Category Archives: Life

Everything is interesting.

marcus Aurelius.jpg“What education should be about is endless curiosity about the nature of the world. I’d make Philosophy and Human Behaviour a compulsory subject. I wouldn’t bother to teach History; I think it’s pointless. History is just the record of human crime. It’s battles and murders and pogroms, but there’s a secret history and that’s the record of human goodness. The little acts of kindness aren’t recorded anywhere. Little deeds of altruism: The lady in the baker’s shop who runs after you saying, ‘Here you left a fiver on the counter.’ That sort of thing is never recorded, but that’s what actually keeps the world going.”  John Lloyd  ( writer of Q.I fame)

Fact : John Lloyd has more baftas than Judi Dench  !!!!!!!!!

Now I will let you know that I don’t agree with him about the pointlessness of History simply because it creates so much enquiry in me, but about everything else I have read about this man, I have a new hero.  A colleague John Mitchinson  on Q.I wrote “He has a proper philosophy, and he thinks about things in an astonishing amount of depth.’

And his philosophy? – a self confessed Stoic ( another reason to adore the man) he has summed up the necessities of life in three phrases, the first being ‘Be Kind’ , the second being, ‘Be Kind’ and the third being ‘ Be Kind’. Got to love that man.

And this is not a man who has not known unhappiness, hard work, or depression. Much like the rest of us. But this is a man who has worked tirelessly at the BBC to bring us laughter to lighten the load, and worked through his own demons by using his brain to stay curious. That was his way out of depression if I am reading it right.

“I feel really sorry for people who have no working philosophy. People don’t know what to do when they get depressed, or unhappy, when they feel they are belittled at work, when they feel their life is pointless. Where do they go? Unless you’re a happyclappy Alpha course person . . . That’s why it’s so easy to get mullah’ed into fundamentalism: because of the certainty.”

And if you want some more reasons to consider Mr Lloyds brilliant take on life – to remain as curious a creature as it is possible to be, then I recommend you fly across to this link which tells you more about the man than I can, inasmuch as it is a testament to his philosophy, his intelligence, his humour and his humanity. And I don’t even know the man.

Just brilliant stuff

Learn even more about him via a great article in the New Statesman by Helen Lewis, Article on John Lloyd by Helen Lewis

And finally – in the spirit of John LLoyd and with a nod to the illustration here is a thought from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that is worth a moment or two of reflection in a busy day, a busy world.

One type of person, whenever he does someone else a good turn, is quick in calculating the favour done to him. Another is not so quick to do this; but in himself he thinks about the other person as owing him something and is conscious of what he has done. A third is in a sense not even conscious of what he has done, but is like a vine which has produced grapes and looks for nothing more once it has produced its own fruit, like a horse which has run a race, a dog which has followed the scent, or a bee which has made its honey. A person who has done something good does not make a big fuss about it, but goes on to the next action, as a vine goes on to produce grapes again in season. So you should be one of those who do this without in a sense being aware of doing so. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.6)

 

Meaning What Exactly?

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I am re reading this from 5 years ago, and it resonates still, and as it didn’t get much of an airing then, I am recycling it for another go!  I came to it after reading an interesting article that made comparisons between some of the things written by Shakespeare with some of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It fascinates me that today we are still turning to the wisdom of some human beings long gone, who lived very different lives , with very similar experience of being human.

I woke up this morning late, again, after another disturbed night.  I woke up perturbed by a question I know is unanswerable, that thinkers far more erudite than I have asked themselves since time began and woefully have failed to satisfy themselves.  What for?  Why do we live the life we do?  A few weeks ago my eldest shared with me one of his thoughts that bothered him, about how he understood we were on a continuum of development with the animal world in terms of consciousness, but how he was grappling with the idea that that continuum of consciousness could be shared with robots in the future. He wanted to know what separated us not from the animal world, as had bothered our predecessors, but what made us special and distinct from the new explosion of robot intelligence that is at its genesis. Naturally I don’t have any answers at my fingertips, but his speculation mirrors my own curiosity about our place in the universe.  I had read enough about Leo Tolstoy to recognise his deep angst over a related query – what are we?  Tolstoy is well known and revered for his literary novels, and the breadth of human experience he brings to them.  He was dismissive of my hero Shakespeare , which upset me a little. Tolstoy was well educated, lived a comfortable life, had worldly success in his lifetime, married successfully, had children he loved , in short he had everything most people could aspire to.  Then he had a crisis.  Possibly we would call it a breakdown now, in a world that patholigises everything. In his  ‘Confessions’  he relates his life story and how he continued to seek meaning from his existence, and how he could not find it. This is from a celebrated thinker who had people hanging onto his words,

“I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.” Chapter iii…..

