And so this illusion of an ending and a new beginning. This sudden shuffling of fuzzy everydayness into arbitrary clear distinctions. Like this photo: all the nuance of rosy brick buildings and green gardens on a winter afternoon cast by a moment's trick of the low sunlight into an illusion of sharp relief, which satisfies only aesthetically. No endings, really. No beginnings. No clear picture. Thank goodness.
Reading All of These People, the memoir of the very well-known BBC journalist Fergal Keane, an Irishman – a book as eloquent about his own home and background as it is about South Africa, Rwanda, Iraq... Odd really, that bits of my heart have been left in places I never expected to see: Peru and Guatemala, Zimbabwe and Senegal, but I’ve never been to Ireland.
One of my close woman friends is Irish. Her warm, clever garrulousness, her deep anchor in her large family, are that country to me. And a man, a dearly loved colleague for many years; his very Irish face, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked, that unnervingly vulnerable, rubbery flexibility to his features.
Just off the edge of my country and my consciousness: shadows of violence on wet green landscapes, alarmingly rapid economic growth, and that strange thing - charm. One day I must go and have a look.
¶ 11:17 pm2 comments
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Flat sky with seagulls: a glass-half-empty morning. Drink this hot tea, smile.
A Christmas present giving me delight is Stephen Fry’s new book on how to write in verse, or worse, and yes this does bode ill for days when I have nowt to say, but still have time for rhyme.
¶ 10:47 pm5 comments
Sleeping fitfully, waking with thumping head and clammy under too many bedclothes to midwinter blue-white light, low flames of sunshine. Waking to meditate with cold air whispering on my skin and in my lungs, planes echoing above, slammed car doors and hurried voices, and a high, tinny birdsong. Gulping hot, milky, spicy tea, shuffling into yesterday’s clothes and walking fast around the park to get some blood, some thoughts, some energy flowing. Close the doors and turn up the heating and plunge for the day into other countries of, strangely enough, intenser cold, where Nordic computer workers comment in quiet, crooked-English aphorisms on their 'psychological contract' with their very modern employer (it’s a magnum scholarly opus that I’m copyediting) and nomadic Siberian reindeer herders gather in their tents after the longest of all working days when the sun never sets and the ice never melts and make a psychological contract with fate, tossing libations of vodka onto the fire (this gorgeous book I’m reading, of which more later). Typing and reading, typing and reading, as the flames of sunshine lengthen and the blue-white light dims, and night and quiet and cold and words, words, words, until my eyes droop, too tired for more, but my mind flits on in dreams through high-strung cities of high-tech offices and out into the empty lands of ice.
¶ 12:32 pm8 comments
As practices, both meditation and photography demand commitment, discipline and technical skill. Possession of these qualities does not, however, guarantee that meditation will lead to great wisdom any more than photography will culminate in great art. To go beyond mere expertise in either domain requires a capacity to see the world in a new way. Such seeing originates in a penetrating and insatiable curiosity about things. It entails recovering an innocent, childlike wonder at life while suspending the adult’s conviction that the world is simply the way it appears.
The pursuit of meditation and photography leads away from fascination with the extraordinary and back to a rediscovery of the ordinary. Just as I once hoped for mystical transcendence through meditation, so I assumed exotic places and unusual objects to be the ideal subjects for photography. Instead I have found that meditative awareness is a heightened understanding and feeling for the concrete, sensuous events of daily existence. Likewise, the practice of photography has taught me just to pay closer attention to what I see around me everyday. Some of the most satisfying pictures I have taken have been of things in the immediate vicinity of where I live and work.
Yes! That’s exactly why I find such joy both in meditation and in taking photographs, and hope they will both continue to play a big part in my life.
Some of my friends are so ordered - everything they touch so tidy and perfect, from their even handwriting to the serried ranks of books on their shelves and spices in their kitchen cupboards; bare polished desks, bare vacuumed carpets, uncluttered tables and sofas, well-weeded gardens and, one supposes, well-weeded minds. What a pleasure to dwell in this order with so much space for peace, for choice, for undistracted action or inaction. Of course that isn’t always the whole story. Some of them will tell you at the drop of the hat about the terrible looming chaos they constantly fear and fight - their ordered possessions and surroundings a bastion against the world’s frightening disorder and the even more frightening disorder of their own hearts.
Then there are the wild, often artistic ones who live with piles of dust and papers and dirty dishes and no order at all – so many better things to do than tidying up; who do everything at the last minute, or after the last minute, but often with creativity and originality. Most of them, though, get bogged down from time to time in the disorder they allow to breed.
I try not to judge, but to glory in diversity. We need both kinds of people, and every gradation in between. The important thing is finding the environment, the habits, where each of us is comfortable and can flourish. Important too to compromise a bit for the sake of the group’s, as well as the individual’s, comfort and flourishing.
