Thursday, October 28, 2004

Living Poetry 

This post from Real Live Preacher gets closer than anything I've read for a long time to capturing something of the magic and mystery in Christianity that is so often hidden when all we can see are the conventions of the Church - even if we view it from the inside . He shows it like it could be, even though it may not be like it so often is.

“... Poetry is different, I think. I don’t think poems are ever done. It’s like Whitman with “Leaves of Grass,” you know? Sometimes I think of starting a poem that I would never even consider finishing. I’d just keep working with it until I died. And over the years it would change because I would change. I would work it until it was like the smoothest music that ever caressed your ears. Just the sound of it would be incredible, and maybe the sound of it would be all you’d need. And I’d never be able to send it to any editor because it would never be finished.”

“See, I think Christianity is like a human poem, written over thousands of years by people who have a sense that there is something more important for us than just waking up every day and going about our business. I’m one of those people, I’m afraid. I know that makes me seem a little foolish to you, but maybe you have room in your life for one goofy friend, huh?...”

Go read the rest for a very fresh take on a religion that maybe isn't as old as it looks.

About 51 cards short of a full deck 

Just so there should be no doubt, I now have documentary proof of my lunacy: the counterfoil for the express delivery postage of my last-minute entry to a competition for which the prize is a free entry into this race.

Mad, completely, utterly, mad...

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Jonathan Livingstone Crow? 

Londoners know that The Thames is more than just a physical barrier cutting across the city; it’s also a cultural divide – you’d be forgiven for thinking that North Londoners and South Londoners are two different races, so little do the two mix.

My day too was divided yesterday, with a morning meeting north of the river and an afternoon meeting on the south side. With time and space to fill between morning and afternoon, north and south, I took a literal way of bridging the gap and followed a pedestrian route between them over the (infamous) Millennium Bridge.

The bridge doesn’t only span the physical space of the river; it seemed to me to span time too. My feet stood on 21st century aluminium decking, but looking out across the steel cables that support the structure, side-by-side with the massive concrete piles that anchor these cables are ancient timber bulwarks, revealed by the low tide. I imagine these are the remains of wharves that date back to the 19th century or earlier, but I haven’t been able to find any confirmation of that. Inhabiting the no-man’s-land between the concrete walls that define the edge of the land, and the deep water of the navigable channel, there is no reason for these timbers to be disturbed, and so they have probably stood for well over a hundred years and may well stand for another hundred. There’s not much else in London that can claim such a leisurely pace of change. It’s comforting somehow to see that remnant of an earlier age largely undisturbed.

With the noise and bustle of the city held at bay by the banks of the river - since this is a pedestrian-only bridge - it’s not too difficult to find a moment’s relative peace in a place that belongs neither to north nor south, and seems to touch both present and past. Standing suspended above the river on that ribbon of aluminium and steel, my eye was caught by another sight that, although fleeting, could just as easily have been seen a thousand years ago. A solitary crow was doing his (or her) best single-handedly (or should that be single wingedly?) to mob a gang of seagulls. One crow against half a dozen gulls, who aren’t exactly noted as pacifists of the avian world, yet the odds didn’t seem to deter him in the least. But it wasn’t his bravado that caught my attention – it was his aerobatic tricks, played out flawlessly in strong, gusty winds. He’d come in from above and to the side, almost pass a particular gull, then somehow twist sharply in the air, fold his wings and plummet into the gull’s path, forcing it to turn away. Then he’d spread his wings again, magically transforming the downwards momentum into an upward swoop, up through the crowd of gulls to repeat the process over again. I’ll swear he was doing it for the sheer exuberant fun of it, just playing, teasing them, revelling in his mastery of the tricks of flight.

Before long, the gulls grew tired of his annoyance and dispersed. My crow – by this time I’d developed a kind of connection with him – circled a couple of times then let the wind carry him up over one of the older office blocks on the river bank, only a few storeys high, at the last minute swinging 180 degrees to face into the wind and make a perfect touch down on the slender rods of a TV aerial. The manoeuvre was executed so skilfully, at first attempt and with complete economy of wing-beats in spite of the gusts of wind, that I felt like applauding. It wouldn’t have looked any neater in a flat calm.

