The rain it raineth on the just

I was just wondering what the worst possible personality trait to have been born with. What would be a real curse? So, internet-says-this:

  • Arrogance
  • Rudeness
  • Dishonesty
  • Moodiness
  • Conceit
  • Unreliability
  • Condescension…

The trouble with all these nasty traits is that the person who possesses them is almost certainly not the person who suffers from them. That’s other people. If you’re conceited, arrogant or condescending you’re most probably unaware of the fact. Think of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice; think of Mr Collins for that matter: Condescension and Conceit in league with one another and comfortable in their own skins.

Rather, it seems to me that the worst trait to be cursed with, from the point of view of the individual him- or herself, is a Sense of Justice. It’s the unshakeable conviction that the world must be fair – that things just have to work out right in the end. Most of us are afflicted with it and it’s so difficult to shake off.

The advice always seems to be: man up, get over it. The world isn’t fair; it never was and it never will be. Fairness/justice – that’s just something people invented so as to feel a little less scared. Who can bear to know that they are at mercy of an unfair, unjust world where just about anything could and might happen at any time?  Once again we are floating specks in a vast, impersonal universe.

I was talking to my sister yesterday – the Canadian one whose husband is gradually dying of cancer. She is tormented by this concept of fairness/unfairness as never before. They had planned their retirement together – time at last to drive off and discover the rest of Canada, time to travel the world; the new ‘retirement’ car that was already on order and now has to be cancelled; time to get stuck into all those much researched and looked-forward-to hobbies. How can all that not be going to happen now?

Having never really considered it before she finds herself tossed into that most basic of philosophical debates – the Problem of Suffering and Evil. She made the mistake of mentioning to a woman at her crafts group that she was feeling angry at God for what he had done to her and to her husband. How can he be a Loving God, she asked, and inflict such pain on the human beings he is supposed to have created?

She regretted this, rather. The woman didn’t say much at the time but went away looking troubled. Later that evening she telephoned my sister to deliver a long, long lecture on the necessity for Faith, for Prayer, and most especially for Hope. Her husband had also been quite ill in the past, she said, but she had prayed for him; she had put herself in the hands of the Lord. My sister said yes, but your husband wasn’t actually dying, was he? Dying’s different.

Why can’t we just say to someone who going through a terrible time, of course you’re angry? Anyone would be. What are you worth if you’re not even allowed to be angry and say so when life rears up drooling, like Alien, and bites you on the bum? My sister’s decided not to mention the God problem to anyone else, in case they turn out to be a tactless, deluded, insensitive do-gooder.

My only thought during this transatlantic telephone conversation was that if there is indeed a God he surely has far better things to do than torment the tiny people he created in his image and claims to love. Why would he put so much energy into creating Heaven and Earth, broad skies; towering mountain ranges; fathomless oceans – all the way out to the farthest, star-strewn reaches of the universe – only engage in such despicable, lily-livered, nit-picking tinkering and meddling? That’s the way humans behave, not gods.

It’s an age-old problem, not solvable by anyone else. Rather, it’s something each of us has to wrestle with alone, in the silence inside our heads. Life refines and changes us – we are tempered in the fire, like swords in the making; and maybe that’s the point.

stolen umbrella

The rain it raineth on the just

And also on the unjust fella:

But chiefly on the just, because

The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

Lord Bowen (1835-1894)

To paint the perfect dragon

(First published as ‘Landscape’ in Buddhism Now, June 1991)

What is a landscape? – an innocent sounding question but one which started me off on a train of thought which was to waste most of a perfectly good Sunday afternoon. That’s the trouble with being a philosophoholic, one thought is never enough…

My dictionary defines a landscape as ‘picture representing, art reproducing or actual piece of inland scenery’. If only it were that simple I might have hoovered the bathroom carpet, got the washing out before it rained and peeled a sprout or two.

The trouble is you see there is no such thing as a landscape. For a start, the scene you are looking at changes from microsecond to microsecond, or rather from so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant to so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant. Now you see a blue sky and bright sunshine; blink, and there is a wisp of cloud or one of those long-rolling shadows that blight the British summer. Who knows, a rabbit may have popped its head out of a hole while you blinked, a leaf may have fluttered to the ground, and of course the grass is growing.