Oh yes, I have this thoughtful, gentle, liberal view of the issue. Not at all what I grew up with. Cleanliness and tidiness were next to godliness – not a matter of enlightened self-interest, but a moral rule. Endless battles of will, where I screamed and stamped, aged 3, in the face of inflexible demands to tidy up and put away and “do it again, properly”… and screamed and stamped aged 10, aged 15, aged 18… And at aged 19 a disordered, crumb-ridden student room with crumpled clothes crammed in the wardrobe and unwashed dishes in the sink. Subjected to unswerving demands and discipline, I’d learned nothing about choice or balance or a reasonable degree of deferred gratification.
The worst of it is: things haven’t improved a great deal. The thoughtful, gentle, liberal view, the middle way, is just a theory. The practice is an adult lifetime of desperate neurosis around this issue. A helter-skelter ride through peaks of frantic, shamefaced, clearing up and troughs of messy home, messy work, messy mind and all the energy drained by that – and no idea, still, of how much order is my real comfort level.
This is one area where age has brought no wisdom, no progress. Even since I started to frequent Buddhist retreat centres, loving their sparse perfectionism and the quiet inner space that fosters. It’s been home from these to the clutter and disorder of my flat, my office and my very large handbag. For this, I think, has become a major repository of all my hang-ups. As I steadily pursue what’s probably an average amount of putting aside inner pain and turmoil and striving to assume an outer persona of energy, decisiveness, calm and efficiency… well, this is where it all goes. Put the hurt, the chaotic emotions, over there on the teetering, collapsing pile of books or clothes or dishes. Keep the despair and inadequacy out of work and hobbies and relationships by diverting their expression to this one area where I have no control at all.
So bringing the peace of meditation out into the quality of daily life will definitely require bringing greater order to my physical environment. And it’s going to be really, really, irrationally, disproportionately hard. It’ll mean approaching this mess (and that mess, and that one, and all the messes in my rooms and drawers and cupboards and computer files) and looking each of them in the face, and feeling as powerless as an angry 3-year-old, and breathing through the feeling, and getting stuck in. Yeech.
Mind, words, everything turning inwards, as December gropes towards the solstice. Thinking – no not thinking, feeling – towards… something. Change, perhaps. Or perhaps acceptance that there’s no change to be made.
The journey from sleep to wakefulness is a long one on these chill, echoing mornings of steaming frost. Just getting out of bed and assuming some semblance of a person and going out into the world feels hard. That’s one dynamic.
The other dynamic is gratitude. Feeling very, very grateful for the recent return to daily meditation practice, and sticking with it, and feeling permeated by it, thanks to dear friends here. Coming back to the still point, the sense of spaciousness, at least once or twice daily. Remembering that it’s always there - that the rushing, the fretting, the alternating waves of inertia and adrenaline, are not all there is - is a huge thing. Really HUGE.
And now: how to move this spaciousness out from the centre and into the rhythm of the days? I need to sit quietly in it for while before I know - hibernate on my cushion, drawing my blanket around me, like a grey cat’s tail.
¶ 2:05 pm6 comments
Friday, December 02, 2005
UmThe dinosaur - one of these - has been excised. What possessed me to post something so ugly?
¶ 1:52 pm7 comments
Today has been nominated Blog against Racism Day and I was wondering how I might contribute. Then a conversation with a friend yesterday (he was deeply irritated by the sanitised depiction of slavery in a US TV drama) provoked me to recall my visit, some 15 years ago, to the Slave House on the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal.
From the 15th to the 19th century, ruled in succession by Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, this was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. It’s now a quiet and picturesque tourist resort. Many elegant old houses built for the slave traders still stand. So do some grim reminders of the conditions in which captured men, women and children were held for months before the terrible journey to the “New World”.
UNESCO has an excellent website with pictures and a video guided tour of the Slave House. It evoked strong memories from that visit: heat and dust and sadness and unease and growing horror.
I went to Dakar to help organise an international political conference and visited Gorée with some of the delegates. I had to interpret the guide’s French visit commentary into Spanish for some Latin Americans and struggled with this, I remember [oh shit, what’s the Spanish for menottes (manacles)?…]. In retrospect, I was glad I’d had a task to focus on. Some of ‘my’ delegates were in poor shape by the time we exited the house. Looking at the UNESCO photos, it all came back: the desperate, damp, claustrophobic cells; the view through slits of windows over the endless sea, the dreadful future.
I remember afterwards not knowing where to put myself. Discomfort in the face of my friendly hosts. And one feeling I remember particularly strongly. Senegal, I suppose, is the most ‘exotic’ place I’ve ever visited. Pink and sweaty in my crumpled summer frock, there I was surrounded by tall, good-looking people, many sporting a fashionably updated version of traditional African dress. I really did feel foreign, that the people around me were elegantly, wonderfully ‘different’. But standing in the doorway of those stinking, claustrophic cells and imagining the horror, imagining the feelings of their occupants, I thought: the same as I would feel, the same…