Discomfort is relative

Last month I went to Crete. The return flight didn’t get into Edinburgh till 1.30am and the first train out to Lockerbie, where I’d left my car, wasn’t till 8.30am so I made the decision to sleep in the airport rather than try to find accommodation for a few hours. It was cold, uncomfortable and I wasn’t able to sleep at all, despite my fatigue. But it was interesting, on quite a few levels.

I used to run a Duke of Edinburgh Award when I was working and had to do some of my mountian leadership training in winter. So I’ve slept in tents up mountains in all weathers, waded through waist-high icy-cold streams, belayed people off hills when my hands could barely move with the cold, but lying on a draughty bench in the arrivals part of an airport dressed only in a coat, jeans and jumper, was way more difficult. I take my hat off to rough sleepers who do this all year round.

As a writer I like to have experiences that stretch me a bit out of my comfort zone so that I can empathise with characters whose lives I’ve created different from mine. In my next novel one of my characters ends up on the streets, but actually living on the streets to experience this might be a step too far for me. I’m 67 with a long-term illness that is exacerbated by stress and requires daily medication, so in practical terms, that is a non-starter. However, there are lots of blogs and accounts written by homeless people about their lives that provide real insights into their thinking, fears and dreams, how they are treated by authorities and the general public, that makes for sobering reading.

One blog I came across is by gabfrab, a guy who lives in his car in Austin, Texas. Whilst some of his descriptions of eating out of bins, attempting to get laid, personal hygiene issues and living in car lots where crack and other addicts congregate make disturbing reading, he offers great insights into his way of life:

“I wish the world were more forgiving of the homeless, felt no need to interfere in someone’s life for no reason. I’m one of the lucky few. I have shelter. Good sleep. Money. I barely feel homeless. I  only remember that I am when it’s bedtime or I’m trying to find a woman to be in my life. Other than being alone I have it good. I walk the paths along the river, sit in my car outside the library and write. I swim the creek and hike the greenbelt trail through its rocky, weedy paths. Sometimes I’ll do fifteen miles in a day, others just a couple before I sit to sunbathe. These things are my routine but also the building blocks of a solitary life. I do everything alone. I don’t always like it but that’s the way it is. It’s hard to keep people in your life when you’re always drifting.” (https://gabfrab.com/2017/03/26/jizz-coffin)

He supports himself by being a lab rat in pharmaceutical trials. Despite having money he has chosen a life lived in his car, without emotional entaglements or responsibilities. Reading his blog is unsettling; I sit in the warmth and comfort of my own home, vicariously experiencing this young man’s ups and downs through his brutal honesty. My discomfort arises from my perceived notions of  ‘acceptable’ norms bumping against the reality of his situation. And it pales into insignificance compared to the actual discomfort experienced by homeless people everywhere.

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Time Out

“The habits of our lives have a powerful momentum that propels us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create? Our thoughts are not harmless. Thoughts manifest as actions, which in turn develop into habits, and our habits ultimately harden into character. Our unconscious relationship to thoughts can shape our perceptions, trigger reactions, and predetermine our relationship to the events of our lives.” (Frank Ostaseski The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully)

We all need time out to reflect, to look at where we’ve been, to decide where we want to go to, to examine the meaning in our lives. It’s been six months since my last blog and in that time I’ve been out of action for several reasons. I had a wonderful month holidaying in Canada followed by a writing week in a bothy in Scotland, then I was debilitated for almost four months from an infected dog bite. My focus during those four months was to get well and resume my life, but I found I was floundering trying to pick up the reins again. Always one for a bit of travel I decided to go to a writers’ retreat in Crete run by life coach, Emotion Code and Body Code practitioner, Vanessa Westwell,  (https://writersretreatcrete.com) to reflect on where I am and where I want to be.

The retreat is on the third floor of a very pleasant, light and airy apartment in the market town of Agios Nikolaos in East Crete with stunning views from the balcony over the town to the mountains and sea. The weather was perfect, between 25-28°C, with azure-blue skies and warm winds, just what I needed to unwind and shed all the stress of the previous months. Walking next to the sea, around the harbour and lake, admiring the sculptures and sitting in cafés drinking coffee or freshly squeezed orange juice, I could feel the knots loosen.

