jotted psalm

We cannot own love, only glimpse, feel it touch us, pass through, dwell in us.
We are more or less feeble receivers, picking up signals from an unknown transmitter.

Science is a petty thing before love, for it wants to know,
grasp, possess, dismantle to fragments
harness, claim, proclaim.
Yet science is a thing: wonderful, intricate, quasi-infinite in its macro- and micro- reach.

The fool has said in his heart, there is nothing, no one, no power greater than I.
When this “I” becomes small, it can enter through the eye of a needle
to see what has always been here, hidden in plain view.

What has to be done? No more and no less
than what you and I can do.
We are creatures. Yet in making
we can be raised up like prophets.

Something comes into being
that was not there before,
the miracle of creation re-enacted.
It is seen through the eyes, heard through the ears,
tasted, felt.

It is lauded and sung
through voice and writing hand.
It is described through the dancing of limbs.

If we are not grateful, we know nothing.
If we are grateful, we know how little we know.

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“outnumbered by blessings”

It was one of those “whisperings” that I get occasionally when the conscious mind is quiescent. The brain can do funny things. Shostakovich had a fragment of shrapnel lodged in his, left over from WWII. When he held his head at a certain angle he heard music. All he had to do was write it down, or so the legend goes.* In the Bible, long before neurology was a word, the whisperings would come from angel or devil; sometimes the Lord himself.

Thus I woke up in a strange bed with a phrase in my head: “outnumbered by blessings”. I recalled we were staying in the Blue Piano Guest House, on Harborne Road.

It was the first time we’d slept away from home since our trip to The Island at the end of January. We meant to visit Jamaica on September for a special occasion, but were forced to give it a miss. If we’re going to make it early next year I’ll have to get used to being away, for days at a time, far from the security of these four walls. My doctor thinks I should be OK for it, but I have to assure myself and get into training. So we decided on a tentative venture: two nights in Birmingham.

Aunt Avis lives there, she’s actually Karleen’s cousin. With looks like that, you wouldn’t think she was eighty. Being black helps, the skin doesn’t wrinkle. She’s frailer of late, less mobile, but still her blessed self. We didn’t stay long, didn’t let her fuss and treat us as guests. Before leaving we held hands while she prayed over us, invoking God to keep us safe comprehensively and in many detailed particulars. I do not mean to make fun of her religion and its mannerisms. She is living witness to the blessings of grace, radiating from her to other souls far and wide, the hundreds she has practically helped. Yet in earlier life she endured hardship, after being grievously wronged. When Karleen asked about an aspect of this, she said it was not to be spoken about; there being no good in digging up bad memories.


Her words stuck with me as we crossed the city back to Edgbaston, to visit the campus where I’d been an undergraduate from 1960-63. I had some good memories of the place but they were eclipsed—outnumbered indeed—by others; whereof I shall not speak. Five years ago, when we’d come up for Aunt Avis’ 75th birthday, we’d done the same thing. The campus had changed so much it was like an archaeological dig to try and uncover relics which had survived the years. The most moving thing for me that time was the Arts Faculty building where my studies had been based. Most importantly, it had smelt the same, fifty years later. I’m guessing that for our pre-human ancestors, what we call “memory” was little more than a hard-wired encyclopaedia of aromas. It had made me feel almost that I’d left something of myself there. Suddenly I’d thought that some molecules of my DNA remained in the building, dust fallen into crevices that generations of cleaners hadn’t succeeded in hoovering up. The nostalgia of that visit five years ago was deep-dyed in sadness. I’d gone to wrestle with ghosts but couldn’t find enough of them.


