thing about watching a film or reading a book is wanting to find out if there is a happy ending; usually there are. In life, happy endings are not guaranteed. This is what makes life worth living. Telling me that wonderful things are going to happen when I change my perspective(can they guarantee this? No.) is harmful to my journey through the hard times.

Being in the moment means simply that; existing solely in that space without thought or concern for the next moment. Don’t make an assumption that the being in the moment is a sort of a magical precursor to making changes. It’s not. Being in the moment means that what comes next is a total surprise, good or bad. You cannot be in the moment AND think about what it is going to bring. It’s a logical impossibility.

 I’ve been in this sort of space before. There is nothing magical about it. Sometimes good things happen later, sometimes bad ones. It just IS. Telling me that something magical is going to happen if I shift my perspective is neither helpful, nor kind. It’s simply about them sharing their personal perspective in such a way as to diminish both my experience and me. It’s also slightly condescending. I don’t believe in magic, the way that many seem to, in the same way that I hated the 8 hours I spent in Disneyland and others loved it. We are different. My experience of being in this becalmed state is not yours. My journey is not yours.

Do you know the Monty Python film The Life of Brian? At the very end there is a scene where the hero is at a very unpleasant stage of his life indeed. Nailed to a cross one of the other characters starts harping on about how things might be worse and then the famous song “Always look on the bright side of life” ensues, as the credits begin to roll. It’s very funny in a sick sort of way, but I will make no bones about it: this is what some of the positive thinking brigade are doing. They are denying reality. Sometimes life really sucks. Sometimes the pain gets far, far too much. Being told at this point, either by someone else or by your own internal voice, to Look on the bright side is denying the reality. By denying the reality you are also denying yourself a very real chance to be in that moment and perhaps learn for the first time what that truly might mean. If you are always looking for the silver lining, you will never see the cloud. A cloud is itself a beautiful and marvellous thing; without them there would be no rain and the land would dry up and die. We need clouds, just as we need the dark side. Without the balance between the bright side and the dark, we are just smiling idiots without depth or breadth or meaning. It’s the interaction between the light and the dark, that dynamism of life, that makes living fully dimensional (choose how many dimensions; it’s currently in dispute how many there are)

I understand the very real temptation to try and cheer up someone in trouble or distress by telling them to look on the bright side; their pain can be hard for us to bear watching it. I have a compulsion to try and fix people. Sometimes I think this compulsion comes of wanting to somehow fix my own brokenness and other times I think it is out of real compassion. But sometimes compassion needs to step back and stand away while the experience is lived. If you find you have gained some sort of collateral benefit afterwards, great but this is a by-product. It is not the reason you went through it. It is not a reason for extolling the virtues of suffering.

Staying positive is touted as a way of overcoming everything from cancer to unemployment but the medical evidence is actually quite inconclusive. My thoughts are that if you can stay upbeat about an illness, without beating yourself into a frenzy of positivity, I admire you. In life terms, being positive has benefits such as you are less likely to give up trying, you see perhaps opportunities others may not and you step out expectant of things turning out well.

Tales of the Wellspring 3 ~ inspirations

Tales of the Wellspring 3 ~ inspirations

for part one visit Tales of the Wellspring 1

for part two visit Tales of the Wellspring 2

Once or twice in my life I have made a decision while under the influence of alcohol. Most of us have, if we’re honest about it and if we’re lucky nothing very untoward has come of it. The most life changing decision I almost made was on the strength of exhaustion, the exhilaration of moving to a new and very rural area, a childhood dream and several pints of Scrumpy Jack cider. Thankfully, I said I would sleep on it and come and view the horse the next day. Good sense kicked in with a mild hangover and though the horse was beautiful as a de-horned unicorn she had not been broken in and on the strength of the fact that I’ve never owned a horse before, let alone broken one in to bit, bridle and saddle, I said no.

I am relieved now that I didn’t go through with the purchase as I suspect it would have led to much heartache later. I’d also learned my lesson from something that had occurred in a pub about six years previously, though in that case it was the result of a pint and a half of Guinness and some persuasive friends.