The retreat has a private writing room ajoining the bedroom and a private balcony connecting the two rooms. October is quiet, there are fewer tourists but still plenty of things to do. There is the old leper colony on the island of Spinalonga just a short boat ride away, an olive farm nearby where they make their own olive oil, grow their own herbs, make their own cheese and honey, run cookery and pottery classes. Just a few kilometers away there are ancient villages with white sugar-cube houses higgle-piggled on the mountainside, archeological sites, museums, galleries and for the more ambitious, hill walking and climbing. It’s an area rich in history and the Cretans are rightly proud of their heritage.

I decided to take the full board option and despite me being vegetarian and wheat intolerant, Vanessa rose to the occasion, furnishing me with delicious meals and snacks that made my stay so relaxing and enjoyable. I came home refreshed, buzzing with ideas, and more able to deal with life’s events that sometimes cause me to become unstuck. I can honestly say that a retreat in the sun can give your soul wings, and having a host as kind and caring as Vanessa is an added bonus.

“Success in life is less about what you do and more about what you allow yourself to become” (Clare Josa, Dare to Dream Bigger)

I’m allowing myself to become more relaxed and connected to my creativity in ways that enhance who I am, who I want to be, and how I want to live. Fully.

Fireflies and Haibuns

I’ve started working on a new collection of poems and decided to try my hand at haibun, a form I’ve never used before.

Haibun is a poetic form that focuses on nature and landscape and creates the sense of a journey, which can be internal or extrernal. A haibun is the combination of two poems, a prose poem and haiku, and the form was popularized by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Both the prose poem and haiku typically communicate with each other, though poets employ different strategies for this communication—some doing so subtly, while others are more direct.

Generally, a haibun consists of one or more paragraphs of prose written in a concise, imagistic haikai style, and one or more haiku. The prose part of the poem usually describes a scene or moment in an objective manner. Meanwhile, the haiku follows the typical rules for haiku and usually ends the poem as a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose of the beginning of the poem. Another way of thinking about the haibun is as a highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey that ends with a kind of murmur.

A haibun may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. The accompanying haiku may have a direct or subtle relationship with the prose and encompass or hint at the gist of what is recorded in the prose sections. However, there may be considerable variation of form.

In Robert Wilson’s series Vietnam Ruminations, a collection of individual haibun, each haiku begins the poem and the following prose is a piece of reportage or explanation:

Fireflies
on the water’s surface –
a house of mirrors.

Standing guard in the wee hours of the morning on the bow of the repair boat barge I was stationed on, was eerie, to say the least. You could never relax. Stories were told in the chow hall of Viet Cong frogmen who traveled across the small bay we were moored in, using hollow bamboo reeds to breathe through. Like ghosts, they appeared when a soldier’s guard was down. The only sound during this watch was the faint lapping of waves against the barge’s hull and the steady thump thump thump of my heart. In the distance, gunships sprayed the horizon with machine gun shells laced with tracers that lit up the sky. More than once, I saw my reflection in the water. At that time of the morning, at nineteen years of age, a variety of thoughts and questions danced in and out of my mind; some deeply introspective.

Whereas Stallion’s Crag by Ken Jones is a seamless collection of  haibun with the haiku at the end of the prose, as demonstrated in this extract:

The black tarmac strip comes to an end. The motor disappears back into the mountain silence. Down by the stream is a reception committee.

Three crows in a bare tree

proclaim the meaning of life

                            as usual

I give them a wave.

 

Ahead lies a broad valley. Great hills rise on every side, the grey bones of the mountain showing through their flanks. Here and there fans of scree spill down the slopes, and boulders litter the brown bogs. This is now a vast sheep walk, roadless, ruined and depopulated — a tumbled world of mist and bog, of looming and elusive shapes. There was once a notice at the farmhouse of Eisteddfa announcing that “The Notorious Hill of Plinlimmon is on the Premises and will be shown to any Gentleman Travellers who wish to see it.” All the literati who took up the offer seem to have had a bad time; Thomas Love Peacock, for example, wrote in 1855 about getting lost and soaked to the skin. And all this despite repeated warnings from the guidebook writers. One declared that “The Voluptuary will find little in this region to detain him.” And Benjamin Malkin, in 1804, warned that “it affords little food for the picturesque enthusiasms of those who venture on the laborious perils of the ascent”. He added that “it is the most dangerous mountain in Wales … and should not be attempted without a guide, whose attendance is very precarious.”