This time was quite unlike five years ago. I’ve embraced everything, and seen how tired and tawdry the university had become by 1960, despite the new buildings that had recently sprung up even then. It’s a Birmingham thing: half the city centre has been razed, yet again. As you weave around the barriers, along temporary paths between earthworks and constructions sites, sometimes the only way to guess where you are is the lie of the land, from memory, as not much of it is level.

citycentre
the city centre earlier this year

To embrace everything. I’m tempted to list the wonders and beauties of our trip in detail. The vibrant energy leading to visible renewal in every aspect of the university. Wonderful encounters with strangers. The way they’ve made everything better but kept the best of the old. I’m glad they razed the old library: many good reasons, some personal. 

campusmap2
[click to enlarge] The new library is up and running. The old building has been demolished. The space left will be absorbed into a landscaping project, see bottom pic

The Arts building has been completely refurbished. The nostalgic smell has gone. The Students’ Union has been transformed. I see now that the changes I hated five years ago had to be made, though you could not see the full result. Now there has been further progress. It dazzles with brilliance.

Entrance to the “Barber”

Finally, we went round the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, a gallery and concert hall on campus opposite the Union. This is one place whose changes are few and imperceptible; where the past is cherished and illuminated with insights and scholarship. We loved it so much, I wished we lived near. I’d go once a week, and eat at Joe’s Bar in the Union. It felt like a second home, Unfortunately it’s 86 miles away. .

Union1
at the mermaid fountain

Then on Sunday evening I got a phone call from a student there, inviting me to participate in a project—their 10,000 Lives Appeal. As if my desire to participate, to reconnect, to dwell there in spirit, had been heard. I’ve volunteered for their mentoring scheme & signed up for a regular donation.

a pint of Guinness in Joe’s Bar

That whispering in the night : “outnumbered by blessings”. My unconscious mind was touched by Aunt Avis and her prayers for us. have What that meant to me was: the blessings are more than the curses. This immediately struck me as wrong. I don’t see blessings that way. Other than blessings there is nothing. Curses are all in the mind. Where we can’t see blessings, it’s a kind of darkness, emptiness, vacuum, something we cannot understand. There is much of this void in the world, always has been. It will drag us down if we let it.

projected view of the campus when current works are complete

* About Shostakovich and the shrapnel in his head
I discover new inspiration from this reborn university daily, for example here

Yesterday, continued

ms

After the questionnaire, and further Skype-messaging with the lad (a good way to preserve the minutes of our meetings), it was time to meet Karleen for lunch in the pub. As usual on a Friday, I took along the 2-wheel trolley (“cart” in American). Karleen had already paid for our breadfruit, mangoes, yams & plantains at the West Indian market stall, leaving them there for us to take home later. This time we were also to meet up at Marks & Spencer with a dear friend who’s been seriously unwell for a while. She continues to battle on, defying every difficult circumstance.

They used to meet sometimes outside M&S when they were both working in town. Surely nothing could go wrong, especially as these days we all carry mobile ’phones. We got there at the agreed time. Karleen kept an eye in the direction of the bus station, I staked out the route to the car park, & looked around generally. She ruled out calling her at this stage. We should give her some slack, let her arrive at her own pace. At one point I did see an odd-looking woman in the distance, going here and there impatiently, but she didn’t look like our friend at all. I went closer until I was in her line of sight and waved. No acknowledgement, no slackening of pace. One doesn’t want to stalk a stranger. I saw her again fifteen minutes later, called Karleen over to look and she instantly recognized her, poor thing. To me she didn’t look like herself at all. It turns out she’d arrived on foot from the other side of town; it hurts her to stand so she had to keep moving while waiting for us; her eyes aren’t effective any more except at close range. She’d arrived five minutes before the agreed time, looking out for us from the direction of the market. Reunited, we went up to the M&S café, she for some organic green tea which was the only thing they had that she’s allowed. So we talked; she brightened up. There was much to share, much sympathy, encouragement and women’s talk.

So I said we should drive her back,  I’ll go and find the car. They can stay and talk in the warm till I’m back. First I had to collect the trolley and paid-for items from the market stall, along with another bag of shopping K had parked there. Just in time, the stall was being dismantled. They’re very nice people, we have a standing arrangement in case we come too late. I went home, dropped the things inside.

