On the cards

The ideas of the past, although half destroyed, being still very powerful, and the ideas which are to replace them being still in process of formation, the modern age represents a period of transition and anarchy.

Gustave Le Bon
The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, 1895
(Hock: ch. 6 – The House of Cards)

Whether biological or social, whether organism or organisation, all things are living processes, not constructed mechanisms, and none can be made to behave as though they were machines, in spite of all our illusions to the contrary. None, at bottom, are controllable, and science, mathematics, and measurement can never bring them to compelled behaviour. We may damage them severely. We may destroy them utterly. But we cannot change or compel their essential nature or behaviour. Life will never surrender its secrets to a yardstick.

(Hock: ch. 7 – Nothing to Lose)

Dee Hock
The Birth of The Chaordic Age, 1999

At the end of another tumultuous day in British politics I lifted a favourite book from my shelves and remembered why, upon first reading, I believed it ought to be required reading for anyone aspiring to any form of leadership at all …

… we cannot change or compel their essential nature or behaviour

I’m profoundly pro-European. But wouldn’t the entire project benefit (within the EU and in a post-Brexit Britain) – from some considered reflection upon that advice?

Can the nations of the earth, politically, socially and religiously, learn to be chaordic? – “dominated by neither chaos or order” … characterised by “the fundamental organising principles of evolution and nature.”

Together.

Tonight I hope so. And longer-term I also believe so.

An axiom

I have an abiding image of the late, great Irish poet John O’Donohue sitting at his peat fireside, notebook and pen at hand, apparently completely at peace with the world. A big man with a big and generous heart. Again and again his words are a tonic to me.

The great law of life is to be yourself. Though this axiom sounds simple it is often a difficult task. To be yourself you have to learn how to become the person you were dreamed to be. Each person has a unique destiny. To be born is to be chosen. There is something special that each of us has to do in the world. If someone else could do it they would be here and not us. One of the fascinating questions is to decipher what one’s destiny is. At the heart of each destiny is hidden a unique life calling. What are you called to do? In old-fashioned language: what is your vocation in life? When you find that what you are doing is what you love, what you were brought here to do, it makes for a rich and contented life. You have come into the rhythm with your longing. Your work and your action emerge naturally: you don’t have to force yourself. Your energy is immediate. Your passion is clear and creative. A new calling can open the door into the house of your vision and belonging. You feel at home in your life. Heart and hearth at one.

John O’Donohue

Yes: a big man – whose heart was – and remains – a hearth.

Kingfishers

Words are fools
Who follow blindly, once they get a lead.
But thoughts are kingfishers that haunt the pools
Of quiet; seldom-seen …

Siegfried Sassoon
from Limitations

“Words are fools / Who follow blindly” said Sassoon, the poet of the First World War – who loved the glories of measured words, whilst well understanding that they’re a tool that can be misused with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

In post-EU Referendum days here in the UK we’re feeling what it is to be a society convulsed by words-induced panic. I, for one, am glad to observe that there appears to be a great deal of feeling being experienced in the midst of it all – for it’s often the case that when human beings really feel something at gut and heart level they’re a little less likely to be brow-beaten by orators great and small.

My little X-in-the-box on Referendum day was not so much informed by words as by emotion. And that emotion, that feeling, tells me – every bit as much today as it has ever done – that what human beings can do together, what nations and continents can do together, we ought to do together.

Perhaps the present leadership vacuum need not be wholly lamented since it affords at least a little space for  kingfishers that haunt the pools / Of quiet; seldom seen …

Of high solitude

Eagles and isles and uncompanioned peaks,
The self-reliant isolated things
Release my soul, embrangled in the stress
Of all days’ crass and cluttered business:
Release my soul in song, and give it wings;
And even when the traffic roars and rings,
With senses stunned and beaten deaf and blind,
My soul withdraws into itself, and seeks
the peaks and isles and eagles of the mind.

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
Eagles and Isles: from Islands, 1932

I’ve had a lifelong appetite for quietness, even when I’m not deliberately seeking silence. Here, for me, the poet’s use of “embrangled” is a good description of the distress in the lives of countless human persons “stunned and beaten deaf and blind”. It rings clear – “befuddled” has a similar effect – and is probably the word in this poem that calls to mind for me Wendell Berry’s And we pray, not / for new earth or heaven, but to be / quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. / What we need is here.