It was a bit more than that really. My husband had been accepted for ordination training a few months previously, to commence to following autumn, and life was in a kind of free fall. We were gearing up to moving from Middlesbrough to Nottingham, selling our home and renting another and at this time our daughter was about 18 months old. There were so many uncertainties my head spins now to even think about it. We belonged to a Fellowship of Vocation group that supported those considering or entering ministry and it was after such a meeting that we decided to capitalise on having a babysitter and when the core of the group decamped to the pub afterwards, we joined them.

David, the group leader, was a Taizé fanatic and he set himself to convincing us to come that year. Taizé is a religious community in the far south of France famed for its music and its silence. Young people from all over the world visit for a kind of retreat. My objections were simple: we had virtually no money and we had a baby. Money? Ha, as we were at that time under a key age, we were able to pay the bare minimum, David told us. And there were lots of activities for children and so on.

So I said yes.

When the time came, I regretted the decision immensely. We were in the throes of selling our house and I was reluctant to go away at a crucial time. But we’d paid our initial deposit for coaches etc so we went. Let me tell you something: travelling from the North East of England to the South of France on a coach with a hyperactive two year old who doesn’t sleep was possibly one of the most challenging experiences. It took a full 24 hours and the last 12, driving across France was horrific. It got hotter and hotter. By the time we got there, the temperature was in the 80s.

I had had no sleep whatsoever and I don’t like heat anyway. Since I speak French, I sorted out where we were to be billeted and we trudged half a mile up the road to the farmhouse where those infirm or with tiny children were put. We found out later a minibus would have ferried us there but no one  thought to tell us. The old farmhouse was lovely, but in a state of some disrepair and the girl who was there to welcome us was Hungarian and spoke only basic English. She showed us to our room, which turned out to have a stone flagged floor and one single bed. At this point, I sat down on the bed and burst into tears.

We have a problem,” said the girl and left us alone.

Ten minutes later she came back with a very nice nun who spoke good English and found us first a room with two beds, and then a travel cot for the baby.

I didn’t like Taizé; it was full of too many people, and too much noise and bustle and confusion. I felt miserable and confused myself and I wanted to go home, desperately. I liked the Church, with its icons and its flickering candles but I didn’t like the service I went to the first evening. Hypnotic repetitions of simple songs wound my nerves up to breaking point and I could see everyone else falling under the sway of it, becoming entranced and I felt angry and excluded. I tried to get into the spirit of it but couldn’t. Total fail. We also had to share child care because it turned out at just short of 2 years old our daughter was considered too young to be in any of the kid’s activities without one of us being present. So we had to turn and turn about participating in services and study groups.

We’d been there about three days, and I had become resigned to being there and was just keeping my head down and trying to get as much out of it as I could. I felt a massive sense of disappointment; it was just not what I had hoped it would be for me. I blamed myself, because I’ve always been useless at anything with groups. Then my husband said, have you found the Chapel of the Wellspring yet?

Simple answer, no. I’d not even known it was there. I went and looked at it next time it was my turn to be baby-free. It looked…..intriguing. It looked like a cross between a B&Q summer-house and an Orthodox church. A rough wooden roof over decking but an onion dome on the very top. I stood for a moment looking at it. Inside, candles flickered by icons and in the middle was a trough of water. I went in and sat down. There were only benches or prayer stools and it was simply nice to be out of the glare of the sun. The little structure was filled with the fragrance of cedar-wood and of the branches of box that were stapled to the frame (I still don’t know why) and the sweeter smell of candles. The birdsong outside was muted and after a few seconds I could hear only a trickle of water. Below this structure was a real spring and the water was channelled from below into the stone trough at the heart of the little chapel. The heat of the day was so intense that the slow trickle of water from deep in the earth kept the trough filled but it rarely overflowed. After I had sat there for a while, I could smell the water: cool, and fresh, filtered through layers of ancient rock and earth. I went and knelt by the stone basin that held it and touched it. The refreshment went somehow beyond the coolness of water on a hot day; the water felt newborn and ancient at the same time. I did not drink, but I did touch my face with the water.