Only now did I have a hand free to dictate the thoughts which had floated into my head on the walk home. It was Friday prayers at the crowded mosque, which always means that every possible parking space is taken up, legal or not, sometimes all over the sidewalk

The Forces’ Sweetheart

and road junctions. This is one reason why I park up to half a mile away and often forget where. It gave a little time to tell some of these thoughts to the voice recorder.

On the drive back to the café, traffic was so heavy that I had time to dictate the rest while we were not moving. There are laws against use of hand-held ’phone while driving, which I don’t imagine apply to digital voice recorders, but one doesn’t want to be falsely accused by members of the public inflamed with righteous indignation. Not that you see those types on the cosmopolitan Ledborough Road, whose motto must surely be “live and let live”, “anything goes”, or in the words of the WWII song, “Bless ’em all!” Listen to Vera Lynn’s version here. Wonderfully, she is still with us, I heard her on the radio not so long ago.

So these were the words I strove to capture:

I think I shall always have something to say, although it’s probably the same thing. Every day, different words, better ones I hope. The essence of it all is that I’m held together by blessings, and I see the same with most everyone around. And I perceive that this is the right place [geographically] to be, for it’s populated with those who know they are wholly dependent on blessings and those who don’t know this yet, but feel an aching gap where blessings ought to be; would be, if they could only connect. There’s a third kind of person, I don’t see them much round here: those who think that they are held together by their own efforts, virtues and capability.

Blessings come in so many forms I couldn’t count them, not now. But counting them might be a good start. I spent most of my life not understanding the need to open a door to blessings. One doesn’t get to see them through philosophy, nor—properly understood—do they give rise to any philosophy, or religion. All that stuff is man-made. And once these blessings are understood, I don’t think they can ever come to an end. It’s as though you have found the source. Why would you ever leave it? As if you could. The sluice is opened. It flows.

We are always circling round the rim of a void. The fact of life is death. When I accept and embrace that this is what life does, and the “I” will have to say goodbye, I am forever safe.

And I think I’ve understood what is meant by “eternal life.”

The organizing power of words

I write here to express my thoughts and it’s difficult because they branch out in all directions, and I struggle to find an organizing principle. My thought is a response to the interaction of myself with the rest of the world. It’s constantly dynamic, like the global weather system. If I manage to write anything worth publishing it is not as directed by will but the “dictates of the Muse”, when I can tune to them. They seem to mutate like clouds in the sky. It takes a title sometimes to help marshal those thoughts into order and give them a focus. But then, and here’s the snag, the title cannot arise from conscious will either. I don’t speak of general rules here, as in “how to be a writer” or even “how to be a thinker”, but as it strikes me personally.

“A Wayfarer’s Notes” has served well as a title, but has little organizing power over what I have to say. But now I’ve arrived at a phrase which really does help. Many times on this blog I’ve recorded phrases that just came, like “whispers from an angel”: phrases so pithy and suggestive that I’ve had to unravel their meaning by wandering along highways and byways without conscious intent, till more words came, and gave visible form to the inchoate vapour.

In this instance, a phrase has gradually evolved, inspired by more books—I hope to mention them in due course—and more direct interactions, including comments on my last. I’ll pick out two in particular, first this from Ellie:

We ARE blessed and grateful.

Then this from Natalie (excerpt):

Your posts are always thought-provoking, Vincent, and sometimes, in my argumentative mind, argument-provoking…in a good way! In this case because I disagree with “Fingers Pointing Towards the Moon” but the reasons I disagree are too long to put in a comment box so I’ll be emailing you.