One of the many quietly peaceful attributes my grandmother possessed – undimmed even in her later years by the discomforts of extreme old age and infirmity – was her ability to appreciate all that she had. I can’t think of a single occasion when she expressed dissatisfaction with her lot. Neither materialist on the one hand, nor blind to the joys of safety, good food, her faith, her husband, home and family on the other, she was rarely, if ever, agitated.

Can I be content with my lot? Perhaps I (or any of us) can if I spend less time wishing for a “new earth or heaven” (or more money, or better governance, or power, or …)  and contemplate instead – along with eagles and isles and uncompanioned peaks – that for the most part what we need is here. Idealism! Idealism! – I hear the cry. And of course I’m well aware of the plight of countless nations and peoples who are in genuine need. But the world’s wars and roars of discontent appear to be adding only to its stresses.  I can’t help but think that I’ll live better upon the earth if  my daily starting point first recognises the goodness and the provision in what’s already here.

Generative action

The action in a universe of possibility may be
characterised as generative, or giving, in all
senses of that word – producing new life, creating
new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning,
contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. The
relationship between people and environments is
highlighted, not the people and things themselves.
Emotions that are often relegated to the special
category of spirituality are abundant here: joy,
grace, awe, wholeness, passion and compassion.

Rosamund Stone Zander
Benjamin Zander
The Art of Possibility, page 20

What would “a universe of possibility” look like? There are times when the assorted tumults of this world give rise to some measure of despair in all humane and thinking persons. At such times we do well to afford ourselves some breathing space, some time for imagination’s being given free rein. What would such a universe look like?

Ben and Rosamund Zander dream dreams. I turn to their wonderful book wherever and whenever I need a bit of a lift. What would such a universe look like? … joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion and compassion … generative and giving.

But time does fly …

Day’s end arrived too quickly today! More than satisfactory though. Just that I’ve currently got five books on the go, several photographic and writing projects, visits and visitors, and intense absorption in the birdlife of our garden here. There are quite usually twenty to thirty birds about at any time from dawn to dark – blackbird, blue tit, chaffinch, dunnock, goldfinch, great tit, jackdaw, sparrow and thrush. And house-martins and swallows on the wing.

The jackdaws are a bit of a pest – not so much to us as to the smaller birds because their appetite and size means that food supplies are dwarfed. So today we’ve added a super new squared trellis to the front of our log-store, otherwise empty during the summer months, and hung our assorted feeders within it. Jackdaws kept out. Little chaps safe within! An ornithological dining room. Ah, how they, and the days fly …

Most of the time

8am – Sometimes one doesn’t have time to write. In fact most of the time we don’t have time to write. Most of the time we don’t have time to be with ourselves …

11am – Sometimes after having found a small space to write, one finds another one that day, and another. That is because as soon as you sit down to write in the first place, something begins to flow. And it doesn’t stop moving after that. It keeps on flowing through your day …

Burghild Nina Holzer
A Walk Between Heaven and Earth

Actually, it just can not be healthy, can it? It can’t be good for us, physically, mentally or spiritually to run around like headless chickens kidding ourselves that we don’t have time. It’s Mad Hatter stuff. Late, late, always late for a very important date! – except the date’s just kiddology. Half the time there’s no really pressing date, and we ain’t late.

We ain’t late. And we’re fundamentally built to create. The daily business of creative expression is, precisely, what it means to be human person, what people of religious persuasion might call being made “in the image of God / Creator”. Made to imitate a purpose: to create.

So, amongst other things, I’ve spent some time in the past few days laying the foundations of a new online “garden studio”; a home base for writing – a gathering place for “just the way some things are” – arts, books, contemplation, film, flash fiction, journal, meditation, reflection, painting, photography, poetry, prose.

Here something begins to flow. You’re welcome to stop by and say hello; welcome to celebrate having time; welcome to a gently evolving, fairly relaxed and thankful space, welcome to writing in light.

A turning aside

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R S Thomas
Collected Poems, page 302

I’ve noticed sunlight especially at various times and in various places in the past few days. If you close your eyes and think of a high mountainside in shade, or of a high street freshly washed with heavy rain from leaden sky – and stay with that for a moment: and then become aware of a sudden sweeping, a bright swathe of sunlight rolling out like a silk sheet across everything you can see in front of you, then you’ll readily recall the kind of experience I’m talking about.

Such a sight often stops me in my tracks when out and about. And today the flowers in our cottage garden have several times suddenly flared into the three dimensional – banishing greyness, demanding to be noticed.