………..“My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires I should not have know what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death – complete annihilation.”  Chapter iv

In an attempt to master his demons, he investigates the contemporary  worlds of science, philosophy, eastern wisdom and his fellow ‘men of letters’, but is unable to find any answers meaningful to him.  In an attempt to survive he has to abandon his rational scepticism and disgust for the superstitions that enveloped the orthodox Russian Christianity and find some sort of peace in the convictions of the ordinary citizens who practised their faith .  He recognises that he still has doubt, but accepts the living truth of ordinary men and women toiling throughout their lives and carrying with them the hope that faith offers.

“That there is truth in the teaching is to me indubitable, but it is also certain that there is falsehood in it, and I must find what is true and what is false, and must disentangle the one from the other. I am setting to work upon this task. What of falsehood I have found in the teaching and what I have found of truth, and to what conclusions I came, will form the following parts of this work, which if it be worth it and if anyone wants it, will probably some day be printed somewhere.”

 

Tolstoy was an old man when he died, and he chose to die away from his home after deciding that it was his duty to live among the citizens and away from his comforts of home and family.  When he chose to find meaning within the boundaries of Russian Christianity , it led to a schism with his old way of life, he renounced his claim on his ancestral estate and broke off his relationships with the family. His main supporter during these final years was Vladimir Chertkov, a wealthy army officer whom the family called ‘The Devil’. Chertkov was with Tolstoy  on his final journey, and as Tolstoy was dying of pneumonia he ‘’ remembered Tolstoy’s conception of human life, namely, that man is a manifestation of the spirit of God temporarily imprisoned within the confines of his individual existence and seeking to break out and merge with the souls of others and with God. And I felt with especial force that life, understood in this way, was a blessing, that was absolutely inviolate. In short, death was no more.’  

Tolstoy is a fascinating man, containing paradoxes that emphasize his humanity.  He never shrugged off the deep anxiety that he was not worthy enough, and this drive to improve his understanding of himself and the world propelled him to become great in the eyes of many of his fellow Russians and beyond that, befriending and influencing Mahatma Gandhi, impressed by Tolstoys stance on non-violent resistance.

That Tolstoy renounced his rational side to reclaim his understanding of the meaning in life, and to embrace the idea of a God, a universal spirit manifested in man raises the possibility in myself that I am ignoring perhaps the central concern. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong place for meaning, and like Tolstoy need to explore the avenues of mysticism to find meaning.  The rational part of me shouts so loud, but I know too there is a voice somewhere deep inside that recognises mystery and the unknowable.

‘The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket.In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticisn has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. It is significant that, with all that has been said about the excitability of poets, only one English poet ever went mad, and he went mad from a logical system of theology. He was Cowper, and his poetry retarded his insanity for many years. So poetry, in which Tolstoy is deficient, has always been a tonic and sanative thing. The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism-the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.’

 G. K Chesterton

What really provoked me into researching Tolstoy was this mornings unease on waking.  I was thinking about how ordinary men live, in contrast to some extraordinary men. Is it easier to live with extraordinary talent or wealth or status ? Or more likely to derive a meaningful life from living an ordinary experience? It appears that wealth and status are no more likely to fulfil than being a baker, or a taxman, or a thief even. Alexander the Great had conquered half the Hellenistic world when he was in his twenties. Still died in a brawl with a mate. It’s all strange. I am going to leave you with this thought from an interview with Irvin D Yalom, the psychotherapist and novelist. Don’t know why, but it makes sense to me.

I find the idea of dying, of not existing for the next 5 billion years and beyond, chilling. It takes my breath away. Can you offer any comfort?