From that point on this place became my touchstone for getting to grips with whatever was raging inside me. I would come in and sit in silence and after a short while what had bothered me had melted away. There was a power there I cannot describe, and even writing about it now, I feel the silence and hear and smell the water. Before we left to go home, I bought a pendant with a simple representation of the wellspring, two lines of waving blue and it came with a tiny card that has sat on or near my desk in the 20 or so years since then.

It has the same quote from the Book of Proverbs in five languages, reflecting the multi-lingual nature of Taizé:

More than all else keep watch over your heart since here are the wellsprings of life.” Pr.4 v 23 

I’ve wished every day since we left that I had that Chapel of the Wellspring somewhere that I could visit every day; wanted to live in a home where the garden held a spring I could meditate by and be healed constantly of the pain life can bring me. It’s taken me those intervening twenty years to start to understand that in reality, I do.

     https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/strangers-and-pilgrims/

Feeling what I feel, knowing what I feel ~ giving myself permission to experience my own emotions

Feeling what I feel, knowing what I feel ~ giving myself permission to experience my own emotions

Sounds odd, doesn’t it? There’s surely nothing more personal than one’s own feelings. But sometimes it gets too hard to even allow them to rise to the surface long enough to be identified.

A great cauldron of seething emotions bubbling away, a gumbo of pain, with things bobbing to the surface briefly in a haze of steam, I stir frantically to make those weird shaped blobs vanish, homogenise the broth, make it acceptable, make it like every other soup poured from a can. Make it what people expect and want from soup. Whenever something surfaces, I don’t want to look them squarely in the eye, because it hurts. That vat of soup is me, and what went into it is me, and what bobs up, unappetising and decidedly gruesome is me. Those ugly lumps are me. I don’t like it. Pop it in the blender, whizzle it up and serve it with a splash of cream and a twist of black pepper. Can’t serve peasant stew at a dinner table, people might choke on the bits. They might chew on the gristle and leave it shamingly on their side plate. They might even question the integrity of the chef.

A large dark shape erupts from the simmering, shimmering surface of the broth: FEAR. It’s dark and ill-defined. I can’t see the edges properly, or what it’s made of but I can see a thousand wild, dead eyes gazing blankly at me, and teeth. It looks like a teratoma , a monster from the medical text books. Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. It’s part of me, but you could never dress this up with baby bonnets and shawls. I stir, my spoon a weapon and I thrust the mass of strangeness down and hope no one saw it. If they know that’s what’s in my soup, no one will ever want to taste it.

The steam clears again and another shape rises to the surface, glistening with oil but fiery red. ANGER. It looks like the world’s hottest chilli pepper, lethal with heat and ready to burn your tongue and whole digestive tract. No, no, no. I don’t want people to know this is an ingredient. It’s vicious. It burns everything it touches. Down it goes, holding it down with the spoon hoping the heat of the cooking with destroy it. How did I ever think to let such a thing in?

A sad blob like a dead octopus washed up on a winter beach heaves into view: LONELINESS. Stringy and slimy, with tentacles that sucker onto anything even if the damn thing is dead, this is far from tasty fare and hideous to look at. Down it goes; I hit it with the spoon and feel the rubbery surface more resilient than I thought. It won’t break up even when I bash at it, so I stir rapidly to keep it submerged.

In the centre of the soup, all my stirring has created a whirlpool and I can see a great empty void where the ingredients swirl way. It’s SADNESS and it’s creating a horrible vacuum that pulls everything into it. I stop stirring and watch with relief as the surface settles to a rolling boil.

I stand and I watch, letting the spoon fall from my hands and I salt the stew with my own tears, letting each acid drop fall into the mix.

I wish I could say it worked magic. But it does season the brew. It might taste good if you ever had the courage to try it. Just don’t look at what it’s made of. You’d never be able to swallow if you did.

(just for reference, I’ve been using a meditation cd from http://www.flowerspirit.co.uk/ for emotional healing. Jackie has a wonderful voice that makes me feel calm and safe. Check her out.)

Love 4

 

Love 4

 

How long does it take for love to fade,

From first flicker to the last dying embers?

How long does it take for love to change,

From passion to complete indifference?

Is the death of love the birth of hate?

The end of care the start of cursing?

From second glance to the final look,

How long does it take for love to die?