For another thing, you have selected the landscape. If you are an artist you will no doubt have borne in mind the harmonious pattern, the beautiful balance it would make on the canvas, and even if you are without the artist’s eye you will be looking at that part of the scene which particularly interests and attracts you. An inch to the left here, two inches to the right, and it would be a different landscape. Unlike a painting a landscape has no edges.

Furthermore, the landscape you see depends on the way you see. If like me you are short-sighted what you see will be blurred and Turneresque – only experience and glasses tell you that it is not actually that way. If, on the other hand, your vision is 20-20 you will see every vein in every leaf, every nuance of the light. If you were an animal you would see in a different way again. If you were a frog you might see the Lake District as a series of moving coloured squares, rather like looking through a frosted glass window; if you were a sparrow you would see a range of colours undetectable to man. Who is to say which is the real landscape – a myopic blur or the bird’s kaleidoscope of subtle greens?

And it isn’t just our eyes – we see with our minds. If we didn’t, the landscape would mean nothing: a tree would not be a tree, sunshine would not be sunshine, or even yellow. It would just be. So we reinvent each landscape we see from a compound of personal associations, memories, attitudes and the way we happen to be feeling at the time.

For example, looking out of the window onto my garden at this moment I see a small black tree, leafless but decorated with strings of raindrops. Beneath that, somehow, is a memory-picture of the wire fence running alongside the allotments I used to pass every day on the way to school. After heavy rain the raindrops would be strung out along the wire in just that way and if you tapped it, it vibrated, showering raindrops anew. Now, you wouldn’t see that.

Similarly, if I am in the depths of depression I will see the most picturesque scene as boring, picture-postcard stuff. But if I am in love I may well float through some ruined dockyard marvelling at the glisten and swirl of oil in the puddles, the geometric patterns of cranes against the sky, the fiery colours of rust. We have all experienced such miracles.

A landscape is not a neutral thing – it reacts with the personality of the watcher. I worked once at Dungeness on the Kent coast and loved the bleak landscape out there, the shingle and the sea plants and the lurid skies. But a lady visitor from London hated the place. ‘It’s hideous,’ she said, ‘so empty. It gives me the creeps.’ You may be drawn to a landscape because you sense that it expresses an aspect of your personality, one which you couldn’t put into words. Equally, a landscape can be a threat, a contradiction, even a negation of your personality. It’s like women with perfume, or people with each other.

The Zen way of ‘seeing’ a landscape is different. Instead of there being an ‘I’ to view and an ‘it’ (the landscape) to be viewed, the viewer melts into the landscape. He becomes it, and it he. This is very difficult to understand and in fact cannot be understood, only done… sometimes… maybe. I am remembering here the Zen story about the man who wanted to paint the perfect dragon, and was sent away for years, until he could see dragons, hear them, even smell them. But that wasn’t enough. Before he could paint the perfect dragon he had to become the dragon. But the dragon doesn’t exist… ah, but does the landscape?

And if a landscape is something which cannot be defined because there is no universal standard by which to define it, doesn’t the principle equally apply to reality itself? A madman’s reality may be quite different from mine. Another example: some years ago I was told of a woman who insisted that there was an extra, invisible storey on her house and up there a gang of wicked men were forging money using her electricity – that was why her electricity bill was so high. Well, maybe she was right. How can I be sure?

How can I be sure that time is as it seems? I see a black bird apparently flapping across my chosen landscape, but how do I know that bird has not always been flying and will not always be flying, just so? Supposing all time is really happening in an instant, simultaneously. At one and the same time the bird is on the upstroke, the downstroke, not here yet, long gone.

Time is surely a function of perception. If I were a butterfly with only a two-day lifespan I would surely feel that my two days lasted as long as threescore years and ten. Human beings would move so slowly that they would not appear as living creatures to me at all, but static pieces of scenery, like rocks. So maybe rocks are living creatures too. If we could time-lapse film them over millions of years, would we see them heave, groan, yawn, lumber around a bit?