Well, did the last 5 billion years bother you? I mean, it seems to me that what happens after we die is not really the problem. It is a kind of peace. The challenge for us is how we live

between now and then, whether we have the courage to stop denying it and use our anxieties to live more authentic, meaning-filled and purposeful lives.  – Irvine Yalom

That sounds simple, but it isn’t. I really isn’t.  The paradox we live with every day of our lives is that we probably know how we can improve our own lives, but choose to perform duties and responsibilities in ways that are in conflict with that desire. We really don’t have infinite time to work out how we want to live our own lives. We have to make those choices today. Just saying.

People usually think that progress consists in the increase of knowledge, in the improvement of life, but that isn’t so

 Progress consists only in the greater clarification of answers to the basic questions of life. The truth is always accessible to a man. It can’t be otherwise, because a man’s soul is a divine spark, the truth itself. It’s only a matter of removing from this divine spark (the truth) everything that obscures it. Progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn’t gold.

  • Tolstoy’s Diaries (1985) edited and translated by R. F. Christian. London: Athlone Press, Vol 2, p. 512.

References

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/  Biography.

http://www.linguadex.com/tolstoy/       The last days of Tolstoy

http://www.yalom.com/

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Confession     The full work online.

Simply Human

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On National Women’s day I want to say something. It’s not radical, it’s not clever, it’s not even controversial – at least from where I am. And that is the point. I am writing from a position of privilege , I have been educated to the same standard as my brothers, I have worked in a male dominated industry and been accepted as successful within my career, and I have a marriage which is traditional in values but recognises my strengths ( and my weaknesses).

I want to say thank you – to all the women and the men who went before me and worked quietly in the background to remove barriers in the system.  It’s not perfect, and I myself worked hard two decades ago to change attitudes within the company I worked. But the change has been remarkable in my lifetime.

The challenge for our society – U.K – is different now. It is to accept the equality between genders and to understand that equality retains the opportunity for difference. It is to accept responsibilities and duties that are incumbent on everyone to work hard, and to embrace challenge together, both in the workplace, in the community and in the domestic arena.

I would like to see less commodification of sexuality, which starts at birth now – the baby vests that promote the princess in the female , the five year old pageants, the sexting of teens.  Do grown ups that have sex really need to display this sense of rampant horniness in the everyday and in the inappropriate age groups of the tender young.

I don’t know what a day can do to promote the values of women – I don’t even know what they are. My values are different to my friends, let alone those who think I am ridiculous. I just want a world where we can be confident enough to have a dialogue with one another beyond gender, race, abilities. It’s a bit of dream but we have arrived at a place undreamt of by my female ancestors.

My illustration for a challenge at Redbubble provoked me to produce the illustration above – it has man and woman side by side, potent with possibility.( and available here  redbubble and  at  Society6

 

On a final note I defer to the poet laureate Wislawa  Szymborska, succinct and brilliant .
It’s a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
all affairs–yours, ours, theirs–
are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.

Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,

or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months;
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one?

Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

Notes to Self

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The guy who wrote the original did so in Greek, but was actually an intellectual Roman who was to govern Rome after succeeding the Emperor Antoninus Pius, spending a couple of decades trying to placate the Senate and put down minor rebellions. It was some time ago.

Marcus Aurelius lives long in the mind – this is a book that belongs in the bookshelves of the great and the good throughout history – it has shaped the thinking of men. And yet it was not written for publication – it was written as an ongoing discourse with himself as to how to live a life, how to wrestle with the challenges that being human brings , a ‘design for living’. He is setting  out his set of rules, quite unaware that it would become a key text in later attempting to understand the Roman Stoic philosophy.

 

I am fascinated how threads of understanding weave themselves through history – occurring separately to thinkers from disparate cultures and times – and how those threads resonate generations later, making a fascinating complexity of human thought spinning itself through time and place.

I am reminded of these words,

Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken

by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain

everythingness of everything, in cahoots

with the everythingness of everything else.       Carl Sagan  ‘Diffraction’

and from Edgar Allen Poe

 “that space and duration are one”

Land of the free.

 

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We , that is my husband and I, are building up to the next adventure!  We have had a love affair with the highlands of Scotland for quite some time now.  So we have been brave and sunk our lifetime savings and some capital that will be our pension pot into a small place tucked away between a river and a mountain.