I soon dismissed this bleak, featureless wasteland when I first came here as a youth in search of excitement.  Even today there is only one car park, unofficial and usually empty. Instant drama begins further north, on Cadair Idris. There, if you spend only a night on the summit you will at least awaken either mad or a poet. On Pumlumon it takes longer. Half a century in my case.

Back on the mountain

my grey beard

soaking up the mist

 

Here at the road’s end there’s a keen wind blowing. Cold and rain are kept out by closely woven cotton, over finely spun lambswool, over Welsh flannel, over Japanese silk, over mortal skin. Dyed field grey, head to foot, and lightly waxed. Buckled snug down to the hips is a well worn backpack, with five days of green tea, frankincense, midge repellent, and much else, but not a word to read.

Contentedness

of mist and bog

miles of trudging solitude

I love the freedom that prose gifts to you and also enjoy the demands and constraints of the haiku. To combination these effectively will be a serious challenge, but then, life is all about change, of moving out of your comfort zone and going places you’ve never been before. To do otherwise is to stagnate.

Wish me luck.

 

From page to screen

I went to the cinema last night to see The Railway Man and was once again disappointed that the film lacked integrity or any loyalty to the book. It’s bad enough when film-makers change endings and characters of novels, but when they do it to autobiographies it’s somehow shameful, as if they’ve set themselves up as God and decided what someone’s life story should have been like. I know it coverd itself by having Based on a true story under the title, I think Eric Lomax, who died in 2012, would have been very unhappy with their version.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer attached to the 5th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, who was caught up in the war at the time of the surrender of Singapore. He was marched to the infamous Changi Prison, along with the rest of the soldiers captured. From there he was sent to Thailand to work on the infamous Burma-Siam railway. As an engineer he escaped the crippling jobs of digging out of rocks and laying tracks that ended the lifes of thousands and thousands soldiers and captive Indonesians, but life for him was not easy. He was tortured and humiliated by his Japanese captors and after his liberation he suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of his guards, Takashi Nagase, acted as interpreter for his torturers and this man is the one that Lomax focussed all his hatred upon. He was the one constant in his life, the voice that spoke to him during the torture, the voice and face that stayed with him in his nightmares. But what the film fails to do it to show that Nagase was also troubled by his memories of the war and the Imperial Army’s treatment of prisoners. His disturbing memories featured a young British officer whom he helped interrogate and whose bravery and refusal to break haunted him.

After the end of World War II, Nagase became a devout buddhist priest and tried to atone for the treatment of prisoners of war. Takashi has made more than 100 missions of atonement to the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand, which was also built by prisoner-of-war labour. Nagase, like Lomax, also wrote a book of his own experiences during and after the war entitled Crosses and Tigers, and he financed a buddhist temple at the bridge to atone for his actions during the war.

The reconciliation of the men did not occur when Lomax went to Thailand to kill Nagase following the suicide of a friend. For years Lomax had dreamt of ways of killing his tormentor, to end his nightmares and to lay the war and all its horrors to rest. But PTSD is not something that easily goes away by itself and eventually Lomax sought help from The Medical Foundation (now entitled Freedom from Torture). He was the first British citizen to receive their help and it was through their support and the admisitrations of his second wife, Patti, that he was able to make the journey to Thailand and meet his old nemesis. The men became friends and died within a year of each other.

I think what I dislike most about the film, apart from re-writing Lomax’s life, is the complete denial of the intervention of The Medical Foundation, as if to seek help from an organization is somehow less worthy, less manly, than struggling through your demons on your own. Just look at how we have historically treated soldiers with PTSD, most notably during WW1 when we shot them for cowardice, but each generation up to modern-day has abused its victims by denying the condition exists or witholding treatment. It has been seen as a sign of weakness or cowardice to ask for help but slowly the army is recognizing that it owes its soldiers this help and support. Then along comes this film which ignores the valuable help Lomax was given in favour of providing the audience with the gung-ho image of a tortured man who heals himself. Yes, he was tortured, yes he healed himself, but he was enough of a hero to recognize when he needed help and asked for it, despite the stigma attached to this. He also recognized and showed us that war damages people on both sides. And that, to me, is the unltimate heroic act.

 

Alter ego

I’m currently re-reading Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For those unfamiliar with the work, Persig is driving across America on a motorbike with his son, Chris, and a couple of friends, calling in at places that hold resonances for him. He is accompanied by a ghost, Phaedrus, who turns out to be his alter ego. As the story unfolds fragments from Phaedrus’ memory and writings surface. Phaedrus was Persig as a young man who strove to align what he called “classical” and “romantic” methods of thought and tried to define ‘Quality’. The struggle drove him to depression, a nervous breakdown, hospitalization and electric shock treatment.