Perhaps I should just forget about the washing, get into the car and drive to some shady hillside. Yes, I shall reach for the thermos, break into the chocolate biscuits, wind down the window and remark to the nearest rabbit, ‘Nice here, innit?’

Time and Motion

I’ve noticed more and more as time goes by – the past materialising and dematerialising. On every street corner, in shops long unvisited and parks half-forgotten, driving late at night or in the brightest sunlight – ghosts are starting to appear.

It’s a function of growing older. The world – or at least our world – is not that big, and we pass and repass over the same territory. There used to be a time-and-motion study for housewives, I remember. The housewife had some kind of light bulb attached and her movements – from fridge to cooker, from cooker to sink etcetera – were recorded as a trail of light. I believe that’s how cooker-sink-fridge came to be known as the kitchen work triangle. In idle moments wondered what the entire track my life would look like if I had had a lightbulb attached. What a job that would be to untangle!

Today I drove past a street corner in the same town I chugged through very slowly on the train yesterday. It’s a grimy, unremarkable corner opposite a kind of mini traffic island, and looking out onto a sea of moving cars is small, shabby taxi-cab office. It was a small, shabby taxi-cab office in 1971 too, and outside it I suddenly see me and Clive, leaning against the even-then flaking paintwork, kissing. We were at college together and rambled down through the back streets every afternoon , I to wait for a bus (outside the taxi office) and he to catch a train to the seaside. He was the only handsome man I ever went out with – dark, dapper, beautiful – and I knew, of course, that he was not for me. Indeed, he was engaged to a girl called Jean back home at the seaside, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

We snogged, desultorily, every evening until my bus arrived. I don’t think he even found me particularly attractive but we were together, temporarily, we were friends and I was willing, so he felt he might as well. Young people did that sort of thing in those days. Probably still do.

But it isn’t just Clive. I walk along the street I grew up on. Now I am looking down at my feet, watching out for the dropped kerbs with which it is now infested, though not quite as careful as my Mum, who was convinced she was going to fall over at any minute. But at the same time the child ‘me’ is running along the street. I pass her sometimes, sat on the edge of the pavement, her feet in the road. It has recently rained (so her dress will be getting wet, but she won’t notice) and she is watching twigs careering down the gutter towards the drain.

In two days time I will drive down the lane we lived in when we were married. I will no doubt be surprised at how much the house has changed since either of us was in it. I will remember the cat buried under the blue hydrangea. Unless they’ve dug them up – the bush, the cat, or both. I will remember how you cried for that little cat – the only time I ever saw you cry about anything. I will remember trying to take your arm, another day, and how you shook me off after a few paces, embarrassed even to be touched. I will remember hurrying down that lane to meet my lover, and how my heart was beating and the blood rushing in my ears.

As I get older I sometimes get inklings of the pattern behind things. That sounds so pretentious – and I really don’t like the word inklings – and it’s only for split seconds; nothing ever sticks. I don’t think any of us are ever allowed to discover the meaning of life – but as we progress we get these little glimpses, so that we know there might be a meaning. Sometimes it has seemed to me like a carpet we are weaving, with a pattern we can’t see because we are too close. But at the end – of each individual life, maybe, we get to see the overall pattern.

But recently – since I have been blogging (in earnest) in fact – I have begun to think that it’s more intricate and complicated even than that. It’s like the past and the present are not separated as we imagine, but linked one to the other at many points – linked and interlinked. And maybe I mean that the past – all the pasts – and the present – all the presents – exist in one plane. It is only made to seem that ‘the past is another country’. So, a life is more like a blog long worked on, and richly, richly supplied with links – links between past and present and here and there, and her and me, but also links with other people’s pasts and presents, their heres and theres.

And then I wonder, if I’m a character in the blog that is my life – who – or what version of me – is doing the blogging? What giant hands are hammering out each fresh instalment of my life at 80 wpm?

Her mind is Tiffany twisted, she got the Mercedes bends

Well, this is going to be a post about Heaven – or at least my idea of Heaven – and I was going – rather obviously, in hindsight – to use that line from The Eagles’ Hotel California This could be heaven or it could be hell. Then I came across this other line and couldn’t resist it. How could anybody think up a line that brilliant? It’s got everything. I am lost in admiration.

