Category Archives: Thoughts

Meaning What Exactly?

word

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.

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”

Call to arms

I am babe in arms when it comes to technology.  I have embraced as much as I am able in order to indulge my creative urge to make something somebody else wants to spend their hard earned cash on.  It has sent me down pathways that have totally discombobulated me,  I have disgorged hours of my precious time in order to try and understand the secrets inherent in getting noticed on the Internet. I am exhausted.  I come to you on my knees, pleading for some help. I need to excite your interest enough to bear with me.
heming2acebook

Savour the moment

Walt Whitman helped me there, from his epic poem ‘Leaves of Grass’.  Walt and others have helped me to find my soul. A decent thing to do in my humble opinion.  When I found my soul, it wanted me to put way some of the things I thought were important, and find the preoccupations that left me calm, stable, comfortable in my skin. It is an ongoing process, and in that endeavour I read alot, I think a great deal. And then I play with illustration and share the fruits of my  ‘doing’ with a multipicity of pursuits.  I started by making handmade books, which interested others than just me, so I opened an Etsy shop and sold some on there. I even sold one of my tributes to Shakespeare to a University in America for an exhibition celebrating the 400th year of his birth.  That was a yippee moment! Shakespeare tribute on Etsy

I have enjoyed a few of those moments on Etsy – working to commissions which have brought me closer to people at special points in their lives.  It is a privilege to share a wedding proposal by working on the intended groom’s poem and illustrating it,  a rare joy to be given the opportunity to bring someones love letters together and make them a memento for their beloved to treasure.  I work alone, I spend alot of my time alone and the collaboration with others reminds me how good it is to connect.

My Etsy store needed more listings to become ‘seen’ on there – it is a very packed place to be – so I designed artist cards because they are less time intensive, and made it to nearly 200 listings!  I work hard in my little Etsy corner – learnt how to handle Twitter ( without a smart phone!) , try to post on Facebook daily under  my business page at Facebook and tumble, pin and stumble with the best of them.

So where do I need that help from you?  I am not completely au fait with all the magic that happens amongst the backstage of the internet stage ( huge understatement there), but I am reliably informed by what you will know as an app, that I lack external links. ! Who knew?  And not just any external links – oh no – those mischievous critters can fox anyone. I need external links that do not include ‘no follow’. Apparently.

Now I will try anything to make my web presence just that bit more visible – sad but true, so if any of you reliable web fellows can think of anything remotely helpful, such as me writing a guest blog or an article on how to be seen waving not drowning, please lend a helping hand.  I can’t promise you Shakespeare, but I shall do my best.

Good day to all of you, and I look forward to your magnificence!

 

 

 

The Nonsensical Rhyme of no Reason

 

life

These are disordered and disorderly thoughts that are pressing themselves to share with you, and have been doing so for some time. I have been distracted – illness, family , restlessness – the ordinary consequences of being human.  Half a century has passed since I landed here – and strangely I feel as new and strange and unfamiliar as that birth must have seemed to a tiny creature unused to light and air .  For some odd reason I laboured under the delusion that some sort of sense would ultimately dawn upon my consciousness, there would unroll some measure of meaning amongst the maelstrom of existence. I don’t think I am going to discern it if there is. So I continue to hop through the pattern of my days, bringing to them any sense of fulfilment and pleasure and meaning I can.  Probably as you do too. Anyways, I present these in no particular order, and offer them with no promise of enlightenment. I just like them, and thought you might too.

 

Live your ecstasy amongst the dog eared maps of desire,

Search for the glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask

Amongst the extraordinary in plain sight.

 Existence is eternal but life has end.

 

The Ways We Touch

Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it.
What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism
is always a sign of things no ears have heard,
no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets
the bone.

Miller Williams

 As here, so is everywhere.

Be safe, be kind.

“Books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.”

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 ”I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention.”

Marilynn Robinson, with  ‘her quiet brilliance’ writes about a ‘ profound consideration of a life, without any fanfare’ in ‘Lila’, the third book narrating the voice of John Ames wife.

The author introduced us to the small American town  of Gilead in her second  novel which was a resounding success following up from a novel ‘Housekeeping’ written two decades earlier and earning her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The recurrent message that the author communicates is complicated, as is life. It is hopeless, and full of hope.  A paradox that is biblical in its incomprehensiveness.  That kind of sums up her writing and the reason it works so luminously. It is a mirror to our own experience, that life can be simultaneously filled with horror, trauma, insignificance, hope and joy.  The overwhelming sense the reader comes away with is one of recognition wherever and whenever that reader happened to live.

Lila illustrates what Robinson described in  ‘Home’ as humanity’s “odd capacity for destitution,” “as if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human.”  We can only ask “how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.”

All three novels present loneliness as the human condition, suggesting that if our imprisonment within our own perspectives tempts us toward judgmentalism, then compassion is the best palliative.

John Ames in ‘Gilead’ is a man in search of wisdom from the story of his own life’.  Robinson’s treatment of her characters is compassionate, and that is the imperative of life that this reader shares with the author – the hope that in despair and suffering, the miracle of being human saves us – redeems us, even if   redemption we need is from our own fears and natures themselves.

One of the joys in reading her books comes from that ‘quiet brilliance’ that can narrate the ordinary, the slow, the mundane in such a way that life becomes more meaningful for it’s lack of ‘bling’, and not less.  The lack of sensationalism somehow underlines the sensibilities that accompany most of us in coming to terms with living ordinary lives. What I seem to value are those qualities that carry us through the tedium of a job, the trials of parenting, the petty dramas of relating to those closest to us – that soul search that impels us to be better, kinder, more loving human beings. I think these books carry that message too.  Read them if you havn’t, read them again if you have. Let me know if the world seemed different or not.

The bright obvious

My thanks go to my blogging friend across the pond, Martha Stephens who left a comment on my last blog.  I had posted a verse from the poem below accompanied simply by a photograph of mine.  I think Martha was saying ‘Why do that?’ , and on consideration I thought she had a point.  I was taking one verse out of the context of the poem, thus destroying the central point that the poet was making.  So I humbly correct that position and quote the poem in its beautiful entirety.

from 'New York Times Book Review '

from ‘New York Times Book Review

I am no literary critic, I simply read what I like and sometimes I share what I like because I want it to spread in its influence. Listening to Radio 4 I heard a poet quote another poet describing poetry as ‘language in orbit.’  Brilliant.  And listening elsewhen, someone was articulating what I had thought for a long time – that novels can tell us more about the human experience than self help books, and even more than neurology can.  Storytelling is in our D.N. A. let’s not forget.  Back to Wallace Stevens then, who is a self professed philosophical poet, interested in the human experience, and sharing with us the understanding that life is faceted, each living thing having different potentials to experience the same world in different ways. Enjoy.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Wallace Stevens


I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.


Attention!

rumi poem

Listen ,watch, attend.