One last look around, a final check for marauding gulls perhaps? If so, he didn’t spot any, or chose not to notice; he just spread his wings and let the strength of the wind carry him up almost immediately 50 feet or so into the air. I watched him fly downriver, past the twin towers of Cannon Street station, off to defend his London against further maritime invasion, watching until he was out of sight, a speck lost above the hugeness of London.

I could do with more moments like that.


My gratitude to a dear friend who sent me a message on the wind, without which I might not have stopped and looked…

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Blogging cycles 

I don't often look back over pieces I've written here. Just occasionally, if there's something I've been pleased with, I'll re-read it just to indulge in that warm glow of self-satisfaction, but there haven't been any of those for quite some time. Mostly I'm happy to let them scroll off the bottom of the screen, never to be seen again. So although I've been thinking about a pattern in how I've been blogging, it's an entirely theoretical view - I've not been back to verify the pattern.

It feels as though my blogging has been going in cycles, several weeks or sometimes months long. Something triggers a burst of energy and enthusiasm, and for a while I'm fully engaged, but then the pressures of daily life make themselves felt and the world of blogs starts to recede into the distance. Although that world maybe be real enough somewhere, around here my world shrinks to encompass only what I see and touch; everything else might as well be taking place in a parallel universe.

I'll be honest here - I don't like admitting to this, but I get jealous. Jealous of people who have time for those free-wheeling thought patterns that are the precursor to ideas that may eventually become words on a page or screen; jealous of those with time (and digital cameras) to go out and allow the visual world to break though the barriers of busy-ness and be seen. But to be fair I guess it's not just about time, although that plays it's part - it's also about being able to dispense with the filters that constrain perception into such narrow, conventional channels; about being able, with Blake,

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour."

So anyway, whinging aside, lately I've taken the easy way out and allowed the everyday routines that should be merely a foreground to the wider vistas of life, to rise up and expand to fill the entire field of view, hiding the rest of life behind 20-foot-high hoardings that line both sides of the road, shutting out the scenes beyond. After a while it's easy to forget that there is a beyond at all.

It might sound depressing, yet it doesn't feel that way when you live it. Looking around, most people I meet seem like this - giving most attention to those things that are closest; the more remote something seems, the less attention it is given, regardless of it's importance. I suppose there's nothing necessarily wrong in that, but it seems that some of the big issues of life will never get addressed by taking that approach, unless something happens to thrust them into the foreground.

Only by stepping outside do you see this approach for what it is, but that becomes uncomfortable, so we don't step outside.

It's like living in a house with many rooms. If you don't visit them all every so often, you forget what's in them. Some become no-go areas - visiting them only seems to cause upset, trouble and pain, so we stay out of them; some become empty and lifeless, full of cobwebs and ghosts that don't want to be disturbed - we leave those well alone too; some have altogether different ghosts - we keep these doors locked for fear of what might escape from behind them. And so life becomes circumscribed, lived out in just a few safe, familiar rooms, the others left untouched. It feels as though life is full, maybe even complete, but then I wonder if really this one-room living isn't perhaps analogous to C S Lewis' metaphor of the spiritual life:

"It is so fatally easy to confuse an aesthetic appreciation of the spiritual life with the life itself—to dream that you have waked, washed, and dressed and then to find yourself still in bed."

Dreaming that life is full and varied when the reality is that it's contained within a narrow channel. Walking along just the main street of town, afraid to explore any of the side turnings.

I seem to have strayed a little from writing about the blogging cycle. I guess I'm sensing that my blogging is dropping away again and I want to catch it before it drops much further.


Okay you guys at Blogger... why do the template changes look okay in template preview but not when published?????
I'll try again when I have more.... time!!

Friday, October 15, 2004

Why art? 

"The object of all art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties - of that which is in fact spiritual... The human, visible, audible and intelligible media which artists (of all kinds) use, are symbols not of other visible and audible things but of what lies beyond sense and knowledge".
- Ralph Vaughan Williams

(A hidden gem found quoted in the liner notes to a CD I bought last week).