And I’m always grateful when I do. And I’m always mindful that I need to more. And also always thankful to recall the wisdom of a great and reflective contemplative who inclined at times to the curmudgeonly but was, nevertheless, a channel for – as well as one most particularly attuned to – miracles of revelation.

Life is not hurrying … it is the turning aside to the miracle of the lit bush …

And I look back at the course of the hours of the day, and remind myself of the times and of the places when and where the “light” has caught my eye – and know that ground so touched is holy.

Infinitely patient

We’re just back from a whirlwind tour of old friends – North to South down one side of the country, and South to North up the other side again. And by way of the miracle of the iPad I was in touch with another treasured friend in the US via our car’s front passenger seat, whilst in a traffic queue on the M1!

Old friends have the patience of Job. One recently gave me a beautiful greeting card with the message

The best mirror is an old friend …

And I’m immeasurably grateful to friends old and new, and often wonder whether they know what a life sustaining presence they have been and are in my life. The travelling to meet with friends becomes mirrored by the travelling through shared history. And writing, for me, is an old friend too. Reflecting this evening upon a happy couple of days away I turned again to another journal …

Talking to paper is talking to the divine. Paper is infinitely patient. Each time you scratch on it, you trace part of yourself, and thus part of the world, and thus part of the grammar of the universe. It is a huge language, but each of us tracks his or her particular understanding of it.

Burghild Nina Holzer
A Walk Between Heaven and Earth

That’s absolutely it! Whether talking or listening to persons or to paper (and I do both) – we’re engaged in dialogue with the divine – and enriched again and again by another’s “particular understanding of it”.

Conjoined bubbles

I’ve been celebrating the “energy” in a friend – how it alights upon the borders of the lives of others, and also upon their inner lives, and their senses.

Rather like the occasional conjoining of the rainbow-reflective bubbles my grandchildren love to blow on sunny summer days – as their parents did before them, and my siblings and I, and our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents – the energy in us and in all creation is always and everywhere gliding into the orbits of life-energy in others.

And sometimes the connection raises a smile, a sudden awareness, an appreciation. Even where eye-contact is ordinarily avoided. Even in the rush and tumble of the steep-rising elevator in the London Underground station I rose upwards and out of the other day there is, sometimes, marvellously if fleetingly, a deep, deep recognition of a oneness, a unity in and amongst extraordinary diversity. In the sense of poetry’s meaning “to make something” every expression of life is a unique and distinctive contribution to the richness and precision of the poetic.

In the process of writing, your energy gradually begins appearing in every line; eventually the lines don’t resemble anyone else’s because they are all composed of your energy

Robert Bly

Your energy – which is also shared energy – variously expressed, through you and through me, underground, and upwards and onwards, to the highway and the light.

The Wind on the Downs

The Wind on the Downs

I like to think of you as brown and tall,
As strong and living as you used to be,
In khaki tunic, Sam Brown belt and all,
And standing there and laughing down at me.
Because they tell me, dear, that you are dead,
Because I can longer see your face,
You have not died, it is not true, instead
You seek adventure in some other place.
That you are round about me, I believe;
I hear you laughing as you used to do,
Yet loving all the things I think of you;
And knowing you are happy, should I grieve?
You follow and are watchful where I go;
How should you leave me; having loved me so?

We walked along the towpath, you and I,
Beside the sluggish-moving, still canal;
It seemed impossible that you should die;
I think of you the same and always shall.
We thought of many things and spoke of few,
And life lay all uncertainly before,
And now I walk alone and think of you,
And wonder what new kingdoms you explore.
Over the railway line, across the grass,
While up above the golden wings are spread,
Flying, ever flying overhead,
Here still I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate.

Marian Allen
from The Wind on the Downs,
Humphreys, 1918

Friendships, peace, and freedom of movement in Europe and beyond are of profound importance to me.

I’ve always failed to understand the attraction of too-proud-nationalism – on the battlefield or the sports arena. I cannot begin to imagine the horror of being required to take up arms against another person.

I cannot be persuaded that my political, religious or social beliefs and opinions are the only ones worth having. I have virtually no inclination to set myself in competition with anyone. I’m frequently dumbstruck by the casual violence implicit in the way some people speak of others.

I smiled wryly when I recently read an earnest report about the (relatively benign) effects of light pollution, wishing dearly for higher concentration instead on the thumping noise pollution that blights town and countryside alike. I’m genuinely and generally horrified by the uninvited racket that accompanies such a great deal of cinematic and television output, and even just ordinary social engagement.