She has sent an email, a clarification more than an argument, a view from a different angle. It reads like an artist’s manifesto and a spiritual credo, rolled into one. Again, an excerpt:

The difficult task of being human, re-creating ourselves, is like alchemy: to transmute those emotions which drag us down into emotions which lift us up, give us metaphorical wings, thereby being able to love. Love being the element which both transforms and forms the Self (the gold, the “philosopher’s stone”). This takes hard work, and involvement in the realities that life presents us with. I see the Self as tool, a transformative tool. Like a brush in a painter’s hand, or a hammer in a carpenter’s hand: it has to work on something and it transforms the material it works on.

These two responses, from Ellie & Natalie, have inspired a phrase which has such an organizing power that it deserves airing as the title of something as yet unwritten, or even a science as yet unborn:

SCIENCE OF BLESSINGS, ART OF LIVING

Blessings are constantly on my mind. K & I, neither of us following any system of belief, use the word constantly during the day: “Bless, bless!” often out of the blue. She got into saying “Bless the Lord!”, which didn’t sound right to me. “How can we bless the Lord? You must have it wrong. Surely it’s ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul’”. She yielded in the meek assumption that I knew better, and then relapsed into her old ways, as I pointed out. Quick on the draw, she whipped out her trusty smartphone, weapon of choice these days for settling arguments, leastways round here. There it was, Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Anyhow, we’re agreed. We ARE blessed and grateful. Blessings fall like rain upon us. But then, “he sendeth rain on the just and the unjust”; which raises a question about the mechanism for distribution of blessings. If there is a science of meteorology, which explains how and when it rains, can there not also be a science of blessings?

This brings us to The Invention of Clouds. For centuries philosophers from Aristotle onwards had speculated what clouds are made of, how they get into the sky, what shapes them. In this blog, I’ve made a fetish object of clouds, along with blackbirds and slugs. “Fetish: something irrationally reverenced”, says the dictionary. In his book, Hamblyn recounts the life and times of Luke Howard, “the father of meteorology”, whose most notable contribution to science was to name the clouds in 1802. Cirrus, Stratus, Cumulus and Nimbus, singly and in combination, have been used the world over, ever since. Goethe, scientist as well as writer, never ceased to sing his praises; and wrote a poem in his honour.

It is possible to doubt the existence of God, but not blessings, if you have been on the receiving end. A phenomenon is experienced, whether pleasure or pain. It has a recognized name. There’s nothing to doubt. It’s meaningless to dismiss a felt blessing as imaginary. And what is science, if not discovery of that which was unknown? It’s the process of uncovering facts, naming them, finding out what makes them happen, till we gain predictive power. Meteorology has matured as a science when it accurately predicts rain. Can there not, in the same fashion, be a science of blessings?

There’s a widely recognized difference between arts and sciences. I quoted Natalie above, herself an artist, speaking on this occasion about “the difficult task of being human”. This is what I mean by the art of living—an art I’m apprenticed to, taught by trial and error as much as others’ example. Reading her email, I tried to understand the nature of the disagreement she had with Fingers Pointing to the Moon. Perhaps there are differences in belief, but these we do not argue about, not in England, where you can believe what you like. No, I think her serious point is that the book is anti-life. It says all this (that we call real) is illusion. But she says, No! this is what we’ve been given to work with. This is the clay, these are the pigments, the Self is the artist, and we, singly or as humanity, transform ourselves into a work of art.

Her argument is compelling. I put forward nothing to oppose its simple clarity. I don’t speak on behalf of the author of Fingers Pointing, except to say that his book is actually not about the art of living, in Natalie’s terms. It might seem so, especially as he calls it “reflections of a pilgrim on the way”, implying a process of transformation. I think it fits better in my new classification, as an essay in the newborn “science of blessings”.

There is a great deal more to say, but for the present it’s my reader’s turn.

Stepping on Air

I’ve spent a few weeks in awe and praise of Meister Eckhart. I’ve had enough of him for the time being. I’ve no intention to publish a draft-in-progress called “More on Disinterest”. Indeed, this morning I find myself arguing against him: him and his way to God, wherein he places disinterest above love:

The teachers praise love, and highly too, as St. Paul did, when he said, ‘No matter what I do, if I have not love, I am nothing.’ Nevertheless, I put disinterest higher than love.