Thursday, October 14, 2004

A few random jottings 

It’s so easy to let day follow day, to let the minutes fill themselves – there are always so many more things to do than there is time to do them in; there’s always something ready to fill the next minute, and the next, and before long a week has gone by, then a year, then a lifetime...

There’s an inner conflict that builds; I feel torn between wanting a sense of purpose, a drive to take me ever forward, yet on the other hand wanting just to stop and appreciate what is. These seem opposing, because the driven view always seems to be looking ahead to somewhere other than in the present. So many times I get trapped into binary either/or thinking; now it presents itself as a choice between drive forward or relax in the present. Most of the present is good, but there’s a constant drive to escape just one part of it – the part that is my job. It’s a waste of time; it benefits no-one; I’m almost embarrassed to be paid for doing it.

But I digress. Thoughts about my job have become an old treadmill that I get stuck in from time to time. I was thinking about time and purpose and what fills the minutes. This last week has been filled with many things, mostly good things that mean a lot to me. My daughter wants to be a professional musician and we’re visiting a number of universities and conservatoires to narrow down the choices of where to apply. It’s very competitive – her instrument, the flute, is wildly oversubscribed at the conservatoires and they can afford to pick only the very best of the best. So these are tense times – she has to spend three or four hours a day practicing for the auditions, knowing that the chances of getting in aren’t high. But she’s giving it her best shot. The universities are easier to get in to, but the courses are less performance-based. It’s all very much at the forefront of both our minds; I guess I’m acutely aware of my own poor decisions career-wise, and I want her to have the courage and imagination to have dreams, and the self-belief and determination to see them through.

It’s been good going round the colleges though. Places of learning, places where music is what matters most; places where people matter too; places where creativity thrives. I feel very much at home in these places. It’s been refreshing, inspiring, heartwarming – some wonderful days, and of course they heighten the contrast with my normal work days.

There’s much I feel like writing about these places, which is where I came in with these thoughts – much worth writing about but the time has been used up already. It feels as though there’s so much creativity and love of music that it gets soaked up by the very fabric of the buildings and wafts around in the air, ready to nourish any receptive soul who wanders through. But with too much to do, the feeling doesn’t make it as far as words. Just a few random jottings.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


"Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession ... Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yet again, a quote found by whiskey river that hits me right between the eyes. If I was a preacher and those words came from the Bible, I reckon it would be easy to create an entire sermon from them.

"...the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation" versus "half possession... [of an] ...adopted talent". Put as plainly as that, it sounds like a no-brainer. So why is it so hard to recognise what is a true unique personal gift, and distinguish that from what is simply borrowed and copied from others?

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Concerning pedestals... 

The daily posts based on David Whyte’s book have dried up for the moment…

Partly that’s down to nothing more than being diverted by the practical business of living. Partly too I was juggling with pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is myself, feeling that I could almost see the framework of a whole picture beginning to emerge; could join fragments of the puzzle together in islands of clarity but was unable quite to link all the pieces I held in my hand together as part of that whole. Wondering too whether I ought to think of them fitting into a static picture at all, or whether I ought instead accept a dynamic, ever-changing, kaleidoscopic view. But even then, the temptation is great to freeze the frame and study the pattern that the colours – my colours - form as they flash past.

But also, I seemed to move into a different relationship with DW’s writing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until yesterday evening. All I knew was that I felt more distant from whatever meaning was behind his words. It was only when talking about it with a friend that the penny dropped – up until that point, I’d felt validated by what he said – felt that, as I read, I was receiving an affirmation that my journey is a good one; the “right” one for me, my own unique journey, not following anyone else’s guide. Those earlier chapters had been an affirmation of what had gone before in my life, and had started to create an image of the landscape that lay ahead, but without prescribing a path through that landscape.

Yet the last couple of chapters seem to have taken on more of the character of a guidebook, complete with itinerary. In them, DW is talking about our relationship with the hours of the day; in effect, about time management. Even though what he says makes sense – the very concept of a relationship with time goes far beyond the usual process-based ideas of time management - it also verges on the directive, saying in effect “You should manage time like this”. So instead of feeling validated, I had the uncomfortable feeling of not doing things right.