Passion is a flame that burns us all:

Sometime, somewhere, someone

Ignites this fire of feeling,

Starting with a tiny spark,

fragile and flickering.

Easily snuffed with unkind words

Smothered by too much desire

Too much need and expectation,

It may falter and then fail.

Nurtured, cupped within caring,

The pearl of fire can grow,

Blossom into blooming bright.

But as a fire needs fuel, and air,

Love needs food and freedom

To flourish, to burn constant,

Continue even when storms rage

And in the waiting quiet of winter,

When the banked up fire glows,

That solid vestal flame may become

A brilliant beacon to warm and inspire

Those beyond the simple hearth-place

To cherish too their love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dead Men by Richard Pierce

Dead Men by Richard Pierce.

 

If you cast your mind back a few months, I hosted Richard’s post about Captain Scott’s fateful last expedition and about his novel Dead Men. I’ve been intending to write a review for it for ages, but life keeps intervening and I’ve only now go a chance to do it.

I admit I bought the book because of the fictionalised account of Scott’s last days, and I also confess that when Richard said on Twitter that the story is a love story, I was put off, simply because of a knee jerk response to the idea of romance. Silly me. There’s a world of difference between a love story and romance, and this book is not just one love story but numerous ones.

There’s a love story set in the modern day, between the distant relative of one of Scott’s men trying to find out how her relative really died, and the hesitant, gentle Adam who rescues her when she faints on the train.

There’s the very British love story between Scott and his beloved wife, all duty and stiff-upper lips and such solid passionate love beneath the propriety.

There’s the equally British love story of the devotion Scott’s men had for him and vice versa. First person to whisper “bromance” will get a snowball in the face, one with a chunk of ice in it. This is a love from another, more innocent era, an old fashioned relationship that we seldom see these days without someone pouring dirt on it.

And then there’s the love affair Richard himself has with the snowy wastes of Antarctica and the whole ill-fated but noble expedition.

The love-affair between Adam and the spiky, unreadable Birdie Bowers (named after her distant relative) is far from romantic to me. It has levels of real pain and discomfort between the two characters; Adam falls heavily and almost instantly in love with the volatile and difficult Birdie, but it’s far from easy for them. Her obsessions come in the way, and Adam’s reticence and reluctance to be hurt again come between them again and again. It’s not comfortable to read, if you like Happy Ever After type love stories.

Nor is it comfortable to read the fictionalised narrative about Scott’s last days and the aftermath of family, colleagues and other explorers. You feel for their distress and grief, deeply.

While neither strand of narrative is comfortable, they’re so deeply compelling that you read on, oblivious of the passing of time. I read my copy on the train back from attending a book signing Richard was holding in Suffolk. Meticulously researched, the background is woven in seamlessly to such an extent that you don’t even notice you’re being subtly educated about all things Polar. There’s even a companion volume available, containing a lot of Richard’s notes and sources.

My only complaint is it is too short. I read most of it in a few hours on a train. Richard has made every word count, painting vivid pictures using spare, Impressionist brush strokes that have depth and richness.

If you are looking for a truly “cool”summer read, this will transport you back a hundred years and take you into the icy places where heroism still lives, while keeping you with one foot in the busy modern world, and the love-affairs that tie the two eras together.

High Places and Holy Ground ~ Sacred Spaces in the City

High Places and Holy Ground ~ Sacred Spaces in the City

One of the greatest perks of my job working as a courier and tour guide is that I get to visit places I’d perhaps never normally go to. People say when I am off to Paris, how exciting, aren’t you lucky and things like that, but the truth of it is I am not a city person at all. I find cities hard to deal with, and one of the things I do when I don my uniform on the morning of departure is also to put in place what I call my “game face”, which goes deeper than merely my face. I have to adopt a mindset where I can cope with the problems I experience with frenetic places crowded with thousands of people, and the attendant sensory overload that can afflict me. It’s a good job it’s time limited because I can only do it for so long before the cracks start to show. Usually by the time I get to my hotel room at night, I’m longing for solitude and silence like a parched traveller seeking a spring in the desert. It helps when the group are pleasant and the teachers friendly, but even so, I’m so relieved to shed my shell along with my uniform.