Which he then goes on to explain—why he sees disinterest higher than love.

Now that the enthusiasm has spent itself, I wonder how it could have had me sailing so close to Christian shores, after a lifetime of fishing in their waters without being tempted to land. The turning-point came this morning, on my way to a haircut, captured verbatim by my new voice-recorder in these words: “I think the joy in life comes from making the most of what you’ve got. So, possibly Eckhart is wrong.”

It was a delightful moment. Free again! Free to obey the inner impulse, not sit at the feet of a teacher. But then, sometimes the inner impulse does take you to such feet. In different circumstances (born to different parents, say) I might have woken up one morning and yielded to a youthful impulse to fight for a cause, not waste my life kicking a ball around with other deadbeats in some mean street that offered no hope. And then, before I came to my senses, if I ever got the chance to, before being shot dead like a mad dog, I’d be masked in black & threatening America with my blood-thirst; knowing that many who remained carefully silent would applaud my stand, even if millions of others wished nothing more than to crush me underfoot like a cockroach. A Faustian contract: to trade one’s human misgivings for the sense of mighty power and divine destiny.

Enthusiasm: possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic frenzy; an occasion or manifestation of these: obsolete. Oxford English Dictionary.

“Make the most of what you’ve got!” That’s what drives me to tap out something on this keyboard. To craft some words for the sake of it; to say the thing that expresses my sincerity and uniqueness. Never mind sermons, never mind pious aspirations. Just to use the gift, spend the talent. Yes, spend, for talent originally meant a sum of money, and only acquired its present meaning through a parable of Jesus as related in Matthew 25:14-30. Let me assure you my talent, if any, is in pedantry, not preaching—whilst getting a passing buzz from dishing out the biblical quotes, just as socialites might get a buzz from celebrity name-dropping.

And what it comes down to, me changing my mind like this, is sometimes feeling old and sometimes feeling young. Perhaps it’s one of those times in life, hesitating at the cusp, as in puberty or menopause; or in my case, old age, if such an outcome cannot be avoided. The human animal is full of quirks, and don’t imagine we can transcend them through haughty monasticism that talks of “higher things”. I shall revert to an habitual suspicion of any idea which comes from the thinking brain when divorced from biological rootedness, this inescapable physicality. The senses speak, the body responds to what the day brings. I rejoice. Today, anyhow.

I went for my haircut, I felt good & felt that I looked good, before and after equally (perhaps better before, but it will grow). It won’t always be so. The barber’s newspaper, The Sun, that rag of Rupert Murdoch, showed a photo of Paul Gascoigne, a mere 47, footballer and media darling of yesteryear, being rescued from the street with a bag of booze, in a state of terminal haggardness and drunken collapse, and why? There but for the grace of God go I—yes we still need God, surely it’s madness to be an atheist, for I can claim no credit for anything in my life. It’s all grace, my success in avoiding ending up as a jihadi fighter or a famous Newcastle United footballer. But I can make the most of what I’ve got. Which, I suddenly realize, in this piece tapped out extempore & without editing*, is exactly what that parable of the talents says.

My original intention this morning was to try and write something to accompany the picture alongside, cropped from a photo I took the day I published a post called “Stairway to Heaven”. I decided to call it “Stepping on Air”, without thought of the content or how it would link to both picture and title

Stepping on air: a new-minted expression referring (a) to the human ability to feel secure though not supported by anything more real or physical than a memory, reminder or mere symbol of wellbeing; (b) the sense of pride at feeling that one looks good, with no external confirmation; (c) the knowledge that one is loved, “if only” by God; (d) the confidence that everything is unshakeably OK. Stepping on air: an idea that explains so much (not just religion). Stepping on air: a skill some learn and no one can rely upon unconditionally. Radical!
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* “tapped out extempore & without editing”—written before some very light editing (Ed.)