What set this weird and wonderful post off? Well, I was lying on the sofa, as is my wont (what is a wont I wonder?) watching TV and half asleep. There was a cat wedged under my chin, making it impossible to turn my head – so technically I was listening to TV – another cat on what would have been my lap had I been sitting up, and third cat half on, half off of the sofa arm, reclining heavily against my bare foot. And I was thinking – it wouldn’t be Heaven without cats.

How many cats? I wondered. I concluded it would have to be every cat in the world, plus all the cats that ever had been. Heaven would not be Heaven with a single kitten or manky old stray excluded.

You would be wading through cats, I told myself.

No, myself replied. Heaven – if there is such a place – must be infinitely vast. Heaven, if cats are involved, must also have trees, and shelves, and cardboard boxes. It must have an infinite number of hidey-holes and secret places. A cat is not happy without a perching place and a hidey-hole. That would make Heaven the classic house with many mansions – a rambling, Victorian, wood-panelled, bookshelved, mouse-holed, secret-passagewayed sort of set up. It would need to be full of dusty, half-open carpet bags, broken luggage trunks with interesting, pattable metal clasps, spiderswebs to get caught in, spiders to pursue and, eventually, chew.

It would need dirty window panes through which could be glimpsed acres of rolling countryside. It would need coaches coming and going, and gardener’s boys, and at night, foxes on the lawn. It would need moss-covered statues for butterflies to alight on. It would need a moon, and starlight.

It would be a kind of indoor place with an outdoors to watch.

It would need owls, and bats. That would be for me and the multitude of cats.

It would need books and paper, and pencils, and pencil-sharpeners. That would be for me. The books would need to be old. Musty, their pages uncut for centuries. Hidden knowledge. Sleeping stories.

It would need a park, because maybe I could go outdoors sometimes. In that case it would need to be a park emptied of people. A park with broken benches and flower beds full of pansies, daisies or daffodils, according to season. There would need to be chestnut trees, and sparrows, and blackbirds, and worms for the blackbirds to tug at.

And there would need to be the sea, somewhere or other in this particular Heaven. A warm sea and an empty beach. And fishes in the sea, all colours of the rainbow. Fishes with stickle-fins and iridescent scales. Maybe a mermaid or two. Mermaids wouldn’t bother me as long as they kept their distance, as they probably would because mermaids are not very sociable.

And it would be possible to fly, of course. Who wants to be earthbound in Heaven? Maybe the cats could fly with me.

I suppose that’s it, though. That would be my Heaven. But supposing I was a cat-hater or a dog-lover? Supposing I was by nature a sociable type, the life and soul of the party? How could it be Heaven, to that person, without parties to go to, champagne to quaff, the tinkling pianos and the dancing girls? Ergo, there would need to be a separate Heaven for each of us, a self-created paradise – and maybe that is the case.

My own feeling is that we move from lifetime from lifetime in a continuous process of learning and growing. My sense is that we are God Becoming, or God Conscious. We move from lifetime to lifetime, perfecting ourselves and enhancing or enriching That of which we are fragments. Except that linear time is an illusion, so whatever it seems like, all is happening now – is happening, has happened, will happened –in a single moment. We are, in a way, angels dancing on the head of a pin.

After each life we are able to rest for a while. Then we begin to design or to be attracted back into, the next life. And maybe at some point we come to some kind of transition or translation, where rebirth becomes voluntary rather than obligatory, and we can rest for ever if we want to. We experience what we set ourselves to experience; when in life we suffer and are enraptured and all stages in between, daily, hourly, from one micro-second to the next, moving between a multitude of levels and states of being.

Which could be Heaven, or which could be Hell.

What do you think?


All cats in the dark are grey

This of course is true, as far as human perception is concerned. It’s probably not that cats turn grey in the dark although of course they might; we are never going to know one way or the other. It’s like that old thing about the Tree in the Quad – the philosophical argument put forward by Bishop Berkeley:

  • There was a young man who said \God
  • Must think it exceedingly odd
  • If He finds that the tree
  • Continues to be,
  • When there’s no one about in the Quad.