He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come to it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way.

This journey is not just a physical and metaphorical one, it is also a journey into the heart of philosophy and rational thought, and into the mind of the man who struggled to make sense of it.

To the Persig riding the motorcycle, Phaedrus is a ghost, someone who haunts his thoughts and dreams, someone he wants to bury forever. But in order to do so he has to return to the places where it all happened, to look at things with new eyes and to understand where it all went wrong. It’s a compelling read, even for someone like me who’s one of the “romantic” school, who sees things emotionally rather than rationally. It is also beautifully written.

The gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semi-sleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitos and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken… And then it reappears.

When I picked this book up again last week all I could remember about it was that it was a story of a journey and parts of it looked at why you need to understand and keep the workings of machines well serviced. Nothing about philosophy. I remembered I’d loved the writing style and that he had explained things that made sense at the time but my brain hadn’t retained any. Inside the front cover is a note from the writer that includes this:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’.

It was time to read it again.

Like Persig, I have a Phaedrus. My alter ego doesn’t have a name but she pops up at times to undermine me, telling me I’m not good enough, of course I’ll never be a success and why do I think anyone is remotely interested in anything I have to say? She’s been my companion for years, a shadow dogging my steps. Peter Pan lost his shadow and was searching for it to stitch back on, but I’m trying to find a way to do the opposite, to cut her off and leave her in a drawer. Permanently. Yet I have tremendous compassion for her and therein lies a problem. How do you eliminate something that has been part of who you are? She’s born of other people’s qualitative judgements so perhaps Persig’s book will help peel away any acceptance of those judgements because they are just someone else’s ideas and the quality or worth of a person doesn’t adhere to any agreed universal definition. We’ll see.

Phaedrus had once called metaphysics “the high country of the mind”–an analogy to the high country of mountain climbing. It takes a lot of effort to get there and more effort when you arrive, but unless you can make the journey you are confined to one valley of thought all your life.

Home is where the heart is?

I’ve been away for the Xmas break staying with my family in the NE of England. I lived there for most of my life before moving to Scotland 10 years ago, so Newcastle has been “home” for a very long time. I holds memories that are the threads of my life, stitches that have held me together through adversities, cloth that has kept me warm and offered protection from harsh winter nights. Whenever I travelled south on the train my pulse would quicken as soon as I saw the Tyne Bridge, or if I travelled by car, when I passed the Angel of the North. But things are changing. Or maybe I’m just getting older.

When I was young we moved around a lot and I went to 8 different schools. At first leaving friends was like having my heart torn open but gradually I perfected growing a leather sheath over it that could be repaired. “Home” became a ghost, a concept that lived in the realm of consciousness but had no definite substance. Later it became something I carried around inside me. Then everything changed. I had children.

Determined my kids would never have to leave their friends and familiar surroundings, I stubbornly stayed on in the house we bought just after we were married. But I yearned for freedom, to travel, to experience. It was only when my babes were all grown up and had left to make their own way in life that I went off to work in Nepal. I had such grand ideas of career changes, working in developing countries and “making a difference”. But like a lot of my grand ideas this one didn’t work out either.

The illness that had dogged me for years reared up again and I was sent back to the UK for treatment. Unfortunately I got a diagnosis that would not allow me to continue working in developing countries. I was bereft. But at the same time, all the things I’d taken for granted before going away suddenly had their colour volume turned up. The streets were clean, traffic didn’t have foul black smoke belching out of exhaust pipes, and there was an order to driving on roads. And of course, some of those roads led me back to the Tyne Bridge and the Angel.

In Nepal I had contemplated on rooftops waiting for the Himals to appear, back in England I sat in parks. In Nepal the breath-taking beauty of snow-peaked Himalayas spoke to me in air that was fresh and soft and stupas expanded my appreciation of the spirit. In Northumberland I looked at castles and churches with different eyes, seeing in them people from the past, my people, whose lives were just as hard as modern-day Nepalis and Tibetans. The grass and forests and rivers or Northumbria became sacred to me, places that nourished my soul and where I found temporary peace from my fears that I would die never being good enough or do anything that made a difference to anyone. I was wrong about that as well.