We live frugally now – by temperament we are both loath to splash the cash – and having brought up the young men to be of independent spirit, in mind and purse, we can finally begin to realise a  long dreamt of retirement. Retirement being in opposition to the facts of the matter – at least for me. I am in training to keep up! My pace is slow but steady and my mindset is positive.  I am restricted from running marathons, or indeed walking further than a few miles without severe impact, but the dream will still live.  I enjoy just being in the midst of all that ‘livingness’ of nature, so we will be trying a little wild camping too. When the sun shines.

So the next couple of months is putting everything in place , then here we go!  I don’t need to travel extremely to find where I belong – just to be able to absorb the sights and sounds of nature is a magical experience for me, and from where I derive my inspiration and my  energy.

 

The illustration is a digitally altered reproduction of an old sea chart showing the coast – and if you like it enough, you can find it on decor and product at my Society6 site and my Redbubble site. If you explore my menu, there are links to take you there.

In my beginning is my end

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‘Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.’

From T.S Eliot’s ‘East Coker’

 

Spontaneous Me

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Spontaneous Me

Walt Whitman, 1819 – 1892

Spontaneous me, Nature,
The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with,
The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder,
The hill-side whiten’d with blossoms of the mountain ash,
The same, late in autumn—the hues of red, yellow, drab, purple, and light and dark green,
The rich coverlid of the grass—animals and birds—the private untrimm’d bank—
the primitive apples—the pebble-stones,
Beautiful dripping fragments—the negligent list of one after another, as I happen to call
them to me, or think of them,
The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,)
The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me,
This poem, drooping shy and unseen, that I always carry, and that all men carry,
(Know, once for all, avow’d on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty, lurking,
masculine poems;)
Love-thoughts, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap,
Arms and hands of love—lips of love—phallic thumb of love—breasts of
love—bellies press’d and glued together with love,
Earth of chaste love—life that is only life after love,
The body of my love—the body of the woman I love—the body of the man—the body of
the earth,
Soft forenoon airs that blow from the south-west,
The hairy wild-bee that murmurs and hankers up and down—that gripes the full-grown
lady-flower, curves upon her with amorous firm legs, takes his will of her, and holds himself
tremulous and tight till he is satisfied,
The wet of woods through the early hours,
Two sleepers at night lying close together as they sleep, one with an arm slanting down across
and below the waist of the other,
The smell of apples, aromas from crush’d sage-plant, mint, birch-bark,
The boy’s longings, the glow and pressure as he confides to me what he was dreaming,
The dead leaf whirling its spiral whirl, and falling still and content to the ground,
The no-form’d stings that sights, people, objects, sting me with,
The hubb’d sting of myself, stinging me as much as it ever can any one,
The sensitive, orbic, underlapp’d brothers, that only privileged feelers may be intimate where
they are,
The curious roamer, the hand, roaming all over the body—the bashful withdrawing of flesh
where the fingers soothingly pause and edge themselves,
The limpid liquid within the young man,
The vexed corrosion, so pensive and so painful,
The torment—the irritable tide that will not be at rest,
The like of the same I feel—the like of the same in others,
The young man that flushes and flushes, and the young woman that flushes and flushes,
The young man that wakes, deep at night, the hot hand seeking to repress what would master
him; The mystic amorous night—the strange half-welcome pangs, visions, sweats,
The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers—the young man all color’d,
red, ashamed, angry;
The souse upon me of my lover the sea, as I lie willing and naked,
The merriment of the twin-babes that crawl over the grass in the sun, the mother never turning
her vigilant eyes from them,
The walnut-trunk, the walnut-husks, and the ripening or ripen’d long-round walnuts;
The continence of vegetables, birds, animals,
The consequent meanness of me should I skulk or find myself indecent, while birds and animals
never once skulk or find themselves indecent;
The great chastity of paternity, to match the great chastity of maternity,
The oath of procreation I have sworn—my Adamic and fresh daughters,
The greed that eats me day and night with hungry gnaw, till I saturate what shall produce boys to
fill my place when I am through,
The wholesome relief, repose, content;
And this bunch, pluck’d at random from myself;
It has done its work—I tossed it carelessly to fall where it may.

 

If you would like more illustration, then I sell some illustration work on Etsy and also sell prints via Society6 , Redbubble and other Print on Demand sites.

Link to all my work at annecorr103.wix.com/modestly