And I am frequently beleaguered by the impression that some in our society are absolutely obsessed with gratuitous violence as forms of filmed and televised “entertainment”.

I was touched to the core when I first read Marian Allen’s The Wind on the Downs. I felt I knew her. But more, more even than that, my heart was touched by the millions of other hearts who, for similar reasons, have written poems like this one throughout human history; and by those who are writing similar poetry today, and will be – perhaps with stubby pencil on scraps of paper whilst crammed on board a dangerously overloaded inflatable boat, or perched in the midst of bombed-out dusty concrete dereliction in Syria, tomorrow.

Here still I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate.

I want to learn from Marian Allen’s humility, and from the sacrifice of her beloved. And I pray for a personal way of life, and for a humankind, whose first and last priority is – here-and-now – a generously humble, inclusive, quietly reflective and loving heart.

Axis mundi

Medicine Man Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) was “a Lakota of the Ogalala Band” who also practiced Christianity in the Roman Catholic tradition. When suddenly taken ill at nine years old, Black Elk had a great vision in which he was visited by the Thunder Beings (Wakinyan), and taken to the Grandfathers — spiritual representatives of the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above and below — who were “represented as kind and loving, full of years and wisdom, like revered human grandfathers”, and on to the centre of the earth, and to the central mountain of the world, a recurring religious symbol that mythologist Joseph Campbell calls axis mundi, the pole around which all revolves.

As Black Elk related to John Neihardt:

… while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.

Raymond J DeMallie
The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s teachings
given to John G Neihardt

Again and again I feel drawn to meditate upon circles, and the planets in their courses, and the axis mundi they revolve around; and cantus firmus, the enduring melody, ever present at the heart of all things; and the wisdom of all the philosophy and the religious traditions I’ve loved and learned from; and the poetry and other expressions of art that have found a home in my soul; and the people and animals, mountains and plains, lakes, rivers and seas, trees and flowers, and the timely round of the seasons upon the tilled, warmed and watered earth.

And I delight in the encircling thought that there’s no need for me to wonder which animal, or commodity, or community, or flower, or food, or gender, or hate, or idea, or literature, or love, or melody, or moon, or nation, or ocean, or person, or philosophy, or plant, or poetry, or prose, or psalm, or prayer, or religion, or science, or sense, or species, or star, or sun, or territory, or time, or tree – or anything at all, in all creation, dead or alive – is “first”. No need – because in the great ecology of life all things are embraced by the one Great Circle.

And I see that it is holy.

Following the wrong god home

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star

William Stafford
from A Ritual to Read to Each Other
The Way It Is – New & Selected Poems, page 75

The English parliamentarian Jo Cox has been posthumously described in many quarters as a star. Amongst the attributes that made her a light in many lives, and in many parts of the world, her compassion shines like a lighthouse warning of treacherous passage.

Compassion – “a suffering with”, in whomsoever it is found, provides all humankind with a wake-up call.

In a world grown used to assessment by way of soundbites in lieu of personal encounter we’re perhaps too ready, too often, and too quickly, to judge another about whom we really know nothing at all.

We ought not to disregard the wise counsel of lighthouses, nor that of the well-informed and the bravely compassionate – lest “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world”.

No need to make a god of the extra-contextual judgment I might too hurriedly make about you, or your country of origin, or your passions, needs, loves, intentions, hopes, heart, dreams or aspirations. Better that I make the effort, always and everywhere, to “know the kind of person you are” – ever-ready to bless your own kindness in seeking really to “know the kind of person I am”.

It’s the silence

For MWG

It’s the silence that’s the really important
thing – three or four times a day if that’s
remotely possible

It’s the silence that’s the really important
thing because the cave-like walls around the
edges of the no-noise afford resounding
echoes of the silent music you really need to
remember, the in-breath, the out-breath, the
heartbeat, the murmur

Not so much THE, actually, but rather hers, or
his, your own dear co-creators who gaze out
lovingly, with attentive eye and ear and scent
and taste and touch, from the very heart and
source of an infinite waterfall that heals and
raises dead things buried deep in damp earth
and irrigates the depths of the soul

It’s the silence that’s the really important
thing – three or four times a day if that’s
remotely possible

because that’s where the deepest encounters
take place, that’s where you meet vivacity
that’s where you know that because She’s still
breathing, singing, laughing, being, weeping,
growing, making – so, too, in all eternity

you are, in I AM

SRM