Maybe that’s guilt – maybe he’s right and I’m wrong and I know it. Or maybe I’m just stubborn and dislike being told what to do. Or maybe the earlier chapters were easy because they didn’t demand I actually DO anything. Maybe I resent knowing that his words were written from a standpoint of some considerable success. After all, he can afford to stand there and dictate terms, even to himself. Or perhaps it’s none of the above - perhaps he was just having an off day.

Or perhaps I was.

Either way, it’s perhaps a Good Thing not to put anyone on too high a pedestal.


I haven’t quite felt that kind of excitement since the space race of the sixties - I spent a sizeable part of yesterday afternoon watching the Spaceship One webcast. It was like something out of a “Boy’s Own” magazine: a seemingly puny little craft, hardly bigger than a family car and guided by a real human being at the controls, takes off into space, with hardly any more to-do than a routine light-aircraft joy-ride…

The big kid in me feels the excitement of adventure, senses the thrill of a journey into the unknown; the engineer in me marvels at the elegance, the simplicity, the overall right-ness of the design; the designer in me admires the aerodynamic beauty of Rutan’s creations; the inverse-techno-geek in me shakes his head in disbelief at the fact of live streamed video from space, even though the techno-geek can be blasé about the technology involved.

Most of all though, the pioneer in me salutes the determination that says “I don’t know I can achieve this, but I believe I can. Even though no-one has trodden this path before me, I trust my ability and my instinct to take me to this wonderful place where many will follow”.

Yes, at one level you might argue that in the face of the world’s problems – our problems – this event was an irrelevant and unnecessary side-show, but it feels to me that perhaps yesterday saw the true dawning of the space age, a day that history will mark as the beginning of the era of true space travel – a natural progression that began with travel to the next town, then travel to the next country, then travel to the next continent.

All that has gone before was a prelude; a place for big budgets, big science, mammoth feats of engineering - but the people involved were just part of the machine that made it all happen. Spaceship One stands all that on its head – this is space travel for the people, by the people. Good on yer, Burt.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Commute 

Pedalling, rolling,
immersed in space,
connected to land, to air, to sky,
connection affirmed by intimate touch of wind and water,
free to move unhindered, to choose my path,
I could pedal on for ever
(until perhaps I reached the sea).
An invisible line snakes through the air
unhindered by any barrier
joining me to any and every place in this land
wherever I choose to imagine.

Free, yet contained within a need to concentrate;
to limit thoughts to the road beneath my wheels,
watching for the inattentive drivers
whose distraction, or tiredness, or misjudgement, or downright maliciousness
threatens to annihilate.
Mind divided,
one part listening, watching, constantly alert to the survival instinct,
one part driving the muscles that propel and balance and swerve and power ahead,
one part cracking the whip, never relaxing the pressure for speed;
just the tiniest space left for a fleeting thought, glimpsed and then lost,
left behind, a casualty of the journey
lying on the road somewhere over my shoulder.
Enclosed within a shell of focus that might as well be a steel box.

Or, sitting shoulder to shoulder within a real metal box,
packed tight into a tiny airless moving prison,
carried by iron wheels that shuffle back and forth on fixed iron pathways,
squeezed into the constricting confines of buried underground passageways.
Contained by time and place outside my will,
at the mercy of fickle timetables, engineering works, leaves on the lines, the Wrong Kind Of Snow*,

Yet this physical confinement grants freedom also:
mind, this time, is free to roam
rising, expanding, floating, spiralling upwards and outwards,
past city, past coast, beyond atmosphere, beyond stars…
Or delving deep within,
the shell of air and metal far, far distant at the outer edges of awareness.
Only for a few brief moments here and there does awareness need to shrink
or to expand
to match for a while the contour of prison walls,
to allow the transition to another box;
to descend from mountain into bustling valley
before the solitude of next empty slope ahead beckons up and away…

Which prison shall I choose today?
Or which freedom?
Body, or mind?

*something that may only have meaning for UK commuters!!