But cities have places where the numinous peeps through, and my tours usually take in a few of those. Sacre Coeur in Paris is one of those. Set like a fairytale castle on the top of the Butte of Montmarte, the shining white basilica draws the eye from anywhere in the city. Ascent is either by hundreds of steep steps or, if you wish, by funicular railway. There is no parking up there, so while you can get a car up there, this is simply for deliveries. The stone it is built from secretes calcite constantly, renewing the whiteness in a city of ten million souls and almost as many cars. Built between 1870 and finally consecrated in 1919, the basilica was aimed at expiating the excesses of the Third Empire and the chaos and death of the Paris commune, the church is maintained solely by gifts, and is run by an order of nuns who have had their convent up there for many years. They also have a vineyard that makes very fine wine.

When you go inside, the atmosphere hits you even before you have a chance to look around. Light from a thousand candles flickers, and the scent of hot wax fills the air. Incense has a ghostly remnant of scent. The architecture of the building, the vast mosaic in the central dome, and the hush of people trying to be silent add to it. One night we came in while the nuns were singing night prayer; it was just how you might imagine angels singing.

I take school children there, usually teenagers, and before we go inside I explain that whether they have beliefs or not, they need to be silent and respectful. The guardians will eject anyone inappropriately dressed or who talk loudly after a first warning. Photography is forbidden. Usually I put on a scarf out of respect for older traditions of covering my head. There’s generally not a lot of time so I explain before we go in how long they have. Some walk in and round and then walk out. Others…..well, it has an effect. Once we are outside and on our way, there’s always a kid who comes up to me and says something along these lines: “I’m not religious at all….but…..” and then they grind to a halt and start stumbling over words and similes. During the time that follows, others usually confide in me that they felt something they’d never quite felt before. It also generally defies definition and explanation.

I had an excellent conversation with one of the kids about it, when I was in Paris on Thursday and Friday last week. She thought that the fact that you couldn’t chatter and take photos really made the place extra special, because you could do that everywhere else. Another child told me it was the first time she’d felt safe enough to let go her clutch on her bag. This place is set aside from normal activities. People are at prayer all around. Behind the high altar, the Host is kept, the communion that the faithful believe is the body of Christ. Statues of saints keep stony and stern watch, their faces human and flawed.

Notre Dame, in the historical centre of Paris has a different atmosphere. You can take photos and quiet talking is permitted. Even though it is a far more ancient church, dating from the twelfth century and built upon an older cathedral, itself built upon a Temple to Jupiter, in turn built upon a druid site, it’s atmosphere is not so dense. I’ve never been in while a service was being conducted; while you do see people praying, there are fewer, and those who light candles are often doing so just for the sake of lighting a candle. There is a shop for souvenirs in the main body of the church while at Sacre Coeur the shop is tucked away, in a side room, and not constantly open.

I cannot begin to explain what creates the overwhelming feeling that Sacre Coeur gives to many visitors but I think some factors can be listed. Sacre Coeur is only accessible if you make the effort of climbing the steps. It has a community who live and work there and who also work to aid the many beggars you see in Paris. It guards the sacred space from mindless chatter and the flash of cameras. It was built as a gesture to make right wrongs of the whole city, not to glorify the wealth of one man (Notre Dame was commissioned by Archbishop Sully). And it is a place of constant prayer; open day and night, there is always someone from the community present and at prayer.

Whether you believe in prayer or not, many do, and perhaps the power of that collective belief also adds to the sense of the sacred, the awe-inspiring atmosphere.

You are not here to verify, instruct yourself or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” T.S Eliot, Little Gidding (Four Quartets)

If it is indeed prayer than creates and holds sacred space intact, then there are oases of sacred space tucked away in every city on earth. Many languish, becoming tourist traps like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, losing their numinous atmosphere with the tramp of feet and the mundane chatter and the flash of cameras.

One of my ambitions is to create sacred space in my own home, a place set aside to be a spring of quietness and peace. Perhaps one day I may achieve it. By carrying in my soul the quiet of places I have visited I can one day add my own measure of prayerfulness to the deep well that our collective awareness creates within the wider world.