Shortly after I moved to Scotland a former teaching colleague invited me to the Sixth Form Reunion at one of the schools where I used to work. I wasn’t well enough to travel so sent my apologies and thought that was then end of it. However, after the reunion she got back in touch with me to say that several students had been disappointed I hadn’t been able to go but one lad in particular wanted me to know what a difference I’d made to his life.

David had been in my A level literature group and was someone who had been bullied a lot. He had  a wandering eye, was very quiet and overweight. We were studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I’d asked the group if they’d like to do a Geordie version of the Mechanicals play for assembly and perform to the rest of the school. They were a bit dubious but once we got underway they started to be excited. I asked David to play Bottom, the lead part. He kept suggesting other students for the role so I told him that if he didn’t want to do it, that was fine but I thought he’d do a good job of it. He did. When he came to the reunion it was let me know he’d played Hamlet at university and had just appeared at one of the theatres in Newcastle as part of a nationwide tour with a theatre company. Coming back ‘home’ to perform had been one of his greatest pleasures and seeing me would have been another. There was a write-up in one of the local evening newspapers of the play David had been in and he was quoted as saying “It was all down to my English teacher. She was the only one who believed in me”.

I left teaching for a lot of reasons but other than the pleasure I have derived from my own children it was the next best. I miss the freedom I had to explore texts in whatever way I saw fit, to take the ‘bottom set’ students to the theatre and see their eyes shine, to take them on outings and socialize them, to make assignments real and not just fabricated exercises with no cause or effect. But most of all I miss their youth and their honesty –

“Poetry? What the fuck use is that?”

Can’t buy me love

It’s New Year’s Eve and thoughts automatically turn to a review of the past year and what has been achieved. On the writing front I’ve been really busy and had several poems and a short story published. My second novel, which is still to place, has been critiqued and I’ve started a third. I’ve been actively sending my work out, shrugging off any rejections and feel a lot more grounded in self-belief. There will always be areas I can improve but I’m pleased with my progress and the fact I don’t let criticism destroy me anymore.

My home life keeps me on my toes and my health, apart from a dodgy hip, is probably the best it’s been for years. I’ve been able to have more work done on the house to make it warm this winter and have replaced a couple of old settees to enhance my comfort. It’s all been good. So what’s missing?

When I worked in Nepal and on my travels in developing countries I was always impressed by the incredibly happy outlook of people who had nothing. They never worried about whether their clothes matched some fashion dictate, or whether their body shapes were in vogue. They didn’t seem to agonize over whether their partner loved them or if they were worthy of love. I suppose when you are stripped to basics and survival is your main concern, then those other things are luxuries you can’t afford. Now I’ve got a new career going, have a home I can be safe, warm and comfortable in, I’ve no more excuses; it’s time to look at the area of my life I do any displacement activity to avoid addressing. Love.

Those who have followed my blogs know that I haven’t been particularly successful in that area and that the way I deal with being unsuccessful is to either bash away with my head, or run away. The latter is easiest. I’ll take lots of risks with my body but am a real wuss when it comes to my heart. I’d rather give up desire than risk rejection so have settled into a very pleasant ‘safe’ existence where I can and do anything I want without having to explain myself or make compromises. It always seemed a win/win situation to me. And yet…

Lately the old yearning has surfaced, that feeling of desire for intimate communication between bodies and souls, where connections are forged that can take me to the realms of the divine. The heat and static on skin that electifies the slightest touch and can take me to another dimension. The meeting of minds that seems to expand intellect yet at the same time makes space for the trivial minutae of life, recognizing it’s implicit importance in the great scheme of things. There is so much more than I am currently experiencing. It may be blasphemous, but for me meditation can only provide so much. I’m having a human experience that is enhanced by contact with Spirit but perhaps it’s another human being who can be a more successful channel to that contact. And maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I remember reading Milton’s Paradise Lost at university and loving his portayal of Satan and Adam. His Adam is not the gullible soul sometimes portayed in anti-feminist religious writings. He knows what Eve has done is wrong but his love for her is so strong that he chooses to follow Eve and be damned with her rather than live in Eden without her. I’m not good at deferred gratification so I would choose like Adam for the ‘now’ of Eve rather than the ‘later’ of what life might be like without her. Love is one of our strongest motivating emotions and to live without it is limiting. With 2014 approaching it’s time for resolutions so I’m send out to the Universe my desire to be open in mind and heart to all opportunities and I’ll see where that takes me. Wherever it is, it’ll be an exciting journey, with or without a companion.