This doctrine is known as Phenomenalism, and Phenominalists would claim that only such things as we perceive with our senses from one moment to the next can be said to exist. So, when we are not looking at the tree, the tree isn’t there. This is manifest nonsense, or at least impractical. Are trees scattering in all directions as we whisk ourselves away, only to re-plant themselves the minute we whisk ourselves back? Or might they be more sophisticated, materialising and de-materialising themselves in a nanosecond like leafy Tardis-is-is-es (Tardisii?)?

Ergo, if in the middle of the night my cat William jumps on the bed, miaows and appears to me to be grey, how do I nevertheless know that he’s a vivid shade of ginger? He may be in fact be grey only for as long as I’m looking at him. The minute I look away – back to ginger. If, like chameleons, cats can change colour at will, I imagine it amuses them greatly to do so. Excellent game!

Of course I could tell it was William with my eyes shut. He’s twice the size of all the other cats and weighs several tons more.

It’s just a saying, really. Attributed to Benjamin Franklin, it was rumoured to be his witty, if sexist and unpleasant way of explaining why it’s perfectly all right to take an older lady to bed. However, the saying goes back much further than that. In 1546 it appeared in John Heywood’s book of proverbs as When all candles be out, all cats be grey, which probably meant something less specific: that physical appearance is the least important thing about a person; it’s what’s inside that counts.

But why are all cats grey in the dark?

 This is the Science Bit and I’m no scientist so I’ll make it as pain-free as possible. It’s due to something called the Purkinje effect or Purkinje shift (after the Czech anatomist Jan Evangelista Purkyně). This is ‘the tendency for the peak luminance sensitivity of the eye to shift towards the blue end of the spectrum at low illuminance levels’. In other words a flower that appears bright red in full daylight fades to a darker, duller red at dusk and to black or grey at night. This goes back to those rods and cones inside our retinas (remember rods and cones from school biology? No, rods and cones, not rods, poles or perches…). The cones are very sensitive to colours and give us excellent vision in the daylight; the rods are very sensitive to light, but not to colours, and it is the rods we use to see whatever we can still see in the dark. This is why in moonlight, for instance, human beings become virtually colour-blind. It’s also why submarines are kept dimly lit, to preserve the night-vision of crew members, and why aeroplane cockpits use red lighting so that the pilots can both read the instruments and see outside the cockpit…

…and why cats appear grey. Which begs one further question:

If a cat in the dark is grey to me, what colour might I be to a cat?

Neither cats nor humans can see in pitch darkness. Cats can see considerably better than humans because they have eyes adapted to evening hunting expeditions. A cat has very large eyes in relation to the size of his head, and he can open his irises wide to let in as much light as possible. Cats’ eyes feature those rod and cone cells too but whereas in humans four out of five cells are rods, in cats it is twenty-five out of twenty-six. The net effect is that whilst cats have much better night-vision than us, they have poorer colour vision. So at night, as long as there’s a glimmer of light, a cat will see you much more clearly than you will see it – but you’ll probably appear almost as ‘grey’ to it as it appears to you.

This link shows how artist Nickolay Lamm has illustrated cat-vision as opposed to human-vision.

But who cares, really, what colour anything is. Let’s celebrate cats-on-beds, purring fit to bust, dribbling copiously and using our toes for mouse-murdering practice. Lets be glad that on a grey winter’s day moggie will come crashing in through the cat-flap to join us by a hearthside blaze, huddle with us over the one remaining bar of the gas-fire or bask with us in wall-to-wall central heating. And there, together, we will sit with our glass of wine/cup of coffee/mug of Horlicks and our copy of Great Expectations/Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell/ Fifty Shades of Grey/Pregnant with the Rancher’s Baby or whatever, and for a brief spell of time all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well with the world.

  • My old cat stretches out his arm,
  • To say, ‘I and You’.
  • He thinks the future threatens harm;
  • I feel it too.
  • The flexing paw to reassure
  • Myself and creature
  • Asserts, in feline comfiture,
  • Our frail, shared nature.
  • Robert Gittings: Cat
  • (my favourite cat poem of all time)